On December 10, the Center for Middle East Policy (CMEP) at Brookings hosted the President of the State of Israel, His Excellency Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin spoke chiefly on his presidency’s defining agenda to promote coexistence and social cohesion within Israel’s increasingly divided society. The event was sponsored by the Alan and Jane Batkin International Leaders Forum, and was part of CMEP’s ongoing “Imagining Israel’s Future” series. (See, for example, a previous event on “The new politics of religion and gender in Israel“.)
Rivlin’s call to action, titled, “The New Israeli Agenda,” aims to promote civic unity between Israel’s four distinct demographic groupings, or “tribes,” as he calls them: secular, national-religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arab citizens of Israel. To illustrate his point, he presented data on Israel’s four separate educational systems, none of which comprises even 40 percent of first-graders today. In particular, Israel’s secular tribe, the traditional majority group, has dwindled in proportion to the others, such that Israel is becoming a minority-majority society.
Furthermore, two of these tribes, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab-Israelis, do not generally view themselves as part of the Zionist enterprise, changing some of the fundamentals of Israeli national identity. President Rivlin is calling on Israelis to face this reality and to imagine their society less as a melting pot with a dominant identity and more as an inclusive partnership among its tribes.
In his speech, Rivlin further emphasized the need for Jews and Arabs to live together, whatever one’s view of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved. Coexistence and the necessities of daily life, he stressed, cannot wait for an end to the conflict. Jewish-Arab social cohesion within Israel, he added, could serve as a “bridge” to improving relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
An 8th generation Jerusalemite, Rivlin described his family’s past, including its experiences of amiable Arab-Jewish relations. He recounted having advocated for continued municipal services to Arab East Jerusalemites at a time of growing Palestinian nationalist unrest, while serving as deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He echoed this position with respect to the current violence in Jerusalem, decrying the physical and emotional barriers being erected within the city.
Rivlin’s presidency, in contrast to some of his predecessors, is characterized by a look inward toward Israeli society. In his role as president, through numerous speeches and at his address at Brookings, Rivlin has become the leading voice against racism and communal violence, and for a new, bold and inclusive agenda for Israeli society.
The political point is that each side of this conflict has their own narrative about the status of the Gaza Strip and Israel’s role. The argument is not whether this is a border. The argument is whether Israel is occupying Gaza.