‘Every journey starts with a first step’

President Reuven Rivlin discusses entering Israel’s top office and the need to meet the challenges facing the country

Rivlin waves after visiting the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rivlin waves after visiting the Western Wall
Ahead of Thursday's third annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, we present some highlights from the exclusive conference magazine available only to participants. The conference which will be held at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on Thursday morning will be streamed live on jpost.com.
Reuven Rivlin has certainly hit the ground running.
Since his election as Israel’s 10th president in July, the former Likud MK and Knesset Speaker has quickly established a number of presidential goals – the elimination of racism and discrimination in Israel, safety and security in his beloved Jerusalem, the battle for social justice and the promotion of national unity.
Rivlin has three central mantras.
One is that “We are not doomed to live together. We are destined to live together. We don’t always agree among ourselves, but this is our home, whether we have one state, two states or a federation solution.” Another is that “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state,” and the third is “Jerusalem will always remain united.”
He has been speaking out against terrorism and violence in recent weeks, and he is no less outraged by acts of terrorism perpetrated by Jews than he is by Arab acts of terrorism.
He is greatly troubled by the rise in radicalism in both the Jewish and Arab communities, and at a huge youth rally in Tel Aviv commemorating the 19th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin he warned that violence is undermining Israel’s democracy and must be condemned, denounced and isolated.
Recalling the violence that permeated large pockets of Israeli society prior to Rabin’s assassination, Rivlin said: “We remained silent in those difficult days before the murder of Rabin. We have sinned, Yitzhak. I am saying that now, today, we cannot remain silent. We must understand that if we remain silent, we have given up on the dream; we have forgotten why, and for what cause, we came to our homeland.”
Noting that the violence has not disappeared despite the shock waves that ran through the nation in response to the assassination, Rivlin, alluding to the atmosphere of hostility between those who were for and against the Oslo Accords, declared: “We are not prepared to triumph in the war on terror, only to fail in the struggle for our character. We are in the midst of an ongoing war against external enemies, but we must cease to regard each other as enemies from within.”
Rivlin has consistently stated that terrorism and violence, whether on the part of Arabs or Jews, must be condemned, and that security forces and local authorities should do all in their power to bring incitement, manifestations of racism and acts of violence to a halt. As a seventh-generation, native son of Jerusalem, whose parents are buried on the Mount of Olives, it pains him to see the erosion of peace and harmoy in his city.
Looking at disturbing developments from a Jewish perspective, Rivlin has said many times that violence never was and never will be the Jewish way of doing things. There is no justification for terrorism, even as a means of retaliation, he said, and there is no justification for desecrating holy places.
When the president heard of the attempt by Jewish radicals to burn down the mosque in the Palestinian town of Akraba in October, he con - tacted Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino and asked him to lead the investigation as a mat - ter of urgency.
“The burning of holy places is terrorism and should be treated as terrorism,” Rivlin declared.
The president underscored that incidents of this nature cannot be treated as marginal, and that there is a serious problem that must be uprooted. “All those who remain silent in the face of such deeds are laying the ground for the next assault,” he said.
Unless decisive action is taken “we will all pay the ‘price tag,’” Rivlin cautioned.
Concurrent with his concerns about violence, discrimination and racism, Rivlin is seriously worried about the inability of so many working Israelis to make ends meet. A long-time champion of social justice, he warns of the dangers of economic distress to the fabric of Israeli society if no solution is found for narrowing the social gap and lifting tens of thousands of families out of the morass of poverty. Social justice is not being properly addressed, he says, because it is being held hostage to the realities of security needs, adding that this inability poses a strategic threat.
Rivlin dismisses contentions by Treasury officials that the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors of the Israeli population only take from the economy and do not contribute to it. Courageous and responsible reforms and a reevaluation of priorities are needed, he asserts.
While it is no secret that as a Knesset member Rivlin was not in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he admits that security needs will continue to have priority over all other considerations without a diplomatic treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.
The first time that Rivlin threw his cap into the presidential ring, he stood against Shimon Peres, knowing that he would lose, Rivlin said in a pre-conference interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Having lost once, few people would try again.
But Rivlin persevered even in the face of tough competition against fellow MK Silvan Shalom, who ultimately withdrew, and MK Meir Sheetrit, against whom he scored 44 out of 118 votes in the first round of voting, while Sheetrit’s tally was 31.
