Will the Real Reuven Rivlin Please Stand Up?

Does Israel’s president want to work with Jewish leaders abroad to seek coexistence and tolerance at home, or is he more interested in rejecting non-Orthodox Jews?

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a memorial ceremony at Kafr Qasem on October 26, 2014.Credit: AFP
Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

Earlier this month, two aspects of President Reuven Rivlin’s presidency clashed head on.

On the one hand, his speech at the Herzliya Conference, in which he set out a social and political agenda for Israel in the coming years that seeks to integrate its diverse, fragmented communities into a holistic vision of pluralistic Israeliness with “a shared civil language, a shared ethos,” was immediately proclaimed a classic.

Since becoming president, Rivlin has made several similar pleas for coexistence and tolerance: At last October’s Kfar Qasem memorial service; with a young boy from Jaffa who was being bullied at school; and with students and teachers from Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish Hand in Hand school following a suspected arson attack.

On the other hand, on the same day as the speech in Herzliya, a public letter to Rivlin from leaders of the Conservative movement around the world attacked him for reneging on an agreement to allow a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for disabled children that was supposed to be jointly run by a Conservative rabbi and an Orthodox one to go ahead at the President’s Residence. “Is it fathomable,” the letter asks, “that the Official Residence of the President of the State of Israel cannot be considered a house of prayer for all Jews?”

Will the real Reuven Rivlin please stand up?

Is this a president who brings communities together, who has a vision to save Israel from disintegrating into fragmented sectors and tribes, who seeks to create a civil society that enables secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian Israelis to feel connected to a shared vision of pluralistic Israeliness? Or is this a president who still refuses to fully recognize non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, who subscribes to a regressive, “the synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox” type of Jewish identity whose time we thought had passed?

The answer might be that he’s both. But that schizophrenia will be destructive both to his own agenda and to that of American Jews.

I would urge Rivlin to reconsider his stance on the Conservative and Reform movements, not just because that is the correct thing to do, but also because this blurring of his public image threatens his agenda on shared society in Israel – and that agenda is too important to be derailed.

The Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and in the American Jewish community can be Rivlin’s natural partner in his shared social agenda, and a significant supporter of it. If these Jews could feel inspired by this presidential agenda, that would have major implications not just in terms of philanthropic support for the kinds of projects it will require, but also in terms of the kind of thinking that is needed to frame the agenda Jewishly.

The shared society agenda must be rooted in a profound Jewish religious framework if it’s to capture the mainstream Israeli imagination. The American Jewish community has developed Jewish language and experience for ideas like pluralism, engagement with other cultures and religions, and respectful dialogue with the other. If Rivlin’s relationship with non-Orthodox Jews gets bogged down in this kind of delegitimization row, then his chances of co-opting their financial and ideological support for his shared society agenda will be greatly diminished.

Meanwhile, American Jews might have to adopt more Israeli-style tactics to get Rivlin and others to understand just how important the religious equality issue is to their relationship with Israel. If the signatories of the letter criticizing Rivlin’s conduct on the joint bar mitzvah were to come to Israel, each with a few colleagues or congregants, perhaps they could join up with an equivalent number of colleagues from the Masorti movement here in Israel, pitch a tent outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem and stop traffic for a few hours. Bringing Israeli media attention to the issue would change the situation overnight.

For better or for worse, that is the way change happens in Israeli society. We saw it with the social protests a few years ago, we saw it last month with the Ethiopian community, and we’ve seen it countless other times over the years. In Israel, if you want policies to change, you need to make noise in public.

And just as Rivlin’s shared society agenda is too important to be derailed by rows with American Jewry, so too the demand for equality for non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel is too important to be ignored because American Jews are too polite to place the issue squarely in the face of the Israeli mainstream.

The need for a shared society and the need for religious equality are both hugely important issues for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. There’s no reason these two needs should be at odds with each other. If American Jews and Israel’s president can resolve the religious equality issue, then there’s every chance they could forge a powerful and wonderful alliance around the shared society agenda.

Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of “Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism.” The views expressed in this article are his own.

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