As Israel prepares to transition to a new government, it also awaits the swearing in of a new president. In the US, the president is both the head of the government and the head of state, but in Israel the two roles are split. The prime minister holds all government power while the president serves as a symbol of the state, receiving ambassadors and other officials. The Israeli president’s lack of real power was never more evident than the past few years as the current occupant of the office, Reuven Rivlin, looked on with dismay as the country’s political parties failed to heed his pleas to form a unity government and instead opted for multiple snap elections.
Rivlin is an interesting figure. He is a man of the political right, who has also embraced the cause of Arab-Jewish unity. On the one hand, he believes that Israel should annex the West Bank, but in his vision the Palestinians would become citizens of the state with full rights. Not all on the right share that position because Israel would suddenly have millions of new Arab citizens diminishing the Jewish demographics of the country.
While other Israeli supporters of annexation advocate expulsion of the Arab population or some kind of political integration of Jews living abroad to counterbalance the Palestinian population, Rivlin firmly believes that civil rights can coexist with a maximalist vision of the Greater Land of Israel. Interestingly, this position is essentially a one-state solution: one democratic nation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Where Rivlin was less progressive in Israeli society was his position on the liberal streams of Judaism. In the past he was quite disparaging toward the Conservative and Reform movements despite the fact that he is secular. Like many Israelis, he seemed to believe that, as the old adage goes, “the synagogue that I don’t attend should be Orthodox.” Over the years he learned to work with and appreciate different forms of Judaism, but it didn’t come naturally in the way he worked for Arab-Jewish cooperation.
Rivlin’s replacement, elected by the Knesset and set to take office July 9, has a very different experience with Judaism. Isaac “Buji” Herzog is the current head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and is a former head of the Labor Party. His father was also a president of Israel, and his grandfather was the chief rabbi of Ireland then of Mandate Palestine and later the new Jewish state. While his background is Orthodox, he is the first Israeli president to have attended Camp Ramah, which had an important impact on him. About his experience he wrote:
I was a waiter at Camp Ramah in New England in the 1970s. That summer I was privileged to tutor a girl in the Tikvah special needs program. That experience taught me so much and contributed a great deal to my leadership skills and my desire to help disadvantaged populations, which plays a large role in my work as a member of Israel’s current administration.
Israeli society is divided along so many lines – Ashkenazi-Sephardi, Arab-Jewish, Religious-Secular, Right-Left. I hope and pray that President-elect Herzog will continue the important work of his predecessor to bring the country together. May the political transitions coming to Israel bring new voices, unity, and understanding.