Five days before the Israeli elections, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, was focused on a topic that it’s safe to say is nearer to his heart: Israeli soccer. The president, a former chairman of the Beitar Jerusalem team — known for its virulently anti-Arab fans — had just unveiled a prize to fight bigotry in soccer fan clubs, the latest initiative against racism during his 8-month-old tenure.
At the press conference, a reporter sneaked in a question about the upcoming vote: Would Israel indeed have a new government in a month? “It’s not up to me,” the president replied before his spokeswoman cut him off. “But we need one as soon as possible.”
In fact, it is up to Rivlin, at least in part. In the coming days, Rivlin will be tasked with selecting Israel’s prime minister, the most important role in the largely ceremonial presidential post. He will make his decision after meeting with each party to ask whom it trusts to do the job.
“This is the ABC of Israel’s constitutional tradition, and there will be no surprises, even though I’ve been known to surprise” he told the Haaretz Democracy Conference in Tel Aviv in February.
Rivlin has indeed already surprised the Israeli public. A lifelong Likudnik who has opposed the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rivlin has emerged as Israel’s most prominent critic of racism against Arabs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime adversary, opposed Rivlin’s bid for the presidency. But the 75-year-old vegetarian, known for his sense of humor and humility, had broad support in the Knesset, including from the nationalist right and the Arab left.
One of Rivlin’s early acts in office was to attend the annual memorial ceremony for the Kafr Qasim massacre in 1956, when the Israeli border police killed 48 Arab civilians. “A serious crime was committed here and needs to be repaired,” Rivlin said. Arabs, he stressed, “will always be part of the flesh and blood of the State of Israel.”
“All of these efforts are, on the one hand, symbols, but on the other hand, they send a very strong message to the Israeli Arab community: You are part of us,” said his senior foreign affairs adviser, David Saranga. “The burden is on us to build the bridges to you.” Rivlin declined to be interviewed for this article because of his schedule ahead of the elections.
Those who know Rivlin well say that his outreach to Arab citizens is informed by his father, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, a scholar who was fluent in Arabic and translated the Quran and “1,001 Nights” into Hebrew. His ancestors were among the first Ashkenazi Jews to arrive in Palestine, emigrating from Vilnius, Lithuania, in the 1800s. As family lore has it, they were encouraged to emigrate by the famed Lithuanian talmudist and kabbalist the Vilna Gaon, a distant relative. Hillel Rivlin, one of the Vilna Gaon’s students, led a convoy that arrived in the port of Akko in 1809. Eventually, the family made its way to Jerusalem, where it established one of the first Jewish neighborhoods outside of the Old City.
Rivlin was born in Jerusalem in 1939, nine years before Israel was declared a state. He grew up in the Rechavia neighborhood, where his mother, a community activist, hosted massive family Seders for Passover. According to Rivlin’s cousin, Iko Meshoulam, Yosef Yoel Rivlin was close with Jerusalem’s Palestinian nobility. One family story has it that his Palestinian friends offered to hide the family should the German forces take the Holy Land in World War II. “It has remained as a kind of folklore within the family. It must have had some effect on Ruvi,” Meshoulam said, using Rivlin’s nickname.
Rivlin entered the Knesset in 1988, and served on and off for 15 years before becoming Knesset speaker in 2003. In a moment that perhaps best predicted Rivlin’s presidential style, he stood against a massive call to revoke the parliamentary immunity of Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi in 2010 for her activism in the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla. “I believe that everyone should have the right to speak their minds, even if what they say hurts me,” said Rivlin.
As a lawmaker, Rivlin was notoriously antagonistic to Reform Judaism, refusing to call Reform rabbis by their title. In 1989, after a visit to Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in New Jersey, he told a reporter from Yediot Aharonot that he felt as though he were in a church. “This is idol worship and not Judaism,” he said. In 2000, Rivlin was one of the only secular politicians to support a bill — that ultimately failed — to punish women who wear Jewish prayer shawls with a seven-year prison sentence. After that, Rivlin’s cousin, the American-Israeli feminist Lilly Rivlin, stopped speaking to him for a number of years. “We made sulcha [reconciled] several years ago,” she wrote in an email to the Forward. “Life is short.”
As president, Rivlin has made amends with Reform leaders. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he met with Rivlin in Jerusalem early on in his presidency, but left feeling uncertain as to whether the president would shift his position. When Jacobs returned to the United States he received a phone call from Rivlin, who referred to him first as “Rabbi” and then as “Rav,” a title of deep respect in Israel. “I was skeptical and I was unsure,” Jacobs said. “I am now convinced that he has not just a verbal commitment, but a genuine commitment to lead on behalf of Israel and to be a force for unity and inclusion in the Jewish world. We are not just talking about cooperating. It is happening. It is real.”
Anat Hoffman, co-founder of Women of the Wall and a leader in Israel’s Reform movement, said she believes that Rivlin will come around to her cause as well. “If everyone acted like the president, we would be in a different place,” she said. “I can’t believe I am saying so many positive things about a Likudnik. But yes, he is the right man in the right place these days.”
Rivlin hasn’t shifted his attitude on Palestinian nationalism. As speaker, he broke with Knesset custom of political neutrality and vociferously opposed the Gaza disengagement. In 2010 he declared the two-state solution dead, saying that he would rather accept Palestinians as Israeli citizens in a Jewish state than partition the land.
According to Saranga, Rivlin’s view is based in part on the notion that Palestinians are not ready to accept a “state minus,” without an army or an airport. “He believes that in the future, after building confidence between the two nations, the Israelis and Palestinians will define which kinds of solutions they want to see,” Saranga said.
For instance, Rivlin called the city Rawabi — the first modern Palestinian municipality in the West Bank — a “clear Israeli and Zionist interest.” Up until recently, Israel had denied a water permit to the city.
But Rivlin is also a staunch settler advocate. On a recent visit to Hebron, a West Bank flashpoint that Palestinians claim as part of their future state, Rivlin said that settlers should dialogue with the Palestinians. Several of Rivlin’s ancestors lived in the city. “Such actions do not hurt or hinder our right to Hebron, a right that was bought during the days of the patriarchs and stands strong to this day.”
Jafar Farah, of the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel said that Israeli Arabs are appreciative of Rivlin’s outreach, but that they hold deep concerns about his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“President Rivlin’s declarations on racism, Price Tag attacks and the killing of Arab citizens and his visit to the family of the victim in Rahat, gained him credibility in the Arab society,” he said in an email to the Forward. “Still his position on the two state solution and peace-building has let the people hesitate in supporting him publicly.”
But Baker Awawdy, head of the Galilee Society, an Arab Israeli group focused on health and environment, felt that Rivlin was being realistic about the two state solution’s prospects given Israel’s settlement program. “He sees that the two state solution is not good enough but he doesn’t provide other options,” he said.
Rivlin has received an online backlash from the right. Activists created a poster of his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, the Palestinian national scarf. His Facebook page was also filled with vitriolic comments; he read them out loud at his first address to the Israeli Parliament, as a way to “hold a mirror” to Israeli society, Saranga said. One of Rivlin’s most quoted lines is from an October address to the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities: “Israel is a sick society, and we must treat the disease.”
Dan Meridor a childhood friend and former Likud Knesset member, is not surprised by Rivlin’s dual identity as a hard-right civil rights crusader. “He is what I always thought he would be,” he said. “People on the right wing, so to speak, ‘cannot be human.’ But he is very human.”
Now, Rivlin is faced with a task that some might call super-human: choosing the prime minister who can create a functioning government out of Israel’s electoral mess.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at email@example.com or on Twitter @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.