If there is such a thing as Ashkenazi nobility in Israel, then it most definitely includes the Rivlin family, many of whose members have achieved distinction in Israel’s religious, political, judicial, academic and entertainment spheres, as well as in other fields.
The most notable of all the Rivlins is Israel’s tenth President, Reuven Rivlin, 77, the third sabra president and the second to be Jerusalem-born.
The president of Israel, by the very nature of his role in Israeli life in general, and Jewish life in particular, is a person of influence. While he is the president of all Israelis, regardless of religion or race, Jews around the world also see him as their president, and individual Jewish leaders, as well as delegations of Jewish activists from numerous organizations, feel honored to spend time speaking with him in the president’s official residence.
Sometimes, the delegations are small and are able to engage in the most intimate of conversations in the president’s office. Larger groups are welcomed into a small reception hall, and large delegations are greeted by the president in the multi-functional banquet hall.
With the exception of president Ephraim Katzir, Israel’s fourth president, every president of Israel has come from a political background, and even Katzir was politically active, although he was the only president who never served as a member of Knesset.
The public often waits with bated breath to see if the president will bring his political agenda to the presidency, particularly because he is supposed to be apolitical.
As a politician, Rivlin was strongly opposed to the two-state solution. As president, he does not voice his opposition, but when asked about the possibility of a solution to what Rivlion calls an ongoing tragedy, he presents all the possible scenarios and says that the decision rests with the government. But he always concludes with the remark that he made in the Knesset at his inauguration: “We are not doomed to live together. We are destined to live together.”
Beyond the Palestinian issue, Rivlin is a steadfast proponent for Israeli unity, as distinct from Jewish unity. When he talks about Israel being a Jewish and democratic state, he emphasizes that democracy is not only for the Jews, but for all the citizens of Israel.
He has long advocated equal rights for all sectors of the population, as set down in the Declaration of Independence, and he does not turn a blind eye to the inequality that exists in the Arab, Druse, Circassian and ultra orthodox (haredi) communities. He gets on well with the Arabs, partially because his father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, translated the Koran into Hebrew and even wanted to establish a Koran quiz for the Muslim community. More than that, before the creation of Israel the Rivlin family had a lot of Arab friends, and in many cases continued to maintain these friendships even after the Jewish state was established. As for the haredi community, although Rivlin is secular, he has had a rich Jewish education and is perfectly at home in any Orthodox synagogue.
He knows the prayers by heart, he can read from the Torah and he is familiar with even the most esoteric of customs.
He did have some controversial relations with the Conservative and Reform Movements before becoming president, but he told American-Israeli delegations from both groups that all Jews are brothers.
That helped to heal some of the wounds, but did not really change the situation in Israel, where neither movement is recognized by the Orthodox Rabbinical establishment.
However, the fact that president tried to make amends for past misunderstandings has proved to be a step in the right direction.
It seems that the last thing that Rivlin wants to do is alienate any segment of Diaspora Jewry, although he has yet to receive official delegations from J Street or The New Israel Fund.
As for the home front, Rivlin won a lot of respect from the Arab sector when, early in his presidency, he attended a memorial service at the Arab village of Kafr Kasim, where 47 residents were massacred by Israeli security forces in 1956. He was the first president to attend the annual memorial. Shimon Peres, who visited the village during his term as president, did not come to participate in memorial ceremonies on the anniversary of the massacre, but did apologize for the massacre.
As Speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin was an early supporter for the recognition and rights for the LGBT community, and he has been even more supportive as president. He is opposed to any form of racism and has spoken out against the discrimination of Ethiopian Jews and has condemned Jewish terror activities against Arabs, be they Israeli citizens or Palestinians living in territory administered by Israel.
He has enormous pride in the Israel Defense Forces and makes it his business to either visit or receive soldiers several times a week.
Together with his wife, Nechama, he also devotes a lot of time and effort to children with disabilities and those with special needs, telling them that everyone has a disability of some kind.
Although the president’s power is limited, his influence is not, and he has endless lists of people in key positions whom he can call on to help solve various problems that are brought to him.
In October, 2014, still within his 100 days of grace, Rivlin made international headlines when he called Israel a sick society with an illness that needs treating, in order to ease tensions between Arabs and Jews.
Rivlin’s current mission is to persuade Israelis to look in the mirror and to see with clear eyes the society in which they live. Instead of the unity which Rivlin is so eager to achieve, he claims that Israel is becoming a tribal state with four distinct groups: secular Jews, national religious Jews, ultra Orthodox Jews and Arabs, all of whom live in hostile isolation from one another.
Looking at the changing demography of the country based on percentages of first graders, with 25% of them Arabs, 25% ultra Orthodox, 38% secular and 15% national religious, it is obvious that a new order is taking shape in Israeli society, in which there is no longer a clear majority and a clear minority.
To get these ‘tribes’ to overcome their differences and become part of mainstream Israeli society, without sacrificing their traditions and lifestyles, Rivlin has proposed regional clusters that will break down barriers and enhance cooperation by bringing stronger and weaker communities – both Arab and Jewish – together. The aim is to create joint forums of municipal leaders from big cities, smaller local councils and regional councils to dialogue, and to collectively bring about more effective services in the areas of environmental protection, physical infrastructure, culture and sports. Today, there are three such clusters in the Galilee and two in the Negev.
Rivlin is marketing the cluster concept at every opportunity, and by the time his seven-year term ends, in just under five years from now, his dream of a united Israel may be well on its way to becoming a reality.