A picture made the rounds yesterday on social media that I found quite touching. It showed the President of Israel, Ruby Rivlin, and his wife on a train heading from New York to Washington. The couple was reading the paper, and the train was a local (not even an Acela!) — not exactly the way one expects a visiting head of state to travel.
The picture did provide an insight into the Rivlin Presidency. He’s a humble guy, seemingly uncomfortable with the fancier trappings of high office. And he is a true democrat; a man of the Likud who has spent his term as President promoting civil discourse, decrying the incitement that too often characterizes the narrative of the Israeli right-wing, and defending the targets of that incitement: Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian civilians, and Israeli human right organizations. He has also spoken passionately about the need for the Israeli government to repair its damaged relationship with the Obama Administration, and about the singular importance of the Israeli-American relationship.
And so it is fitting that the train Rivlin was on yesterday was headed to Washington, where he and President Obama lit Hanukkah candles together. For many of us, the two presidents, at their best, embody much of what is best about our two countries. At a time like this, as both Israelis and Americans grapple with real and perceived threats, and when xenophobia, racism, and fear seem to saturate both the political discourse in Israel and the 2016 race for the White House, the calm confidence and basic human decency that these two leaders project are, at least to me, a relief. Agree or disagree with their politics, they are voices of reason at a time when there are too few of those.
From Washington, Rivlin is travelling to New York, where NIF will have the privilege of hosting him — together with our partners at Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily newspaper — on Sunday at the HaaretzQ conference. This is going to be an important gathering for our work. And I want to share with you some of the reasons I’m so excited about it.
First, NIF’s partnership with Haaretz to sponsor this conference is more than an extension of our support for the many important conferences that Haaretz organizes in Israel. It is also a clear statement about the willingness of our two organizations to work together to make sure that the voices of progressive Israelis are heard.
Second, the substance that this conference will tackle is unprecedented. Just check out the program. We’ll have conversations on the occupation, on religious freedom, on human rights, on civil rights, on the struggles for economic justice, on new ways of thinking about the peace process, and more. We’ll hear from President Rivlin, from U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, from MK and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and from Palestinian negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat, to name a few.
But mostly, I’m excited by what this conference has revealed about our community here in America: From the day we announced the conference, our staff has been bombarded with requests from people who wanted to take part. Then, just yesterday, we had to announce the bittersweet news that conference was sold out.
Clearly, there is a hunger among American Jews to engage with Israel in a meaningful way, to connect to Israelis who don’t share the hardline views that we hear too often from those in power, and to figure out what we can do together to help Israel live up to the values of a humanist, liberal and democratic Jewish homeland.
NIF was created by individuals who care about Israel, who want Israeli society to be more equal and more democratic, as a philanthropic tool with which to empower Israeli change makers to push the country towards these values. Over time, a community has grown around the organization based on shared values and a passion to build a better Israel.
I too am travelling today from Washington, where I attended the White House Hanukkah party, to New York. And, since we now know it’s his preferred mode of travel, I do hope to run into President Rivlin on the train. I’ll let you know if I do.
Photo via Facebook