Last December, NIF and the newspaper Haaretz held a conference in New York City. We were proud to feature as speakers a group of luminaries who are, in their various ways, making a contribution to the discourse about Israel. Our speakers included Israeli politicians like Tzipi Livni and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, diplomats like US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers and Palestinian negotiator Sayeb Erekat, and a who’s who of terrific journalists and commentators.
But the opening plenary session was dominated by two giants.
First, President Barack Obama spoke to us, via a video message, to send his congratulations. Then, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin took the stage. At least as important as what he said was his decision to be there at all, speaking at an event held by two of Israel’s most prominent progressive institutions, and before a crowd of committed liberals. And he paid a price, receiving the kinds of threats and vitriol that the Israeli extremists usually reserve for left-wing activists and Arab citizens of Israel.
But President Rivlin is truly a unique leader in Israel. A man of the right, but a self-described liberal and democrat. Even when I a disagree with him (and I do, about many things) I do so with deep respect and, indeed, affection. I’m proud to know him, and proud that he’s stuck up for us and our values. Indeed, it is hard to think of another right-wing figure — in either Israel or the US — about whom I could say the same thing.
Take a few minutes and read the interview below. Israel’s most esteemed journalist interviewing Israel’s President. And then imagine if more politicians – from across the political spectrum and in both of our countries – spoke with the kind of integrity, sensitivity and compassion that President Rivlin does. I’m grateful for his service and for his example.
Rivlin: “If We are All Silent, Then We are All Complicit”
Excerpt of interview by Nahum Barnea, published in Yedioth Ahronoth on August 7, 2016
Two days after Shira Banki was stabbed to death at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, and one day after the baby Ali Dawabsha was burned to death in Duma, President Reuven Rivlin wrote: “My people have chosen the path of terror and lost their semblance of humanity.”
“When I said ‘my people,’ Rivlin told me this week, “I was talking about people who chose the path of terror. I was not talking about the entire people. My words were twisted.”
You could have said “some people”, I said.
“I didn’t want to,” he said. “In my opinion, if we are all silent about these things, then we are all complicit.”
Were you insulted [by all the negative reactions], I asked.
“Sometimes it’s insulting,” he said, “but as our forefathers said, it depends on who is doing the insulting.”
Adva Biton, I said, the mother of four year-old Adel, who died after terrorists hit the family car with a stone, claims that you ignored her daughter’s death.
“That is a complete lie,” he said. “When I was in the Knesset, I called the girl’s grandmother every two weeks, to ask how she was doing. When she died, I attended the shiva in a settlement in Samaria.”
Rivlin can take comfort in the hundreds of text message and emails he received—many from Likud members and settlers—who wrote to him saying, your words are our words. “The silent majority in the Likud spoke its piece very clearly,” he told me. “The majority will not let a bunch of extremists take over the right wing.”
His former colleagues, the Likud ministers, were in no hurry to come to Rivlin’s defense… Rivlin was angry: he read their statements of condemnation and thought, too little too late.
I would be surprised if you were to tell me that you feel like a victim, I told him.
“I’m not a victim,” he said. “The true right wing is not fanatic. The majority of the right wing wants the greater Land of Israel out of love for the land, not out of hatred for others.”
Unless Israeli society has changed its face in recent years, I said.
“I constantly ask myself that question,” he said, and then added, a bit sarcastically: “Maybe I’m in an offside position. I still believe in the Zionist dream to establish a Jewish and democratic state in Israel. When I see the Israeli flag flying over Mt. Herzl, I cry.”
How do we turn this creed into a positive vision, into a soul-searching.
“Soul searching,” he said, “begins with the question of whether we did not fool ourselves when we preferred, for reasons of convenience, to think that these extremist phenomena were a passing, insignificant matter that did not have to be treated with full severity. The great danger that we face is the danger of extremism. The house arsonists, the mosque vandals, the church desecrators, hurt us first of all, we who believe in the justice of our path. They think that they support settlement, but they will visit destruction on us by taking this path. These mystics are endangering Israel’s existence.”
You worked for an entire year to reach out between Israel’s tribes, said, and now your hard work is drowning in the sea.
“There is no question that this is traumatic,” said Rivlin. “True, we are not talking about a tribe, only about extremists who don’t care about the state. They talk on the mystical level only. If you don’t obey us, they say, we will do what we want, with complete irresponsibility. Anyone who doesn’t think as we do is a Nazi, a traitor.
