It was Shimon Peres who said that pessimists and optimists die in the same way, but live life differently. The president who replaced him proved this year that Peres was right. Who would have guessed, a decade ago, that Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, of all people, would be the source of optimism in Israel of 2015 — a clear voice of sanity amidst the rhetoric of polarization and extremism? Who would have believed, two years ago, that anyone — let alone a right-wing supporter of the Greater Israel and of the right-wing Beitar movement — would succeed in filling the shoes left behind by Peres, who blossomed as president? Yet we find that such pessimism was unfounded. We should have known that Rivlin, who strove his entire life to be Citizen Number One, would find his own way of standing out.
Even the optimists among us did not foresee how often they would look at him and say to themselves, “How lucky we are that he is there.” One voice that is not afraid to look harsh reality in the eyes, and not in order to promote fear but, rather, to offer hope. To remind us where we came from and where we should be headed in order to preserve the integrity of our state, which is undergoing such fundamental change. The speech on the splitting of Israeli society into four tribes that he delivered in June was the roadmap of his presidency. The vision and work plan that he laid out are impressive in their own right, especially considering the essentially symbolic role of the president. His four tribes speech is proof that he does not intend to take the advice of the elder Weizmann, who said the only place Israel’s president should stick his nose is into his handkerchief.
Rivlin offers us a rare opportunity to re-conceive the organization of Israeli society at the root level, to dive into the difficulties, to expose the fissures between the various sectors that live here, and to try and understand what we can do together before rivers of blood — and not just social media vitriol — divide us. In 2018, the distribution of first-grade pupils will be substantively different from that of 20 years ago: about 25% Arab, 22% ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), 15% state-religious school curriculum, and 38% secular state school curriculum. This is a dramatic and thought-provoking, if not worrying, development.
I have to admit that for years I belonged to the Fear Camp. How will these changes affect life during the next generation? How will we find a common denominator when society is divided into tribes with such different sets of values? The struggle over the Military Conscription Law, on the one hand, and the endless rounds of terror and conflict on the other hand, were a just a preview of sorts in this regard. But Rivlin came along and laid the truth out on the table, demanding that we wake up before it is too late. This is how the pie will be divided, he said, whether we want it or not.
Now we need to go back and find the recipe, so as to make it work. Nearly half of today’s first-grade pupils feel no connection to the national anthem. Nearly half of those who will be in first grade in three years will not serve in the IDF. And the other half feel they are collapsing under the burden. That long-sought solution will require compromise on all parts, and it will be hard to find a common denominator to replace the organizational concept of the Zionism that built this country.
The pessimists would give up at this stage, but Rivlin has taught us that it’s better to be optimistic and to join him in his quest for Israel’s new organizational structure. If you ask me, I would probably say that the answer is to be found within the framework of a developing country located in a dangerous region. The workplace would replace the military as a melting pot, and the concept of equality would change — from a right granted by the majority to the minority, to a necessary commodity for minorities who live together and want to ensure that everyone contributes to the economy in accordance with their ability.
These are general concepts, and there is probably no magic formula. Indeed, there is no certainty that we can completely circumvent the nasty struggle and skip straight to the next stage — the stage of understanding and solving. It very much depends on the leadership of each tribe, which will have to demonstrate courage and vision. Nor is there much cause for optimism given what is happening now.
And yet, one leader stood up and issued a wake-up call. He stood up, and he was instantly bombarded by his own tribe, yet he did not fold. This is not a given, especially in a region where nothing is a given. Ruvi Rivlin is the greatest and most pleasant surprise of the past year. From Ruvi we learn that it would be premature to give up now on finding the way forward for Israel.