The remaining votes went to other candidates, and it was known that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not support any of the leading candidates. According to media reports, before the close of the second round, Rivlin telephoned his wife, Nechama, and told her it was all over and that it looked as if he was going to lose. But he didn’t, and in the final run between him and Sheetrit, Rivlin received 63 votes in the secret ballot to Sheetrit’s 53. “Oh, what a fight you gave me,” exclaimed a jubilant Rivlin as he and Sheetrit embraced following his victory.
Rivlin takes great pride in introducing his wife as “the first lady, the wife of the president.” Though initially a reluctant first lady, Nechama Rivlin adapted very quickly and has concerned herself with child-related issues almost since day one.
THE RIVLINS took up residence in the presidential residence during Operation Protective Edge, and one of the first things they did was to open up the compound to children from the South, with Nechama reading poems and stories to them. On another occasion, she established a garden area for children in the grounds of the compound with the aim of teaching youngsters to appreciate horticulture and to take responsibility for small plots allocated to them. When AKIM, an organization that deals with children and adults with intellectual development disabil - ities, came to the President’s Residence to pres - ent its annual index on the attitudes of society toward such people, the report was given to the first lady rather than to her husband.
Aside from the children’s issues that she is taking upon herself, Rivlin is frequently at her husband’s side when he hosts organi - zations and visiting dignitaries or when he ravels around the country.
For a man who spent a good part of his life in politics, Rivlin is remarkably can - did and doesn’t shy away from pointed questions or those that some might consider embarrassing.
When asked why it was so important for him to become president, Rivlin replied with total frankness that his father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, stood as a candidate for president in 1957 against his best friend and incumbent president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
Together they established the Ben-Zvi Institute for the research of the history and culture of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem studies and the study of Se- phardi communities, which has since branched out into a publishing house and educational facility.
The two men worked together on many projects, and when then-opposition leader Menachem Begin suggested to the senior Rivlin that he run for president, the latter did so only after asking Ben-Zvi if he minded, to which Ben-Zvi replied: “It will be an honor to win the next election against you.”
And he did.
Although the elder Rivlin never became the president of the state, he was the president of B’nai B’rith, in which capacity he was invited to international conventions and met important personalities such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, who had been defeated in his first bid for the US presidency.
“We have something in common,” Rivlin told Nixon when they met. “We were both candidates for president.”
“But I’m not a professor,” replied Nixon, “and I could never translate the Koran.”
The younger Rivlin, who is known for his fund of anecdotes, frequently tells stories related to his father’s translation of the Koran, an achievement of which the president is extremely proud.
IN A SENSE, Reuven Rivlin ran for president to make up for his father’s defeat.
He never had any real personal ambition to be president, he discloses. “I always wanted to be mayor of Jerusalem. That was my dream.” That opportunity was denied him by his own Likud party, which failed to endorse him and chose Ehud Olmert instead.
So instead of dealing with local matters, Rivlin focused on national politics.
When he decided to run for a Knesset seat, he knew that one day he would be a minister, but never a prime minister.
Even if he had somehow been elected as head of the party, he couldn’t run for prime minister, he says, “because I couldn’t send anyone on a mission where they might be killed.”
However, he was eager to be a legislator as it afforded him the opportunity to be instrumental in working in accordance with the democratic process. He served in the 12th Knesset, missed out on being reelected to the 13th, but was back in the saddle in the 14th Knesset, and then stayed on till the 19th Knesset, leaving after his presidential triumph.
He served twice as Knesset Speaker, and as communications minister in the 15th Knesset. A lawyer by profession, he sat on the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the Committee for the Appointment of Judges, the Special Committee on the Status of Women, and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, among others.
His dedication to democracy also spurred him to run a second time for president, even though he had been defeated by Shimon Peres seven years earlier. “I knew that as president I could serve as a symbol for Israel’s democracy,” he says with hindsight. From the time that he initially decided to run in the presidential race, he knew that sooner or later he would win. He knew that he would lose against Peres, “and I was ready for that.” But he also knew that his work in the Knesset was appreciated across the political divide – and that when he ran again, he would get support from every party – and he would win.
Rivlin quickly learned that the approach of the presidency is different to that of a Knesset Speaker or a Knesset member. “As president, you are a symbol. You are apolitical – and if people respect you, they listen.”
But in Israel it is impossible to be com - pletely apolitical. Politics pervade everything.
