Opinion

As Rivlin Mourns the Love of His Life, Liberal Israelis Pray He Retains the Strength She Gave Him to Confront Netanyahu

Nechama Rivlin’s graceful tenure as first lady stood in stark contrast to the pathetically pretentious airs of the prime minister’s faux-royal family

Nechama and Reuven Rivlin, in Spain, November 2017.
Haim Tzach / GPO

Reuven Rivlin’s personal grief over the death of his wife Nechama is truly fathomable for just a part of the Israeli public, mostly older. Only someone who has felt the loss of his or her closest and dearest - cherished parents, beloved offspring or devoted spouse - can conjure the excruciating pain of loss, which never goes away. Rivlin is bound to be inundated with many thousands of condolences, but he will never find consolation - “nechama” in Hebrew.

Rivlin, however, isn’t just a bereaved individual; he is the president of Israel. His Nechama, though she probably abhorred the title, was our first lady.

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Formally, her passing is like a death in the wider “family” that is Israel; the grief is undoubtedly shared by one and all, with the despicable exception of depraved right-wing zealots who publicly wished for her to die.

Ironically, while Nechama Rivlin was known for cherishing her privacy, avoiding the limelight and symbolizing the values of the Good Old Israel, she died in an era of a sensationalist and intrusive press and all-pervasive social media, a time in which the personal is on full public display and the mourning is more intense and collective than ever before.

This was true, with all the stark differences, of the global outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana 22 years ago. The human obsession with the British monarchy, the suspicious circumstances of the Paris car crash in which she died and the tragic romance/soap opera that was her life were certainly prime factors in sparking unprecedented and worldwide mourning for Diana.

Looking back, however, sociological studies found that many of those who felt a personal loss at Diana’s death were most devastated by the symbolism of a beautiful princess cut down in her prime. Her mystical world of good was sullied and tarnished forever. In this regard, Nechama is a princess too.

The sublime union between Reuven and Nechama, a merger of opposites between his exuberant and extroverted personality and her fiery yet subdued artistic passions, was an ode to love itself. The budding romance that led to marriage almost half a century ago was augmented with a deep and caring friendship that sparked envy among married couples everywhere. If Huey Lewis and the News asked in one of their first great hits “Do You Believe in Love?” the Rivlins showed that the only possible response was a proud and presidential “Yes!”

Given that during his five years as President, Rivlin has emerged as the standard-bearer of honesty, integrity, love of fellow man and woman - including Israeli Arabs - as well as selfless devotion to the state, the grief over the death of his life partner is stronger among those who cherish such values and who fear they’re being trampled.

Together with her husband, Nechama Rivlin’s years in the president’s residence in Jerusalem broadcast modesty, propriety and sincere concern for the underprivileged. Those traits shined ever brighter because of their stark contrast with the vulgar pretentiousness of the self-anointed royal couple living in the prime minister’s residence not far away, which only made the Netanyahus hate the Rivlins even more.

Nechama was the solid rock that the President leaned on to avoid the ill fate of so many of his Likud colleagues. Instead of going down in history as yet another hopelessly naive revisionist old-timer nonchalantly sidelined by Netanyahu, Rivlin drew strength from his Nechama to preach for Israel’s increasingly besieged values of decency and democracy.

With Nechama by his side, Rivlin was the beleaguered Dutch boy made famous in U.S. novelist Mary Mapes Dodge’s 1865 best-seller, “Hans Brinker”, frantically trying to stick his fingers into the increasingly numerous holes that Netanyahu is drilling in the dilapidated dike that safeguards Israel’s once cherished liberal values.

Inspired, no doubt, by his partner’s brave endurance of her chronic and debilitating lung disease, Rivlin found his inner steel. He became a one-man resistance movement to Netanyahu’s divisive incitement and anti-democratic impulses without crossing any of the red lines that come with his largely ceremonial role. Empathy with the president’s personal pain is thus accompanied by practical concern that he will be overwhelmed, overpowered and ultimately paralyzed by the grief over his wife’s death.

Many will regret squandering the opportunity to acquaint themselves better with Nechama Rivlin and her stellar qualities during her lifetime. Her death will be necessarily be seen as an omen of bad things to come.

Her passing encapsulates the opening line of a beautiful Hebrew song poignantly performed by singer Chava Alberstein, “One Human Tissue”, whose title can also be translated as “One Human Tapestry”, which, needless to say, Nechama graced and elevated by her very presence: “With her death, something in us has died as well.”