Sixty seven years have not stilled the emotions that stir in the heart of President Reuven Rivlin whenever he sees the national flag or hears “Hatikva.”
Rivlin was nine years old when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state. He was among those who watched the Israeli flag go up and the British flag come down on that fateful day in 1948, he told a gathering of English-language media outlets at his official residence last week.
Even today, he says, 67 years later, some people still have to be convinced of Israel’s right to exist.
“The Jewish people have the right to define themselves as a nation and not just a religion,” he said, reiterating several times throughout the meeting that there is no gap between a Jewish and a democratic state.
Rivlin acknowledged that it is difficult to explain this to certain sectors of the population. Many Arabs are unwilling to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and the ultra-Orthodox are not completely in favor of democracy, though Rivlin, who grew up in an Orthodox home, sees no contradiction between Jewish values and democracy.
His oft-repeated mantra: “We are not doomed to live together, we are destined to live together” remains the compass of his philosophy, and he is convinced, he said, that sooner or later the mutual need to live in harmony and cooperation will triumph.
But, the president said, he realizes that Israel faces challenges both domestic and abroad. The Jewish state, Rivlin said, has to find a way to persuade the world that its attitude to the threat of a nuclear Iran is not simply a matter of paranoia.
“When Iranians say from the podium of the United Nations that Israel has no right to exist, we have to take it seriously,” he said, adding that Israel risks isolation because the world does not understand the threat that Iran poses to the entire globe.
Israel used to have good relations with Shi’ite Muslims in the region, the president said, but now Iran is working to unite the Arab world against it.
Rivlin declined to call the Israeli-Palestinian dispute a conflict, terming it instead a “tragedy” for both sides. He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “to find a way to bring an end to the tragedy,” adding: “We can bridge gaps in a way that is a reality and not a dream.”
The president emphasized that Israel is not at war with Islam, but, he said, there are fundamentalists in every religion who “spread violence.” He referred to the contentious Temple Mount, holy to both the Jewish and Muslim populations: “We have to respect that but they have to understand that it is also holy to us.”
Turning to the growing epidemic of anti-Semitism in Europe, Rivlin said that he knows there are those who feel anti-Semitism is an outcome of the establishment, policies and problems of the State of Israel. But, the president said, he believes hatred of Israel stems from hatred of Jews, and not the other way around. He has spoken to various world leaders, he said, and they are all concerned about racism and anti-Semitism in their respective countries.
They want to give all their citizens – regardless of race or religion – a sense of belonging and respect, he said, and they’re concerned that failing could lead to an erosion of democracy.
While Rivlin said he would welcome any Jew who comes to Israel, he doesn’t want people to make aliya because they are afraid, rather because they want to make their lives in the Jewish homeland.
“I don’t want anyone to come because he is forced to come,” the president said.
Declaring his belief that Jews and Israelis “can live wherever they want,” Rivlin was hopeful there would be an influx of inspired, voluntary immigration. If 10 million come, he said, it would affirm Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Nine months into his tenure as president, Rivlin confessed he had thought the job might be boring after the excitement of the Knesset – “but I’ve not had a single dull moment.”
Pressed to dwell on politics, Rivlin said he is both pleased and proud that 16 of the 120 new MKs are non-Jews, and equally proud of the fact that Israeli Arab Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran served as chairman of the Central Elections Committee. Rivlin said Arabs should reach high offices – not because Israel wants to patronize them – but because they have the required qualifications for the job.
Of all the conflicts in the Middle East, said Rivlin, the one between the two peoples living in the land of Israel is the most complex – because “both are right.”
Israel is a land of miracles for all its citizens, Rivlin said. Anywhere in the world, the president said, it would be impossible to unite a party of Communists with a party of Islamists, but the 20th Knesset’s 13-seat Joint List is just that. quipped Rivlin.
Turning to the situation in Gaza, Rivlin said: “My heart goes out to the innocent people in Gaza who are being held hostage by Hamas.” He emphasized that any escalation between Israel and the Gaza Strip is solely the blame of Hamas.
“We did not declare war on them,” he said. “They declared war on us.”
Rivlin’s meeting with English-language media was held the day after Pope Francis’s widely reported remarks on the Armenian genocide, using that term for the first time. The president commended the pope for raising the issue, and said he looked forward to personally conveying his wholehearted agreement with the stand taken by the pontiff. He noted that he, too, had spoken of the Armenian genocide when addressing the UN on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.
Rivlin recalled quoting the words of Avshalom Feinberg, a leading member of Nili, the Jewish underground, which cooperated with the Allies during World War I.
In 1915, when Armenians were being massacred by Turks, Feinberg wrote: “My teeth have been ground down with worry, whose turn is next? When I walked on the blessed and holy ground on my way up to Jerusalem, I asked myself if we are living in our modern era, in 1915, or in the days of Titus or Nebuchadnezzar? Did I, a Jew, forget that I am a Jew? I also asked myself if I have the right to weep ‘over the tragedy of my people’ only, and whether the Prophet Jeremiah did not shed tears of blood for the Armenians as well?” In New York, Rivlin told those gathered at the UN that when Feinberg had written those words 100 years ago – “100 years of hesitation and denial” – nobody in the land of Israel at the time had denied that the massacre that had taken place.
“The residents of Jerusalem, my parents and the members of my family,” Rivlin said then, “saw the Armenian refugees arriving by the thousands – starving, piteous survivors of calamity. In Jerusalem they found shelter and their descendants continue to live there to this day.”
At his official residence in Jerusalem last week, he reiterated his feelings, adding that: “We cannot bear any kind of racism or anti-Semitism or any kind of war that can be defined as genocide.” Rivlin said while he was elected president of the State of Israel, not of the Jewish people, many Jewish groups and individuals want to come visit him – “They want to be part of the Israel experience.”
Asked about diaspora involvement in Israeli politics, Rivlin stressed that “the people of Israel have to decide on their own future.” He added that Israel has to be very careful about political funding from sources both at home and abroad.
Discussing what he has brought to the presidency in his first nine months in office, Rivlin couldn’t answer in just one sentence.
“In the last few decades, we are not listening to each other,” he said. “We are saying loud and clear what we believe in, but we’re not listening to the other side.” He said he is hoping and trying to encourage debate – and more than anything to listen to each other.
He said he is also determined to bridge the divide in the nation and to promote unity by getting different sectors to understand that – “despite our differences, we are one nation – a Jewish and democratic nation – with responsibility for each other and the right to demand tolerance from each other.”