“We are sticking our heads in the sand. Of course we do not accept such acts, of course they deserve to be condemned, but we do nothing to stamp them out. When weeds start to grow in a vegetable patch, if you don’t immediately pull them out by the roots, they will take over the patch… If we forfeit the blood of anyone who isn’t Jewish, or of Jews who don’t think like you, or of gays, or of anyone who isn’t religious in your way, there will be no rebirth…”
You are considered a big surprise, I said. You surprised both the right wing and the left wing. Did you surprise yourself?
“I did not,” Rivlin said. “I’ve never understood the expression, ‘where you sit is where you stand.’ Where I stand is where I stood. I was surprised by the public’s reaction.
“I wanted to be in this position and I thought about how I would act when I would be president. I knew that from the moment that I was elected, I would have to put my personal opinions aside, but I never thought for a moment that I would have to change them. Once I used to outrage the left wing. Today there are people in the right wing who call me an extremist left winger who is looking out for the Arabs. And I haven’t changed my views by one iota. I was surprised by the surprise of the people who belong to what is called the right wing, who do not at all understand the teachings of Jabotinsky, which I imbibed with my mother’s milk. To the same degree, I was surprised by the astonishment and the applause of the left wing. For years they told me, you’re a Herutnik, how can you also be a democrat and liberal. And I would tell them, it’s because I’m a Herutnik that I’m a liberal and a democrat.
“There are people who, like me, support the greater Land of Israel and the vision of the return to Zion, but think that this does not obligate us to be democrats. They think that a Jewish and democratic state means democracy only for Jews. They are estranged from our obligations as the sovereign, as the majority.
“The idea that as a sovereign we don’t owe anybody anything, is simply a misunderstanding of our ability to exist. It is our obligation, as sovereign, to ensure that we do not permit any discrimination and any racism. Sovereignty means obligation—I’ve always thought this. But what the right wing remembered about Ruby Rivlin of the past was only his support for the greater Land of Israel.
“In general, the people setting the tone today, in the right wing and in the left wing, don’t like people whose views span the two camps. They see people by one criterion—is he for me or against me. If you’re for me, I’m with you completely, but you have to be completely for me. If you’re against me on some matter, then I’m totally against you.”
How do you explain the new extremism in the political discourse, the incitement, the hatred. Is it real? Is it a game?
“Sometimes, Rivlin said, “to reach the hard core, politicians feel that they must toe the line with the extremists, not have the extremists toe the line with them. This can mainly be seen when they need political power. They won’t hesitate to incite and to provoke if they think that this will bring them votes.
“You know, today, in order to build a political base that will support you and give you power, you have to highlight the rift between the different sectors. Sometimes this turns into animosity. If you hate Arabs, we politicians are with you, and if you like Arabs, you’re our enemy. This is not about sticking to positions, this is about the need to create a political power base. There are some parties who try to attract voters not based on what they do, but try to attract a specific sector, the tribe. This was illustrated in the last elections, and I won’t elaborate.
“Politicians have a psychological disability. It causes them to believe that they can attack their rivals in an insulting, dismissive, inciting and offensive way, and a minute later, hug them and tell them, you’re my best friend, let’s be in the coalition together. This happens with the right wing and the left wing.
“In the 1990s I was on the same satirical panel television show with Yehonatan Geffen, with Danny Kerman, Yair Garboz, Daniela Shemi, Yair Nitzani and Eldad Ziv. There was an abyss between us, but we all respected the other’s right to their opinion. We argued, we didn’t hate.”
One of your first acts as president was to go to Kafr Kassem on the anniversary of the massacre, I said.
“When the Kafr Kassem incident took place, in October 1956, I was a 12th grade pupil. I thought it was a crime that mainly harmed us, the Jews, and our ability to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. All my life as an adult, I said that when I reached a status that would enable me to repeat to the residents of the village, and the entire Israeli public, the incisive statements made by Judge Binyamin Halevy in his ruling on the affair—I would do so.
“I proposed to Moshe Katsav that he go there on the anniversary. He made do with sending a letter. I didn’t understand why there was a fear of going there and telling them what the court said: We sinned, we transgressed. We ask your forgiveness.
“And from the moment I was first elected to the Knesset in 1988, I asked why we should not rectify the injustice done in Iqrit and Biram in 1948. Christian Arabs lived in the two villages; they were Israeli citizens then and now. The army ordered them to vacate their villages for a few days, for security reasons, and promised that they would be permitted to return within a short time. The promise has not been kept to this day.
