Rivlin's Double-hitter: A July 4th Excuse and a Dig at Government for Retreat on Kotel Deal

After Israeli president bows out of speech at U.S. envoy's Independence Day event, he laments damage to Diaspora Jews due to about-face on egalitarian prayer at Western Wall

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at his official residence in Jerusalem, in March 2016.
Haim Zach/GPO

President Reuven Rivlin made a double-edged statement Monday night – by both publicly criticizing the Netanyahu government’s about-face on the plan for an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall, and by choosing not to take the stage at the U.S. ambassador’s July 4th celebration, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. 

The official explanation given by Rivlin’s office was that his decision not to give an address at the party was due to a scheduling conflict: The president was the keynote speaker at the opening session of a conference organized by the Makor Rishon weekly that night.

Rivlin did make an early appearance, greeting host Ambassador David Friedman and his wife, Tammy, at the Independence Day event, which drew some 1,600 guests. But the president broke with long-standing tradition by deciding not to appear on the small stage constructed in the backyard of the Herzliya residence, where the ambassador and prime minister, accompanied by their spouses, traded greetings and speeches. Both Rivlin and his predecessor, the late Shimon Peres, would sit on the dais and address the crowd every year.

One guest said that those who have attended the event over the years found it “odd” that the president was not on stage, adding that there were “raised eyebrows” and “muttering in the crowd” when the speeches began without Rivlin, and people were asking whether he had been forced to forgo an appearance or simply chose not to join Netanyahu onstage.

But, of course, Rivlin was heading off to the event sponsored by Makor Rishon, a publication affiliated with the right-wing, Zionist religious camp. In his speech there he expressed regret that the government had reneged on an earlier, carefully negotiated agreement to allow the creation of an egalitarian area for worship at Jerusalem's Western Wall, where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer services.

“We have missed the opportunity for an agreement undertaken with the consultation and responsibility of the great rabbis of Israel – a framework that does not require any recognition of the streams of Judaism in any way, a framework that preserves the Western Wall plaza as a ‘synagogue’ that follows the rules of Jewish law," said the president.

From left, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, speaking, with his wife Tammy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the U.S. Independence Day celebration in Herzilya, July 3, 2017.
Heidi Levine/AFP

"I regret that a process that was conducted in the ways of Beit Hillel was thwarted by a nucleus that acted in the ways of Beit Shammai. It was a courageous process that the government was wise to lead, that could have strengthened the Jewish people had it been implemented.”

Rivlin’s analogies to “Beit Hillel” and “Beit Shammai” were a reference to leading 1st-century Jewish sages and their antagonistic schools of thought. Hillel had a more liberal and open-minded interpretation of Jewish law, and famously declared: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Rival scholar Shammai reputedly had a stricter view of the world, and was concerned that excessive contact with outsiders – i.e., the Romans – would negatively influence and weaken the Jews.

'Fifth tribe of Israel'

The president also stressed the importance of Diaspora Jewry and chided his fellow Israelis for their attitudes toward that community. “Many of us still do not see the strengthening of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora as an issue that is the root of the existence of the Jewish people – a mission that is part of our duty to the State of Israel, as the state of the Jewish people. If we are to tell the truth, Israeli Jews see the Diaspora Jews as reinforcements for aliyah – or, to be blunt, a deep pocket.”

In the past, Rivlin has referred frequently to what he calls the “four tribes of Israel”: Orthodox, Zionist-religious and secular Jews, and Israeli Arabs. On Monday, he suggested that Diaspora Jews were a “fifth tribe,” with which there should be a “shared Israelihood.” He then went on to relate an anecdote from his youth.

“I remember the one and only time my father hit me. Close family had arrived to visit from the U.S.," Rivlin recalled, "and I asked them why they did not immigrate to Israel. And I added, Hitler will still get to you – and then my father hit me. That slap made me understand that the root of the relationship between the different parts of the Jewish people, wherever they may be, must stand on one simple demand: the demand for mutual responsibility, a commitment to the security, freedom and well-being of my people. This demand to care, to be concerned, in a way that only occurs in a family, forces us to be greater than the sum of our parts. We cannot allow a harsh disagreement between us – and it is truly difficult, and difficult also for me – to erode the very idea of Jewish mutual responsibility. We have a challenge to place this relationship as a supreme value, beyond debate.”

Since taking office in 2014, Rivlin has undergone something of a transformation regarding his views on non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry. When he was first elected, members of the Reform and Conservative movements were wary of the man seen as disdaining the non-Orthodox streams. He had gone on record decades earlier, when visiting the U.S. as a Knesset member, for calling Reform Judaism “idol worship,” “completely Protestant” and “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.” While campaigning for president, and also early in his term, he hesitated to address Reform and Conservative religious leaders as “rabbi.”

But in the intervening years, Rivlin has won over leaders of those streams. Reform leaders have praised him for playing a “positive role” in the Israel-Diaspora relationship and for adopting a “very respectful and embracing approach.”

By praising the initial agreement for a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall, however, Rivlin deeply angered leaders of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties. Hamevaser, a Haredi newspaper, described the president's comments as “grave and hurtful,” adding that he was interfering in matters that should be resolved by the Knesset and the government coalition, and sowing disunity. The paper quoted Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) as saying that U.S. President Donald Trump showed more respect for tradition at the Western Wall, or Kotel, than Rivlin did.

“It is unfortunate that what the non-Jewish American president understood during his visit to the Kotel last month, the Israeli Jewish president doesn’t understand,” Porush reportedly said.

Rivlin, the newspaper article said, should ask for “forgiveness from the great rabbis who called for cancellation of the Western Wall plan out of deep reverence for the holiness of the Kotel, to save it from a group without any connection to Judaism that was asking to desecrate its holiness.”