The Jerusalem Post
Rivlin’s legacy: More than just the ceremonies
President Reuven Rivlin did not run short of reading material last weekend.
Most Hebrew media ran news and feature items about his legacy, the mutual antipathy between him and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his meetings during his presidency with three US presidents, his diplomatic missions and his close relations with the army, police, Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) – and of course his flagship project of uniting disparate sectors of the population in what he called the four tribes – adding Diaspora Jewry as a fifth. So the question remains – what will Rivlin be remembered for? Like almost everything else, it depends on whom you might ask. Will he be remembered for something he said or something he did?
Almost from day one, Rivlin has mouthed two mantras, the first regarding the Palestinians, about whom he has said countless times: “We are not doomed to live together. We are destined to live together.”
Indeed, he has spoken at least once a month to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to accept this concept as a principle for peace, and to embark on confidence-building measures. Unlike his calls to world
leaders, this is technically a local call.
The second mantra, repeated perhaps more than the first, is that “there is no contradiction between a Jewish and a democratic state – a democratic and a Jewish state”
It is something he has repeated ad infinitum to Israeli, foreign, Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
As for things he has done or has not done: He was the first president to visit Kafr Kassem to apologize for the massacre that had taken place there in 1956 in which 48 Arab civilians, unaware of a curfew, had been killed by border policemen.
When Rivlin came to the village’s memorial ceremony in 2014 in the third month of his presidency, he termed what had happened “a terrible crime.”
Many see this as a turning point in the relations between the state and government and Arab citizens. To some extent it was, but old animosities take a long time to heal, and will continue to take a long time while Arabs are denied housing construction permits, proper infrastructure in their towns and villages, improved educational facilities, job opportunities and the possibility to live in mainstream neighborhoods.
When there is seamless demographic integration – which is something Rivlin has been aiming for – peace will have a chance.
Rivlin also urged major companies to make jobs available to Arabs and Druze who have hi-tech qualifications, but had often been denied the opportunity.
As for something he didn’t do: In April 2021, Rivlin, for a number of reasons, was reluctant to task Netanyahu with forming a government. And when he had no choice, rather than have Netanyahu come to him, he signed a letter that his director-general Harel Toubi delivered by hand – because Rivlin simply did not want to do something that went against his conscience, even though it was permissible by law.
Immediately following the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, Rivlin in a highly controversial break with tradition, did not stay around for the photograph with party leaders and the president of the Supreme Court, because he did not want to be photographed sitting next to Netanyahu. When everyone else was seated, and people began looking for Rivlin, he was already out of the Knesset.
Although their mutual loathing of each other was wellknown, the two behaved with statesmanlike correctness toward each other in public, and in private, cooperated on matters affecting Israel’s security.
Before going on state visits abroad, Rivlin was frequently briefed by Netanyahu as well as Foreign Ministry personnel, and when necessary, by the Mossad.
On the home front he was a great supporter of the LGBT community, as he had been as speaker of the Knesset. He was also a champion of people with special needs, with some of his empathy derived from the illness of his wife, Nechama, who had to take a small oxygen concentrator with her wherever she went.
Husband and wife had a very special relationship, and very often, when they sat together at some official event, whether it was at the President’s Residence or elsewhere, they would hold hands and she would run her thumb around his hand. He would often say that he was married to the woman who was married to the president of Israel.
He also referred to her as the first lady, even though there is no such official title here.
While a leopard may not be able to change its spots, it seems a Rivlin can.
Describing himself as being secular Orthodox, he was raised in a traditional environment and is very much at home in an Orthodox synagogue. He can recite most of the prayers by heart, has no trouble finding the place in a prayer book, and on occasion reads the Torah for whatever congregation he may be visiting.
Prior to becoming president, he had great disdain for the Reform Movement, which he described as “idol worshipers,” and his opinion of Conservative Jews was not much better.
IN AN INTERVIEW with The Jerusalem Post soon after becoming president, he had a slip of the tongue.
He had meant to say when talking of Diaspora Jews: “We are all family.” Instead, he said: “We are all brothers,” and was quoted as having said so – a factor that he found most upsetting, because the relationship was too close for comfort. This may have accounted for his very negative attitude toward journalists, whom he treated as a necessary evil.
For most of his seven years, he hardly ever gave on-record interviews, except to journalists working for foreign publications in countries that Rivlin was about to visit.
In all the articles about him last weekend, there are hardly any direct quotes, because the meetings he held were all off-record, even though most of what he said had been said by him in public more than once.
Following that interview in which he called Diaspora Jews brothers, both the Reform and Conservative movements sent delegations to Israel to meet with the president. This was the beginning of a rapprochement that caused Rivlin to realize that there are many routes to Jewish observance, and to deny any of them is tantamount to contributing to assimilation, which too often leads to the point of no return.
Rivlin developed a very positive relationship with Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as Jews from other streams – emphasized by his regular Bible study groups, whose participants ran the gamut of Jewish identities.
DURING RIVLIN’S seven years, he issued 1,797 pardons, deleted the criminal records of 318 soldiers, paid 932 visits around the country, took 131 overseas trips – of which 33 were state visits in which he had to give several speeches – paid 62 condolence calls to families who had lost loved ones to terrorism and 190 condolence calls to families of fallen IDF soldiers, held 877 diplomatic meetings (out of a total of 5,864 meetings), hosted 866 events, paid 21 visits to hospitals, participated in 115 cultural events, swore in 454 judges, received the diplomatic credentials of 168 ambassadors, entrusted eight candidates with forming a government, bemoaned five elections and established a visitor’s center at the President’s Residence, which has welcomed 130,000 visitors on guided tours. And that’s not all.
As president, Rivlin worked diligently to preserve the character of the state and to safeguard its democracy.
He was so concerned about the harm that was being done to democratic values and principles that he often spoke out in a veiled attack against Netanyahu, whom he perceived as the key danger to the democratic system.
He also spoke out on other issues that he considered to be damaging to the foundations of a Jewish and democratic state, and was often accused by his former right-wing colleagues of having become a leftist.
The Left also found fault with him from time to time, prompting Harel Toubi to say that if Rivlin was being criticized by both the Right and the Left, “he must be doing something right.”
Although Rivlin has said he intends to spend more time with his grandchildren, taking them to soccer matches, the theater and movies, Toubi believes Rivlin will find something to occupy himself that involves working for the public good. He has already had several offers from academic institutions and charity foundations, and it’s only a matter of time before he decides on the next chapter in his life.