President Reuven Rivlin at the bedside of Ahmed Dawabsha, 4, at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Reuven Rivlin has always been an outspoken politician when it comes to condemning racism, violence and anti-democratic trends, but the events of recent weeks, climaxing in his scathing condemnations of a homophobic attack at the Jerusalem Gay Pride march that killed 16-year-old Shira Banki and the firebomb attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma that left 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe and his father, Sa’ad, dead have put Rivlin in the spotlight as he marks a year in office as president.
It is a year in which Rivlin has shifted the focus of the presidency inward, shying away from the world stage that his predecessor Shimon Peres so liked to grace. Rivlin has instead turned his gaze on Israeli society and his diagnosis has often been bitter and bleak.
“Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease and ease tensions between Arabs and Jews,” Rivlin said shortly after taking office. Those comments came in the wake of a round of violence that followed the murder of three Israeli teens, the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Kdeir and the most recent Gaza war. In the interim tensions have not eased, the disease has yet to be cured and Rivlin has had more cause to speak out.
“The State of Israel and Israeli society must conduct some soul-searching. Introspection that will find expression not just in words but in action, he said after the Duma attack. “Israel’s leadership, across the political spectrum, must express clearly not only its condemnation of this terrorism, but its genuine commitment to confront violence and racism, recognizing our commitment to an adherence to the values of the law and of democracy, respect for the courts, and respect for our fellow man as created in God’s image.”
His comments earned him vitriol and even death threats. The animosity displayed toward him for making loud and clear moral statements show the intolerance and bigotry of those speaking out against him and of those who fail to defend him.
Rivlin’s stand has made him a champion of the Left and detested by many on the Right that is his political home.
It is not the president however who has changed, it is rather perceptions and awareness of his views. As he told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot in one of several interviews granted last week, “I haven’t changed. The right wing has blamed me for being too liberal in the past as well. Those who are surprised are the left wing.”
Like his ideological guide Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Rivlin is, as biographer Hillel Halkin describes Jabotinsky, a man of profound paradoxes and contradictions: he is a territorial maximalist and a democrat; he comes from the heart of the Right, yet says what many on the Left would not dare to say, he calls for equal rights for Palestinians, yet speaks out against a Palestinian state.
Rivlin’s office is largely ceremonial and in his previous role as Knesset speaker he also had little ability to influence government policy. He believes that the most important thing he can do is to build confidence and relationships on a person- to-person basis. He has stated clearly that one of his key priorities is to make “the President’s House a house for all of Israel’s citizens,” whatever their faith or affiliation, a place not for struggles and wars, but rather “a home for discourse and a place that enables the diversity of opinions.”
Rivlin has spoken of a vision of living together, of shaping a civil language, and forging a shared Israeli identity.
His path to that vision is unclear, as are the borders of his Israel and his ideas for peace, but one can only hope that his message of tolerance and humanity is heeded and that actions follow words.