Opinion

Intervention Against Apartheid Law Casts Rivlin as Brave Gatekeeper of Israeli Democracy and Morality

Once considered a loser and a clown, the Israeli president has become the arch-nemesis of Netanyahu and his domineering nationalistic coalition

Netanyahu and Rivlin at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of the Yitzhak Rabin, 2015.
Debbie Hill/AP

Let’s start with full disclosure: I like President Rivlin. I’ve always liked him, even when he was under investigation for corruption, even though he was an ardent fan of the arguably racist Beitar Jerusalem football club and even when I found his political views abhorrent. Rivlin is the Real McCoy, salt of the earth, a born and bred Jerusalemite, modest family man, man of the people and true believer in Jabotinsky-style grandeur. For years he was seen as a habitual loser, but unlike Shimon Peres, he didn’t allow his grievances to get the best of him. His humor saved him from dejection.

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Rivlin’s tendency to joke about everything, including himself, often made him seem like a clown. “A lot of people think I’m a fool,” he conceded after being elected for the second time as Speaker of the Knesset in 2009. Since then, however, and especially since assuming the presidency in 2014, Rivlin has proven that he is made of sterner stuff. Consistently and persistently, Rivlin has exhibited the kind of civic courage that has made him into the guardian of the gates of the Israeli state and its institutions.

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Rivlin has fiercely defended the Supreme Court, the rule of law, the Israeli army, the civil service and its gatekeepers, free speech and an independent media. He has stood against racism, Jewish terror and discrimination of Israel’s LGBT community. Last year, from the podium of the Knesset, he railed against the tyranny of the majority and the politicization of Israel’s most basic values. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s Arab minority, as he had from his first days as a parliamentarian. He has lobbied on behalf of Reform and Conservative Jews, a position in sharp contrast with his approach before becoming president.

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Rivlin knew full well that he would come under fierce attack from right wing loons and their parliamentary representatives after his dramatic intervention on Tuesday against legislation of the so-called Nation-State Law. The last time he expressed opposition to the law a few years ago, Rivlin was branded an anti-Semite and photoshopped in a Nazi uniform. On Tuesday, within minutes of the publication of his letter to the Knesset committee in charge of the Nation-State Law, Twitter erupted with a stream of expletives, including demagogue, charlatan, crook, Jew-hater and prisoner of the left, and these are just the descriptions that are fit to print. Right wing legislators, caught with their pants down, followed in the footsteps of the trolls.

It’s hard to understand how a right-wing coalition that wages eternal war against BDS and its activists is undeterred by the proposed Nation-State Law clause that would allow Jewish local councils to legally exclude Arabs, given the probability that it will provide a justifiable pretext to accuse Israel of apartheid. Even the more moderate members of the coalition are capitulating to the ugly tide of nationalism that is sweeping some parts of the Israeli public and bowing their heads to Netanyahu’s cynical, rabble-rousing machinations.

Rivlin, on the other hand, did not falter. He has done his best to fill the moral vacuum in Israel’s top echelons and he has deployed the prestige of his presidency as a wall against the black hole that sucks in Israeli politicians and destroys their integrity. As the Jewish sages prescribed, in a place where there are no people, Rivlin stands alone.

He’s the same Rivlin as before, only different. The Israeli maxim “things you see from here you don’t see from there” is certainly valid for the vantage point from the president’s house. And it’s probably true that his resentment of Netanyahu, who did his worst to try and prevent Rivlin’s selection as president, has only grown in the intervening years. But above all, and notwithstanding the valid claim that he has often deviated from the limitations of his office, Rivlin adheres to his oath to protect and defend the State of Israel and its laws.

For this reason, Rivlin and his reputation have become the number one nemesis of Netanyahu and his overbearing coalition, as the frustrated King Henry VIII told Sir Thomas More, who refused to bend his conscience to the King’s will. “Why does your grace need my support?”, More asked in A Man for All Seasons. “Because you’re honest,” the King replied, “and what’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest.”