Monday, October 27, 2014

Keeping an Eye on Reuven Rivlin

Reuven Rivlin is to Israel what Pope Francis is to the Catholic Church: both are conservative representatives of problematic institutions who are making much needed progressive statements. Whether either of them will be able to effect real change remains to be seen.

Rivlin was elected President of Israel (a largely ceremonial post with a seven year term)  in June 2014. He is a one state guy who believes that Israel should annex the West Bank; he believes, as he must, that Palestinians and Jews should be able to live together.

Rivlin, it strikes me, is a man who realizes that distributing justice, economic privilege, and the rights of citizenship based on ethnic-majority status is a flimsy basis on which to establish a state. In the United States some of the descendants of white European settlers are still struggling to learn this lesson. In Israel, Jews were a minority when the state was established, they are a 75% majority today. But a one state solution will leave the population more or less down the middle. The logic of annexation, the logic of one state, demands that justice, economic privilege, and the rights of citizenship must not be distributed based on ethnic-majority status.

Reuven Rivlin, from what I see and hear, understands this principle.

Earlier this month, Rivlin teamed up with a Palestinian school boy from Jaffa to preach his message of equality and tolerance. The boy, George Amireh, had found success with his own video responding to bullying directed at him. Rivlin picked up on it, teamed up with the boy, and broadened the message and audience. [Click on the "CC" at bottom of video to activate subtitles]

Yesterday, Rivlin again made positive headlines by attending the commemoration of the massacre at Kafr Qassem. Kafr Qassem is an Arab village just north of Tel Aviv, nestled against the Green Line. Like much of Israel's Palestinian population, the village lived under military rule from 1949 to 1966. In 1956, at the outset of the Suez War, military commanders changed the curfew over Arab villages to commence at 5 p.m. (it had been 9 p.m.) Orders were given to shoot anyone violating the curfew. As villagers from Kafr Qassem returned from their fields that day, not yet having been alerted to the curfew change, Israeli para-military border units massacred 49 villagers, nearly half of them children.

For the past 57 years the village has commemorated this tragic event. Rivlin is the first Israeli president to attend the commemoration. He used his visit to make some very positive and much needed statements.

Dahlia Scheindlin at +972 Magazine reports:
"Fifty-eight years later, the president’s visit was a symbolic sign of brotherhood. He said things I have longed to hear, particularly after years of vitriol from Israeli-Jewish political leaders. 
  • "The State of Israel has recognized the crime committed here. And rightly, and justly, has apologized for it. I too, am here today to say a terrible crime was done here… We must understand what occurred here. We must educate future generations about this difficult chapter, and the lessons which we learn from it."
This paragraph is for all intents and purposes an apology. The president’s emphasis on teaching future generations is a change from earlier attempts to hide the state’s crimes. Rivlin’s vision is a step away from the lie of false purity, and calls on Israel to confront its deeds head on. He went on:
  • "I came here today, specifically during these difficult days to reach out my hand, in the belief that your hands are outstretched to me and to the Israeli Jewish public in turn. Friends. I hereby swear, in my name and that of all our descendants, that we will never act against the principle of equal rights, and we will never try and force someone from our land."
This statement pushes the bar from the “is” to the “ought;” it is, for once, a desirable vision for a way forward compared to the ills of the present.  Rivlin then said something rarely heard in Israel from the left or the right: he stated that this is also the homeland of Arab-Palestinians. In so doing, he addressed them not as a fifth column, newcomers or subjects, but as indigenous citizens and equals; as partners, not problems. In a nearly buried sentence, he made their identity part of the nation.
  • "The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who returned to their land after two millennia of exile. This was its very purpose.  However, the State of Israel will also always be the homeland of the Arab population…The Arab population of the State of Israel is not a marginal group in Israeli society. We are talking about a population which is part and parcel of this land, a distinct population, with a shared national identity and culture, which will always be a fundamental component of Israel society… [emphasis Scheindlin]."
And in a slapdown to the far-right, he legitimized the fact that they will not surrender their identity to embrace that of the people who conquered them:
  • "…The Jewish public must understand that the ambition of so many to live alongside a Zionist Arab minority, which proudly sings the Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem), will not, and cannot be realized."
The president even acknowledged some of the most sensitive tensions among Arabs in Israel: their commiseration with Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, racism and the daily scourge of discrimination of resources and opportunities in their own country.
  • "I am aware that the establishment of the State of Israel was not the realization of a dream for the Arabs of this land. Many Israeli Arabs, forming part of the Palestinian people, feel the hurt and suffering of their brothers on the other side of the Green Line. Many of them experience not uncommon manifestations of racism and arrogance on the part of Jews. …We must state plainly — the Israeli Arab population has suffered for years from discrimination in budget allocation, education, infrastructure, and industrial and trade areas. This is another obstacle on the road to building trust between us. A barrier which we must overcome.
These statements are close to perfect-pitch in terms of bold moral leadership, with a vision of an Israel that I can support."
Scheindlin takes exception to Rivlin's adding a reference to the need for the Arab Population in Israel to oppose terrorism.  She finds this curious in light of the fact that there is very little terrorism among Israeli Palestinian citizens. "The implication that citizens of Israel are somehow linked to terror attacks by Palestinians under occupation ... is frankly absurd," she says. "It reinforces the idea that all Palestinians are the same – and all are terrorists." Scheindlin finds this particularly off-key in light of the 2100 killed by the IDF in Operation Protective Edge this past summer. By this logic, she observes correctly "the President should implore Jewish Israelis to condemn the killing of innocents in Gaza." And, of course, he should.

I, like Scheindlin, welcome this positive symbolism. Unlike Scheindlin, I don't criticize Rivlin for urging Palestinian Israelis to oppose terrorism. In light of Rivlin's willingness to extend citizenship to all Palestinians in the West Bank, the president--it's true--does not distinguish between Palestinian citizens of Israel (today) and Palestinians in the West Bank (citizens tomorrow). His challenge to oppose terrorism is directed at the entire Arab population within greater Israel--i.e. to Palestinians in the West Bank included.  It seems to me correct that there must be a popular movement among Palestinians to oppose terrorism if they are to embark jointly with Rivlin on a program of dignity, respect, and equal rights for everyone; this is a necessary pre-condition for one state to become a reality. Somehow, everyone will have to buy into this one state solution if it is to become a reality over this century.

Events have proven that a two state solution will not work. Similarly, Zionism, conceived as a state by and for the Jews, that privileges Jews over non-Jews in all aspects of life, will not work. Expelling non-Jews from the land to leave an ethnically pure state will not work. Palestinians and Jews need a vision to work towards. The dream of Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians (from the Jordan to the sea) working together to build institutions that protect and serve everyone, that don't systemically privilege one group over another in all aspects of life, and that find ways to preserve and protect both Jewish and Palestinian culture needs champions on the ground. Rivlin may be such a champion.

Rivlin is worth keeping an eye on, and he deserves our support.

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