President Reuven Rivlin and Graffiti in Bnei Brak calling Rivlin a Nazi-converter. .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/COURTESY)
At the opening of the Knesset’s winter session this week, the nation heard the expected partisan and self-promoting speeches by the heads of government and opposition. This time though our country was also addressed by the head of state in the name of the people.
President Reuven Rivlin made a forceful and dramatic appeal for unity in the face of growing public dissent that in one incredible protest last week besieged the capital and blocked roads throughout the country.
Rivlin delivered an impassioned warning in defense of our democratic freedoms, which are under attack by some politicians who are no less than religious fanatics.
He knows the issues well, after a previous incarnation as a Likud stalwart, then as an outspoken speaker of the Knesset, and now as our head of state.
Rivlin did what the head of the Jewish state is expected to do: to stand up for the values of our democracy that should be above politics. Bitter coalition politics has been just one unfortunate blemish on Israeli society for the past 70 years, and cabinet members have been playing a well-rehearsed game of unmusical chairs for decades.
What went beyond the pale was the response by those who do not even recognize the state in the ultra-Orthodox stronghold of Bnei Brak. The hateful graffiti on a Bnei Brak wall read: “Rivlin is a Nazi apostate.”
Similar expressions were visible in last week’s haredi protests, which featured demonstrators sporting yellow stars or masquerading in mock-concentration camp uniforms.
It was the second such incident in a week that saw the president described on a city school wall as “an abomination and impurity at a holy place.”
Police believe the vandalism and hate speech were the result of an intra-haredi dispute over the status of the president and the state, which some ultra-Orthodox vilify but recognize only in the form of the welfare payments they receive, like military security, from loyal citizens.
Rivlin had visited the school recently to mark the beginning of the school year, but even this was politicized by former Shas MK Yigal Gueta, who criticized him for choosing to visit an Ashkenazi school instead of a Sephardic one.
Rivlin’s courageous Knesset address was a bold defense of the judicial system and the media under attack from the Right. He issued a stern warning that government attempts to legislate against them amount to fomenting a “coup” against the pillars of Israeli democracy.
“The Knesset is the representative of the sovereign, the people of Israel, the entire people of Israel. In this house we must remember that it is the people we must live up to. This wonderful people who we have been privileged to serve and represent,” Rivlin told the ceremony.
The president accused our political leaders of undermining state institutions by attacking them for narrow political gain. “Instead of a reality in which everything can be judged, a reality is growing in which everything is political. The media are political, democratic institutions are political – all of them, from the civil service to the state comptroller – the Supreme Court is political, security forces are political, even our IDF is political,” he declared.
Rivlin slammed right-wing bids to legislate laws “to weaken the Supreme Court” and “to silence the free media,” recalling the efforts to achieve semi-constitutional checks and balances by the “judicial revolution” of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in 1996, which established the court’s power to overturn illegal Knesset laws.
Today, Rivlin continued, “I would like to point out what I believe to be the counter-movement of the historical pendulum, in what seems to be a decision of the top echelons to tip the balance.”
The usual suspects responded. “He hasn’t been on our side for a while,” coalition boss MK David Bitan told reporters. Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev spoke, without apparent irony, of “a president who belittles politicians, belittles the will of the people and hurts the heart of democracy.”
Rivlin concluded by calling on lawmakers to end “what appears to be an ongoing attempt to weaken the gatekeepers of Israeli democracy.” We heartily agree.