Photo: Motti Kimchi
President Rivlin at the Herzliya Conference
Photo: Motti Kimchi
Ben-Dror Yemini

Rivlin, the president who divides

Op-ed: The president made a double contribution this week to increasing the fragmentation and polarization – both in words and in actions.

President Reuven Rivlin had some harsh words to say at the Herzliya Conference this week. Israeli society, he argued, is split along tribal lines – Arabs, the secular, the religious and the ultra-Orthodox. "Not only do they not meet each other, but they are educated toward a totally different outlook regarding the basic values and desired character of the State of Israel,” the president lamented.



To solve this problem, Rivlin added, we need "to abandon the accepted view of a majority and minorities, and move to a new concept of partnership between the various population sectors in our society… The establishment of this partnership is an enormous task. It is a task which I have taken upon myself, but far from a task that is mine alone. It demands from all of us a great collective effort."


Truer words have never been spoken. And lo and behold, the president stumbled on a golden opportunity to prove that he seeks to include and unite, and doesn't set apart and divide.


It all began with a heinous deed done in Israel: Under the tutelage of the Masorti Movement, 10 autistic children had prepared for six months for the most important ritual in their lives – a bar mitzvah. But then, the mayor of Rehovot refused to allow the ceremony to take place in the city's Conservative synagogue and ordered that it be moved to an Orthodox synagogue – a fine example of someone who divides and sets apart. The ceremony did not take place. The cancellation sparked outrage, and justifiably so, among the Conservative community in Israel and worldwide.


Diaspora Affairs Ministry officials realized that the affair could prove very damaging for Israel. They approached the president and asked him to host the ceremony in his chambers – a model of unity and partnership. Following arrangements, preparations and a fair deal of pressure, the Masorti Movement agreed to allow an Orthodox rabbi to participate in the ceremony alongside the Conservative rabbi, despite the fact that the project was run solely by the Masorti Movement.


But the higher the hopes, the deeper the disappointment. A few days ago, the Masorti Movement's CEO in Israel, Yizhar Hess, received the program for the ceremony. He couldn't believe his eyes: The name of Conservative Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, who prepared the bar mitzvah boys, was nowhere to be seen. Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau Orthodox appeared on the program alone. The shame that had come from the office of the Rehovot mayor was rearing its ugly head once again – and this time, from the President's Bureau. And to add insult to injury, the Rehovot mayor was invited to the ceremony. Is there no limit to the nerve? Apparently not.


The Masorti Movement carries much weight among American Jewry. The movement is characterized by a strong identification with the State of Israel. It has two million members. Israel needs them. But with Israel now needing all the help it can get to combat the BDS campaign, Jerusalem is abusing its friends.


The more pressing problem is the president. In certain circles, he becomes the righteous among the nations – in his struggle against racism and tribalism and for human dignity. Sometimes he's annoying. Sometimes he exaggerates. Sometimes, in order to promote the liberal and enlightened image, a positive thing in itself, he turns Israel into a somewhat sick and violent society. Whether or not he's managing to affect change in the country remains unclear. What is clear is that he is improving the image of the state president. But it's all just words, nothing more. The man who speaks loftily about equality between Jews and Arabs has failed the basic test of equality between Jews and Jews.


Time and again, the Masorti Movement opted for restraint. It agreed to allow an Orthodox rabbi to participate in the ceremony. It didn't help. The movement suffered one blow after the next. Early in the week, its leaders sent a painful letter of protest to the president, writing: "Indeed, the worldwide Conservative Movement, whose members lead most of the Jewish organizations in North America (Jewish Federations, AIPAC, Hillel and more) promote the democratic nature of Israel, and the modern, humanitarian and scientific outlook of the Jewish state. We lead the struggle against those who seek to defame or even to boycott Israel. Our love for the State of Israel is unconditional. But Israel must live up to her claims about herself. A modern, scientific, humanitarian, democratic state cannot deny a program to disabled children simply because of your loathing for our Jewish philosophy and practice, not in the 'City of Science' and not in the President’s Residence."


A senior official at the President's Residence tried to explain that the president had met with Conservatives and others, but that it wasn't the role of the president to intervene in such a contentious issue. They made suggestions. Anything but a Conservative rabbi. The President's Residence did exactly what the Rehovot Municipality did. So where is this new partnership that the president has been bragging about?


It's not just the difference between what the Israeli president says and what he does. It's worse than that. Because even the Orthodox officials involved in the matter had no problem with a Conservative rabbi as joint master of ceremonies. But when it came to choosing sides between the moderate Orthodox and the extremist ultra-Orthodox, the president went for the latter. And it all ended in controversy. The affair has already raised a storm among American Jewry, and it's getting worse. Leading US newspapers, including the New York Times, have also picked up on the story. The president has also managed to damage the enlightened and liberal image he so sought to nurture; and according to one of the offended parties, Rivlin has "carried out a strategic terror attack on the State of Israel."


The damage is not irreversible. President Rivlin can still backtrack. For his sake, for our sake, let's hope he does the right thing.


The president is also wrong about the tribalism. The ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, he says, are not Zionists – and against them he poses the Zionist tribes. The reality is somewhat more complex. Between 10 to 15 percent of secular Israelis are not Zionists; the situation, therefore, appears to be even worse than the president is presenting.


But let's take things a little further. Around 50 percent of the ultra-Orthodox do in fact see themselves as Zionists. More importantly, when it comes to the Arab youth, more than 50 percent would like to volunteer for national service. This doesn’t make them Zionists, but it clearly shows that there is a basis for a common ethos. Both the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are undergoing a process of "Israelification." The manifestations of racism and hooliganism that the president is condemning – and rightly so – represent a small minority. We have to fight this minority. But we are still very far off from a point at which Israeli society should be viewed as violent, sick, disintegrating and dividing.


Thus, the president made a double contribution this week to increasing the fragmentation and polarization – both in words and in actions.


פרסום ראשון: 06.12.15, 23:01
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