Meeting with the President

Yesterday our group met with President Reuben Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem. A life-long voice of the right, promoting a single, Jewish state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, Rivlin has agitated the members of his former Likud party by reaching out to Israel’s Palestinian citizens and condemning the “sick” racism very obviously present in Israeli society. (For a terrific analysis of Rivlin and the context he is acting in, read David Remnick’s essay in the November 17 issue of the New Yorker.)

Pres. Rivlin (rt.), meeting with Harold Shapiro (left) & PPI Symposium
Rivlin knew who we were–that we support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–and immediately began with his disagreement with that vision. He started by targeting our liberal hearts: “The two-state solution is a racist solution,” he said. Because we want to separate Jews from most Arabs (in two states), he contends that we are promoting a solution that is destined to inflame ethno-religious violence.

I’ve heard this argument before from supporters of a one-state solution, but usually this is meant to deflect from the proponent’s own hatred of Arabs. This is not the case with Rivlin; he staunchly supports complete civil rights and equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, including those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He forces us to confront a common component of the two- states-for-two-peoples position, which bases Israel’s Jewish character upon a majority Jewish population. He claims we seek a democracy for Jews, not a Jewish and democratic state.

The problem with Rivlin’s vision is, despite his very real support for civil rights, that he eschews an important human right: the right of every nation to self-determination. The Palestinians have the right to a state that celebrates its language, culture and history, all of which are different from that of (most) Israelis. Israelis too are entitled to that right. And Hebrew language, culture and history define its Jewish character far more than a majority Jewish population. Having ethnic majorities in each state may be a natural result of the two-state solution (and perhaps evidence of its success). But ethnic majorities as a prerequisite of statehood is racist, and Rivlin is wrong to assume that we believe that.
For all our political disagreements, President Rivlin has so far in his short tenure made himself a hero of the state. His position as the symbolic leader of Israel makes his statements about racism here a dire indictment of Israel’s direction. He is no longer a politician promoting policies to create a single Jewish state, thereby killing the two-state solution. His is a position that can only affect Israeli society. So far, at this tumultuous time, his use of the presidency has been the greatest expression of liberalism in Israel in a a long time.

Nathan Hersh
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