Reuven Rivlin was elected President of Israel by the Knesset in June 2014. He will complete his seven year term in July 2021. As the head of state, he holds mainly ceremonial powers. His most important role, in practice, is to help lead in the process of forming a government. After an election, he consults with party leaders to determine who is most likely to achieve a majority in the Knesset. He is doing that at this very moment.
Rivlin was born in Jerusalem to a family that had lived in Israel since 1809. His father, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, was a scholar of Arabic language and literature. His political career began in in the Knesset in 1988 as a member of the Likud party. He was a speaker of the Knesset for eight years. In 2015, at the beginning of his term as President, he gave a seminal speech in which he lamented the divisions of Israeli society into four population sectors, or “tribes”—secular Jewish, religious Jewish, ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish, and Arab—each of which had a “totally different outlook regarding the basic values and desired character of the State of Israel.”
In 2015 you described the internal challenges faced by Israel and your vision of four “pillars” to strengthen social cohesion (a feeling of security by each of the disparate parts of Israeli society, shared responsibility for the well-being of the state, equity and equality and a shared sense of “Israeliness”). Do you agree with that vision today?
At the beginning of my presidency, I spoke of a far-reaching transformation in Israeli society. I said that it was neither trivial nor was it something we could avoid. But I also noted that we should be wary of speaking in apocalyptic terms, or of casually referring to one group or another in our society as a danger.
The simple truth is that we have gone from being a society in which a sizeable majority of Israelis are both Zionist and secular to one in which we have four main groups of relatively equal size. This is what I referred to as the “four tribes” of Israel, a society comprising religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, each living largely separate lives. When I spoke of this in 2015, I called for an honest evaluation of the situation: “We need to look bravely at this reality…out of a deep commitment to find the answers to these questions, out of a readiness to draw together all the tribes of Israel, with a shared vision of Israeli hope.”
Since then, we have turned that “vision of Israeli hope” into Israeli Hope, or in Hebrew Tikvah Israelit, the flagship program of my term in office and our response to the challenges that we face in this new reality. Tikvah Israelit works in five key areas—schools, academia, sports, local government and employment—to bring the four tribes of Israeli society together in meaningful and constructive partnership.
Creating partnership between communities who have been largely separate from each other is a process that requires time and patience. Each group needs to know that its fundamental identity is not under threat, but that it will be protected and valued as part of the broader fabric of society. Only if our own identity is secure can we reach out to others and get to know them. I believe, too, that shared responsibility remains a key element of this new view of Israeli civic society. If we are all partners, we all bear responsibility for the success and the future of the country—our country. No one group is more or less responsible for ensuring our safety and security, no one group is more or less responsible for ensuring our economic resilience, no one group is more or less responsible for setting and maintaining the moral or ethical standards we aspire to, or the cultural and ethnic sources we draw from.
But we still face significant barriers to such partnership. Unless and until we address the question of equality, Israeli society will continue to be divided. Over the course of my own lifetime—I was born ten years before the State of Israel was established—we have created a state that is nothing less than a miracle. We can rightly be proud of our status as a world leader in technology and innovation, with outstanding achievements that truly make the world a better place. But we must not let that blind us to another reality, in which structural gaps, whether in budgets, infrastructures or allocation of land, between some Israelis and others are significant and persistent. Only when the aspirations and talents of every young Israeli are allowed to determine the course of their lives, not their ethnic or social origins, can we build a shared future.
The result of this process is not just the end of sectarianism, although that would be reward enough. We must aspire to more—to forge a new Israeliness of diversity and cultural richness, of partnership and shared responsibility, where our differences inspire our humanity and sensitivity. If we truly believe that we were not doomed to live together, but rather destined to do so, I believe we can make this vision a reality.
Each group needs to know that its fundamental identity is not under threat, but that it will be protected and valued as part of the broader fabric of society. Only if our own identity is secure can we reach out to others and get to know them. I believe, too, that shared responsibility remains a key element of this new view of Israeli civic society.
Do you think that these four “pillars” apply worldwide; are they universal? Are there lessons that can be learned?
Israel is not unique in addressing the questions of social resilience and cohesion. All over the world, countries are dealing with the polarization and radicalization of political and social discourse, and struggling to find a national identity that is inclusive and diverse and still maintains a distinctive flavor of its own.
