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A President for Israel and a Leader of the Entire Jewish People

Charles Bronfman
Jeffrey Solomon
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President Reuven Rivlin during the Eid al-Fitr feast in the presidential residence in Jerusalem, last month.
President Reuven Rivlin during the Eid al-Fitr feast in the presidential residence in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Emil Salman
Charles Bronfman
Jeffrey Solomon

One of the most consequential decisions affecting the future of World Jewry is also one of the least discussed during these days of war, political tumult and pandemic: the June 2 Knesset election of Israel’s 11th president.

President Reuven Rivlin’s term, which ends July 9, has set a new benchmark for how Beit Hanassi (the President’s Residence) can serve as a force multiplier for global Jewish solidarity. It will be up to Rivlin’s successor to build upon and not squander this legacy, which is why the Knesset should take into account Diaspora considerations.

First, unburdened by the horse-trading, fractiousness and coalition politics of the Knesset, Israel’s presidency is more autonomous and has the latitude and flexibility to act in ways that can smooth over rough patches that develop from time to time between the Government of Israel and Jewish communities outside Israel.

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Second, beyond its ability to serve as a salve, Israel’s presidency also fills a structural gap which has long left world Jewry without reliable and effective representation inside the Jewish state. Opinion surveys have shown for decades that Jews in Israel share a sense of “common destiny” with Jews worldwide, yet Israel’s electoral system affords precious few opportunities to reflect these sentiments in policy and legislation.

Third, the “Rivlin precedent” is another reason why world Jewry should be a consideration when the Knesset makes its choice. Rivlin’s affirmations of diversity and inclusivity, his earnest appeals for unity, his rejection of bigotry and division, and the bridges he built with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders earned Israel greater respect and admiration across the Diaspora. Rivlin even extended his signature “hope” initiative that sought to increase social cohesion among Israel’s “four tribes” to the Jewish Diaspora, which he termed Israel’s “fifth tribe.”

Fourth, there is mounting evidence that Israelis themselves are more interested in the Jewish world than ever before. From the “consultation” bill introduced by former lawmaker Tehila Friedman and endorsed by outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich, to the introduction of Jewish peoplehood curricula in Israeli schools; from inclusion of the Diaspora in public ceremonies like Independence Day to recommendations of leading think tanks like the Institute for National Security Studies, there is a yearning in Israel that needs a guiding light.

For their part, Diaspora communities must gear up to be prepared to respond to a more engaged Beit Hanassi. For example, Jewish communities can do more to represent themselves effectively.

We do not need to wait for another John Foster Dulles – whose State Department in the 1950s encouraged the formation of the Conference of Presidents – to decide how we should organize ourselves. The Claims Conference, set up in the 1950s to dispense reparations and support for Holocaust victims, is a good, albeit complicated model of how Israel and world Jewry can build and manage institutions jointly.

For our part, we are supporting Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, a new coalition whose vision is to ensure the Jewish people remain a dynamic, diverse, global community that is united, secure and inclusive. We are investing in education. Our expanding coalition, and many others that crisscross the Jewish world, are waiting to partner with Rivlin’s successor to heal the rifts that divide us.

Once selected, Israel’s next president can draw upon this widening circle of allies.

Through convenings, visits, dialogues and public ceremonies, Beit Hanassi has almost limitless ability to promote Jewish peoplehood and ease tensions that beset the Israel-Diaspora alliance, Israel’s most long-standing union.

One need not go back so far in our own history to appreciate that when working together, whether to secure rights for Soviet Jewry, defend Israel’s legitimacy, bolster its security, or assist the exodus of Ethiopian Jews, we can accomplish extraordinary feats.

This alliance is a core Israeli national interest, and one that is all the more urgent given fissures revealed by the Gaza war and demographic and social shifts in leading Diaspora communities like the United States. Take, for example, the latest Pew survey, which revealed only a paltry one-third of American Jews under 30 believe “caring” about Israel is “essential to being Jewish,” significantly lower than other Jewish adults.

Israel’s next president, whoever he or she may be, has an extraordinary opportunity to reinforce and deepen the Jewish people’s connection to the Jewish state. This should not be forgotten when the Knesset convenes.

The next president of Israel is about to be chosen. God willing, may the choice also be a leader of the entire Jewish people.

Charles Bronfman is a philanthropist, Jewish community leader, founder of Israel’s Keren Karev and a co-founder of Birthright/Taglit. Jeffrey Solomon, the former president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, currently serves as a senior advisor to Chasbro, the family office of Charles Bronfman.

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