TOWARD THE end of October, Rivlin went to Kafr Kasim, an Arab town where in 1956 Israeli Border Police had car - ried out a massacre. Though not the first Israeli to empathize and sympathize with the families of the victims and the trauma of those who survived, he was the first high-ranking figure to join in commemorating the anniversa - ry of the massacre. Many of his right- wing friends and colleagues were aghast, sending Facebook and Twitter messages deploring what Rivlin had done. On the other hand, left-of-center Israelis applauded his actions, stating that they were happy to admit they had been wrong in their misgivings about him as a right-winger.
Similarly, after the murder by a Pal - estinian terrorist of Border Police Supt.
Jidan Assad last month, Rivlin visited the man’s family in Beit Jann in the Gal - ilee in order to pay his condolences and to tell them that he shared in their grief over their terrible loss.
The president also delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Zidan Saif, the Druse policeman who came to the defense of worshipers last month at the terrorist attack in the Har Nof neighborhood in the capital.
Rivlin’s political ideology remains unchanged. “Everyone knows my politics,” he says, “but everyone also knows that as a democrat I would not go against the will of the majority. I am obligated to dialogue and differences of approach and vision.”
The president believes that dialogue is the only way to resolve both inter - nal and external problems. “When you know you can be a bridge that enables people to understand each other and have a dialogue in which each tries to understand the other’s side instead of just preaching, you have to listen to all sides,” he says, speaking of the role that is still relatively new to him.
When the State of Israel was estab - lished, Rivlin was still a boy. Israel’s population at the time was nowhere near a million, and Rivlin at the time said that his big dream was that by the year 2000 Israel’s population would include two million Jews. That dream has more than come true. On the eve of Rosh Hashana, Israel’s total population stood at nearly nine million, out of which more than six million were Jews. “In 30 to 40 years we’ll have more than 10 million Jews,” Rivlin says with satisfaction, adding that he hopes that Jews from all over the world will decide to make their home in Israel.
Inasmuch as Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora unify in the face of an exis - tential threat, they are strongly divided on political and religious issues. Rivlin’s attitude is that “We’re all Zionist, but we think differently about what is best for Israel.”
The differences in streams of Zionist beliefs “sometimes puts Zionism into a collision course. But nonetheless, any one who thinks differently to me is still as much a Zionist as I am.
“All people born in Israel – whether Jews, Christians, Muslims or any other religion – must have equal rights,” he stresses.
As for relations between Jews and Arabs, Rivlin observes that the five Arab Knesset members who voted for him to become president obviously have confi - dence in his ability to bridge differences between Arabs and Jews.
He perceives that his greatest task in this direction is to convince Arabs that the State of Israel is not waging a war against Islam or the Palestinians. It is difficult to convince the Arabs that Jews have returned to their homeland and for centuries in exile were spiritually linked to Zion and Jerusalem, and it is equally difficult to convince Jews “that this is the motherland of non-Jews who were born here,” he says.
Tough as his mission may be, Rivlin remains undaunted.
“Every journey starts with a first step,” he says. “We have to live together and bring an end to misunderstandings between Jews and Arabs.”
RIVLIN HAS ALSO decided to be a peace - maker and bridge builder among different streams of Judaism. Raised in an Orthodox milieu, Rivlin, though not strictly observant, prefers to pray in an Orthodox synagogue, where he some - times leads the service and reads the Torah and Haftara portions.
Years ago there was a souring of rela - tions between him and the Conservative and Reform movements. But when a Conservative delegation visited him early in his presidency, he told them: “We are all one family,” a notion that he has reiterated several times since. He he also recently had a very cordial and reconciliatory meeting with a delegation from Hebrew Union College, the edu - cational arm of the Reform Movement.
Would he be prepared to attend services in a Conservative or Reform congregation? Rivlin says that he prefers the Orthodox synagogue, but had he been born in New York, he might have opted for the Conservative synagogue.
Every Jew has his or her own attitude to Judaism and how to practice it, if at all, he says. “I look at Judaism as something that belongs to me from a national and religious point of view,” says Rivlin, adding that everyone who considers themselves to be Jewish is welcome to come to Israel.
As yet, Rivlin has not had too many opportunities to deal with foreign affairs.
He did host a reception for foreign diplomats and received the credentials of a handful of new ambassadors, and managed to squeeze in one overseas trip. He has another coming up in January, when he will address the United Nations on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These days, most Israelis go abroad immediately after finishing army service, if not beforehand. Rivlin was 27 years old the first time he left Israel.
Until then, he thought that the great dream of every Jew was to visit the Western Wall, which from 1948 to 1967 was inaccessible. But then he discovered that while Israel alone had been his world for so many years, there was a much bigger world outside, a notion he bears in mind ever since.