But as a global people, we face an additional challenge. The State of Israel is home, and always will be home, to every Jewish person. We are one people, and the global Jewish community is a full partner in the most daring enterprise in our history—the establishment of our sovereign, independent, Jewish and democratic state. The global Jewish community is with Israel in its times of joy and of crisis. We share dreams and we address tough realities together. The challenge is to put that relationship beyond any argument or disagreement, to recognize differences, to understand alternative perspectives and to be strengthened by them. As the four tribes of Israeli society face the challenges of creating social cohesion, we look to the fifth tribe—the global Jewish community—as full partners.
Has Israel advanced toward your stated goals since 2015 or has it regressed? How have the attitudes and actions of each of the “four tribes” changed? How can schooling be reconfigured to encourage a deeper commitment to community?
What began as a description of the new reality facing Israeli society has become a vibrant program of work that is delivering real change. One example is Israeli Hope in Education, one of the five areas of work undertaken by the Office of the President to bridge the gaps between the four tribes. Our pilot program has already brought together close to 1,000 teachers from the religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab school systems on a three-day journey. The program allows them to gain and deepen their knowledge about each sector, to explore the areas of sensitivity and cultural strengths of the different groups, and to develop the tools for education towards a shared society. The success of this pilot has led to its adoption by the Ministry of Education, which will now take 1,500 educators each year through this process, creating real and sustained change in our education system by connecting Israelis from across our society with each other.
We are also working with the next generation of Israel’s teachers, encouraging those in teacher training to work in a school system different from the one they were educated in, and giving them the tools and cultural competency to do so successfully. If the teachers’ lounges in our schools are more diverse, we send a strong message to the next generation of Israelis that our diverse society is a source of strength and pride.
Is there an example or a personal experience you have had that illustrates how to build community in today’s world?
Over the last seven years, there have been countless moments that have filled me with pride and hope for the future of our country. The Open Sukkah event at Beit HaNasi, where all are invited to celebrate together, shows the amazing diversity of our society. The gardening club established in the grounds by my late wife Nechama brought local schoolchildren to plant and grow things and to learn to appreciate our wonderful nature.
But perhaps the most tangible example of community building that comes to mind is the work done by Tikvah Israelit. In the field of education, we have pioneered programs that bring together teachers to break down the barriers between us. One group includes Sarit, an ultra-Orthodox mother of eight who teaches in a secular school; Ya’ara, from the national-religious community who teaches in an Arab school; Sahar from the Israeli-Arab town of Tira who teaches in Petah Tikva; and Guy from Haifa who teaches Hebrew to kids in Sakhnin whose first language is Arabic. According to Sarit, “The differences between us are only external. I wear a long skirt and the other teachers wear pants. But I had to learn a new language—secular. I feel like a bridge.” Sahar, who teaches mathematics to Jewish kids, is often the first Arab they have ever met. When teachers and students meet each other, the part of society they come from is a background detail. It remains important, but it is not their whole identity. The same is true across the different fields of Israeli Hope—sports, academia, local government and employment. This is how we can build community, by finding meaningful ways to get to know each other, to live alongside each other and to appreciate each other’s unique characteristics.
Finally, I would like to add some words to world’s Jewry. Early last year, we hosted an historic gathering of some 50 global leaders to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This solemn occasion, the largest of its kind in our history, was an opportunity to stand together, here in Jerusalem, and pledge to work for Holocaust remembrance and education for future generations, strengthening our bonds of commitment to stand up to anti-Semitism, racism and hatred of all kinds.
The State of Israel was, and will always be, the home of every Jew: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, traditional, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. We are all one people, and Israel is dear to all of us. Israel is the most daring enterprise in the history of the Jewish People, and we are full partners—not only in the establishment of Israel, but also in its development. All Jews are true stakeholders in this wonder called Israel. You stand beside us at times of crisis and joy. You dream with us. You challenge us. You help keep us strong. And we are strong. This cannot be taken for granted. and I thank you for this sense of family and for your unconditional support and love.
Opening image: President Reuven Rivlin meets with leaders of Roman Catholic faith from England, September 2015. Credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org via Flickr