After what seemed like endless haggling, much of it public and not at all mediagenic, Israel’s Knesset has elected Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin to be the tenth President of the State of Israel.
Considering that Israel’s presidency is a ceremonial position without any real political power, the process leading up to Rivlin’s election was altogether strikingly and blatantly political. Though a long-time leader within the Likud Party and a former Speaker of the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu, also of the Likud, was not at all in favor of Rivlin’s election, and tried mightily to find an acceptable alternate candidate. He even went so far as to try and convince Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel to accept the position. Though surely he would have commanded the respect of both Israel and the world, Dr. Wiesel, who is not even a citizen of Israel, was quoted as having responded, “I should be the President of the State? Nu, be’emet…” Rough translation: “Come on, really?” And even after the search for alternate candidates was abandoned, other candidates from within Israel remained and Rivlin still did not win on the first ballot. He won on the second ballot, but the vote for him was not overwhelming.
Israel is, blessedly, a democracy, and we know well from our own country how very messy democracies and their processes can be. Rivlin is the duly elected President of the State of Israel, and as such, I am obliged to honor him as I would any other President of the state. I had the chance to address immediate past President Shimon Peres last summer when he welcomed the Rabbinical Assembly to his official residence on Jabotinsky Street in Jerusalem, and it was one of the great honors and thrills of my life. If Rivlin were to invite me or my rabbinic organization to his residence, I would be honored to go.
But I don’t think he’s inclined to do that anytime soon. President Rivlin enjoys a reputation as a warm and friendly man who respects those with whom he differs on matters political. But when it comes to the religious world, he is – though secular in his personal practice – most decidedly not a pluralist. Like so many Israelis, an Orthodox synagogue is the synagogue he chooses not to go to. He is a direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, but not in practice. When he visited a Reform congregation some time ago, he referred afterwards to Reform Judaism as “idol worship.” Though a Conservative rabbi and not a Reform one, that comment offends me no less that my Reform colleagues. It is incomprehensibly impolitic, if not downright crude and ignorant.
And then there’s the matter that the new President is quite on record as being opposed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which places him at odds not only with the sitting Prime Minister (at least according to what Prime Minister Netanyahu claims to support), but also the great majority of Diaspora Jewry and much of Israel as well.
So if you’ll indulge me in a bit of thinking out loud, I can’t help wondering to myself … Israel is so concerned about the alienation of Diaspora Judaism that it is about to sink hundreds of millions of shekels into a major new outreach initiative. The government has, in fits and starts, devoted much of its time over the past two years to trying to resolve the issue of who can pray where and when at the Kotel. Diaspora Judaism has been called upon not only to continue its financial support of Israel, but also to fight the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement with all of its might and energy. Shimon Peres distinguished himself so gloriously as a world-class statesman during his presidency. All of these beg the question: What was Israel thinking, electing Rivlin? What were they thinking?
Really … Does the Knesset want the ceremonial public face of Israel to be a man who has shown such contempt for the spiritual inclinations of the great majority of American Jews? Is it possible that they are so tone-deaf and clueless about the Jewish world outside of Israel that they wouldn’t know how contemptuous a choice this appears to be? Or even worse – is it possible that they do know, and do understand, and just don’t care?
Abba Eban famously said of the Palestinians that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Were he alive today, I’m afraid that he might be tempted to say the same thing about Israel.
Congratulations, President Rivlin. May your new office broaden your horizons, so that your service as president of the country that you so love will bring blessings to Israel, and to all of world Jewry.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.