A kinder, gentler and BETTER Israel!

Israel doesn’t shy away or back down from challenges that are “impossible” or “difficult.” Without a doubt, it has been the hallmark of our stubborn existence.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The government of Israel remains well aware of its role as both a Jewish and democratic state and values the status and rights of people with disabilities. In fact, there is a meaningful connection between Jewish tradition and the principles of human rights.
Regardless of the other pressing concerns that appear on the government’s agenda, the focus is never far away from the challenges of making life better for those citizens with special needs.
Everyone has limitations. I think I can safely say that I will never run a four minute mile – at least not in this lifetime. And while some of us may be mathematically gifted, others struggle with basic arithmetic. This has nothing to do with the development of emotional intelligence. To be human is to be different.
Individuals with special needs face hard barriers and difficult choices each and every day, but for our community to thrive, they must be an integral part of our lives and collective vision.
Unfortunately for all of us, there are still people who consider people with special needs to be “disabled” in every respect. Studies have proven this line of thinking to absurd. The fact of the matter is that many people with special needs display capability and creativity that go far beyond the talents of those who are considered “typical.”
Although our country is only 64 years old, Israel has come a long way in how people living with mental or physical disabilities are regarded.
Much of the ongoing change has been a result of the collective voice of those with special needs and their advocates who alerted those in power to the inequality in education, employment and medical services. Disabled citizens and their advocates have helped bring these issues to the attention of governmental leaders and are demanding the services that are the right of every citizen in our country.
Responding to this overdue call for justice, the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law of 1998 went into effect and, subsequently, recognizes the fundamental rights of disabled individuals to enjoy the basic rights and constitutional freedoms and privileges that are available to every Israeli citizen. This includes barrier free access to polling places, minimum wage protection and preferential parking spaces at their places of employment.
Looking out from where I sit in the Knesset, I can assure anyone who is looking at our imperfect system that the nation’s legislative body is actively involved in raising awareness in order that, soon, all members of our diverse population will be treated as equal members of society in this colorful, multi-textured tapestry called Israel. Realizing that change begins at home, in recent years the Knesset has outfitted the building in order for it to be fully accessible to those with mobility challenges. This includes the Knesset plenum (ramp and raised podium), the committee meeting rooms, all hallways and adjacent work spaces. The adaptability features of our government center have made it a popular visiting site for students, tourists and others who are either able-bodied or living with disabilities.
The Knesset has made a concerted effort toward raising awareness and implementing inherent values of inclusion and celebrating differences.
Just this past month, the Knesset Speakers Prize was bestowed upon associations and organizations that best promote equality for people with physical, mental and/or learning disabilities.
A key component of integrating citizens with disabilities is in the employment sector. In keeping with our policies, the roster of those who work in the Knesset building includes disabled veterans, men and women with Down syndrome, and others who provide valuable – and valued – services that make the day-to-day legislative work run smoothly. I must admit that I frequently feel that we receive more from the contributions of these marvelous people than we offer.
Their presence in the workplace reminds all of us that our entire country benefits from interactions that are ethical, humane and egalitarian- motivated.
We know. We are aware. More can be done. Nevertheless, it is important for people to remain cognizant that Israel has a long and proven track record in the “hope department.”
In Israel, it is not uncommon to see children with Down syndrome on television programs and there are many exceptional parks for people with physical disabilities.
The new SHALVA National Children’s Center (under construction in the heart of Jerusalem) serves as an excellent example of the types of facilities that are becoming available to this population. This center will house the largest disability-accessibly playground and park in the country. In Israel, people who are mentally and/or physically challenged are “out there”; the Knesset has several members who are living with disabilities. Paraplegic war heroes are lead actors in several soap operas and athletes with disabilities like Keren Leibovitch enjoy fame and success.
And one of Israel’s greatest “international ambassadors” is the world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who was afflicted with polio as a child.
Israel doesn’t shy away or back down from challenges that are “impossible” or “difficult.” Without a doubt, it has been the hallmark of our stubborn existence not to ask ourselves if something can be done but, rather, how to do it. We will not abandon the moral and societal obligations of making our society even more equitable and enjoyable for all its citizens.
The writer is speaker of the Knesset, and a Likud MK.