“Menahem Begin called for years to rectify the injustice. When he came to power and wished to order their return, he encountered an establishment that explained to him why it was forbidden to do this, why the precedent of Iqrit and Biram could open the door to dozens of villages, to hundreds of villages. During Begin’s period, we formed a committee that decided on a symbolic return. This too was not implemented.
“When I served as a minister in Sharon’s government, I said that it was time to rectify the injustice. Arik said no, that it was a dangerous precedent. He used to say to me, we don’t owe them a thing. I said to him, returning them would be for the greater glory of the State of Israel. The return would establish our standing as a moral state that demands the world’s recognition of its morality.”
Today, as the president, do you call to implement the decision of the committee from Begin’s time and to permit a symbolic return of the uprooted residents to the villages, I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “I call upon the Israeli government to find a way to show the entire world that we keep our promises to Jew, to Arabs, to Christians and to Muslims. There are promises that it is impossible to keep. This promise can be kept, and it is moral and reasonable.”
Do you intend to visit there, I asked.
“We are planning to do so,” he replied.
Would you institute a compulsory draft for the Israeli Arabs into the IDF, I asked.
“My Arab friends often say to me, you understand your obligation as a majority, but regrettably not everyone understands. We have a dilemma between the desire to be loyal to the state in which we live and in which we are represented in the Knesset, and our loyalty to our people.
“I used to say to them, I understand why we exempted you from serving in the army, but why don’t you fulfill your obligation to the state through national service? They replied, it is your nationality, not ours. We are not willing to perform national service. I said to them, I understand, just explain to me why you are willing to accept national insurance payments.
“But to come and force them to sing Hatikvah, the anthem of the Jewish people, ‘a Jewish heart yearns’? That is unnecessary. A non-Jew comes and wishes to be a judge in Israel. He brings to the judicial bench his professional capabilities and mainly his full identification with the state. Whoever says that he cannot be elected as a judge if he does not sing Hatikvah is uprooting with his very mouth the core of our ability to define our state as a Jewish and democratic state…
You believed in one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in which Jews and Arabs would be citizens with equal rights, I said. Has this year changed your views?
“I fully believe that a solution has to be found in order to end the tragedy between us and the Palestinians, in such a way that will enable the State of Israel to exist and will enable the Arabs of the Land of Israel to live alongside us. These things require open borders.
“Only an understanding by both sides that we are destined to live together will put an end to what I call the Jewish-Muslim tragedy, the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. When I talk about this with world leaders, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, I know that I have to qualify my statements, but those are my opinions.
“Can a bi-national state maintain our definition as a Jewish state? I am not certain. A bi-national state might do away with the only prerogative that we have taken for ourselves as the Jewish people, which is the right of return to the land for the Jewish people alone.
“We may be able to exist alongside each other as a confederation, for example. Is it clear that in such a solution there will be only one army between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? This is a question that should be put to the Palestinians, to see whether they will agree…”
In your speech to the Herzliya Conference, you described a process of Israeli society disintegrating into tribes and called to find a common denominator. How do we do that?
“In my role as president, and even before, as Knesset speaker, I took action to have the different tribes meet. Not for one tribe to agree with the other, but for them to get to know each other, because each tribe in Israel talks about the other with complete ignorance.
“We are holding a competition among schools that initiate encounters in the framework of a program of the President’s Residence. Schools have submitted their candidacies. I visited some of the events. When I go to these schools, I first ask who does not want to take part, and why. The children usually note the education they received at home—their parents told them they shouldn’t meet Arabs, or Haredim, or secular. I also hear about children who went despite their parents’ opposition and when they returned, they taught their parents about the other tribe. Hostility derives from strangeness, from fear.
“We went to Tira not long ago. There were yeshiva boys from a Petah Tikva schools, Arabs from Tira and two Christian girls. Haredim, Christians, Muslims and secular discussed a joint project about the environment. I was moved.
“I have no illusions that I brought about peace, but we reached the first and vital stage—knowing the other. The students told me, we didn’t know anything about the other, we thought they were aliens.
“We have to create Israeli hope. Not just Jewish hope—pan-Israeli hope. Haredi society and Arab society today realize that they must develop as part of society, as party of the economy. 38% of Israelis cannot forever pay for all of society. We have to create a common experience and common hope. Israeli society is rife with culture wars, with religious wars, with wars between army veterans and draft-dodgers. We have to create a common denominator.”