President Rivlin to U.S. Jews: I Feel Your Pain, but 'Religion and State' Is Political in Israel

Attempting to reach to U.S. Jews and quell anger at Western Wall deal, Rivlin tells Jewish Federations' GA: in the future we can return to the table together to try and teach understandings

Uri Blau
Los Angeles
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President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, known as the General Assembly, Los Angeles, U.S., November 13, 2017.
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, known as the General Assembly, Los Angeles, U.S., November 13, 2017.Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO
Uri Blau
Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES - President Reuven Rivlin on Monday addressed the Jewish Federations' General Assembly in his first major speech to the Jewish community outside Israel. Speaking to the 3,000 attendees at the Los Angeles confab, Rivlin conveyed his understanding to the distress many American Jews feel towards the Israeli government these days while offering a lesson in Israeli realpolitik.

The crowd, who stood in long security lines to enter the hall and listen to Rivlin, cheered him as he took his place on stage, and throughout his speech.

Many of the conversations during the GA, on and off stage, surrounded the great disappointment in Israel’s decision to suspend an agreement permitting an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and promote a controversial bill rejecting all conversions performed outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system. Earlier Monday, the Federations' leadership passed a resolution criticizing the Israeli government and calling on it to backtrack on both measures. Rivlin touched on said disappointment early in his speech, but likely not in the way some in the audience might hoped or expected. 

“The development of the [Kotel] agreement was a sensitive process, led by our government in order to try and bridge the gap,“ Rivlin said.

“I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue. It is our mutual responsibility, and a common interest. At the same time, we must all respect Israel’s democratic process, the decision-making process. Whether we like it or not, in the only Jewish democratic state, ‘religion and state’ is a political issue – maybe the most explosive one.”

“It was important for the president not to tell lies to the audience,” a member of Rivlin’s team told Haaretz. Those present understand that Rivlin is not a policy maker and can’t make the change himself, the official said, but he can explain how things work in Israel and provide them with a much needed hug.

And indeed, even more than his wording, Rivlin’s gestures and genuine tone were embracing and inclusive. The president did his best to make everyone in the crowd feel accepted. “There is a lot of strength in this room, and a lot love for the Jewish people, love for the State of Israel. The State of Israel was, and will always be, the home of every Jew: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, traditional, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. Jews. We are all one people, and Israel is dear to all of us,” he said. 

“You stand beside us at times of crisis and joy,” the president told the crowd. “You dream with us. You challenge us. You help keep us strong. I am here today to say that this cannot be taken for granted. We thank you for this sense of family. For your unconditional support and love. For your consistent message that ‘we Jews stick together,’ that ‘all Jews are responsible for one another.' In this, we have a lot to learn from you - that is the truth.”

Rivlin added that American Jews have great impact on the Israeli agenda. “I ask you, don’t stop,” he said. “As part of the challenge of building the relationship between us, we need to create an honest and open dialogue between the sides, this is our only way to move forward.”

The relationship between Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considered tense back in Israel, but some of Rivlin words at the JW Marriott could have just as easily came from Netanyahu. Rivlin mentioned the current threats facing Israel and Jews around the world, including BDS and anti-Semitism in Europe.

However, he did not mention the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. itself. His foreign policy advisor, David Saranga, said during a briefing to journalists prior to the speech, that the situation in U.S. is a very different phenomenon than the that in Europe, and he is sure the Trump administration will handle it. 

Rivlin also discussed Iran, stating that it "is establishing its control through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and up to the Mediterranean. This is not just a threat to Israel, it is a threat to the entire world." Rivlin added that "Iran is the number one exporter of international terrorism.” He struck a similar tone when discussing Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. “The political hijacking of international bodies, from the UN to Interpol, only harms the chance of reaching a solution,” he said. 

“As I said to President Trump during his visit to Israel,” Rivlin concluded, “the world needs a strong United States, Israel needs a strong United States, but the United States also needs a strong Israel.”

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