Ambivalence about Israel’s new first citizen

On the one hand, on the other hand: Israeli President-elect Reuven Rivlin

The election of Reuven Rivlin as president of Israel has left many American Jewish groups in a quandary about whether he shares their values or not.

Rivlin, 74, was a champion of Israel’s minorities when he served as speaker of the Knesset, but he opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a position that puts him at odds with his own government and the majority of American Jews.

He is known as congenial and respectful of other opinions, but he once denounced Reform Judaism as “idol worship,” revealing an antipathy to the religious pluralism that most American Jews espouse and want to see recognized in the Jewish state.

Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said his dovish group is “ambivalent” about Rivlin becoming Israel’s “first citizen.”

“On the one hand, he has done more than most Knesset members to protect Israel from initiatives from the extreme right to curtail democracy and the rights of minorities,” Nir said. “He won the votes [for president] of most Arab Knesset members.

“On the other hand, he is a right-wing ideologue who supports a Greater Israel, and very openly so.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement called Rivlin’s views on Reform Judaism “unacceptable,” but said her movement is hoping that the new president will come to see things differently.

“His duty and responsibility will force him to change his views and bring about pluralism,” she said.

The Rabbinic Assembly advocates a two-state solution, she said. But she called Rivlin’s opposition to a Palestinian state “an internal matter.”

Rivlin, who won the June 10 runoff by a 63- 53 vote, will be sworn in on July 24. He replaces outgoing President Shimon Peres, who is completing a seven-year term.

In Israel, the presidency is largely a ceremonial and symbolic post.  But the prestige an Israel president enjoys lends the incumbent more than token influence. Peres, a Nobel peace prize winner and outspoken dove, often voiced his differences with hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rivlin will be different, said Morton Klein, national president of Zionist Organization of America. “Unlike Peres, Reuven Rivlin is a clear-eyed realist.”

Rivlin will be an improvement over Peres, who acted on “the fantasy that we can have peace if we offer   [the Palestinians] more land,” Klein said.

Rivlin opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and he opposes Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank. Klein said Rivlin, whom he calls a “longtime friend,” opposes a Palestinian state because it would turn the West Bank into another Gaza, from where Hamas has fired rockets into Israel at times since 2006.

Rivlin has said, “I would prefer the Palestinians become citizens of the state [of Israel] than for us to divide the country,” he has said, proposing common citizenship but separate parliaments for Jews and Arabs.

Klein calls extending citizenship in lieu of a Palestinian state “a very dangerous proposition.”

In an open letter to Rivlin, published in Haaretz, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs addressed the new president’s description of his movement as idol worship. “You disparaged, with stunning insensitivity, the dominant religiosity of North American Jewry, our Reform Movement,” wrote Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism.

“You may not agree with everything we do or how we express our deep Jewish commitment, but please know it is no less than yours, or any of the chief rabbis,” Jacobs wrote. “The world has too many people who have disdain or antipathy toward our people and our beloved homeland, so please do all you can to model ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jews.

As president, Rivlin may do just that. In his acceptance speech, he announced his resignation from the ruling Likud Party. “I am no longer partisan but rather a man of the nation, one of the people,” Rivlin said.

Nir said Rivlin will likely be a non-ideological president. “But what kind of message will people get when they know they are facing the number-one citizen of Israel who supports a binational state. That’s problematic.”

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