On July 24, Reuven Rivlin will mark his first year as Israel’s president. Just three months into his term, in October, he became the first Israeli president to attend a memorial for the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre, in which Israeli Border Patrol officers shot and killed 47 Israeli Arabs. In the months since, Rivlin has continued to boldly embrace his role as Israel’s collective conscience, defending the rights of Palestinians and of Arab-Israelis and other minorities and speaking out against intolerance, on occasion to the chagrin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But this week, speaking at the 2015 Herzliya Conference — a prestigious gathering that has become a centerpiece of Israel’s political calendar — Rivlin may have made his boldest move yet: He told the uncomfortable truth about the country of which he is president. He told its people that the country many of them think they live in does not exist.
Israel, Rivlin said, is fast becoming a tribal state composed of four groups — secular Jews, religious Zionist Jews (also called national religious), ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews and Arabs, all of them fearful, hostile to one another and even to members of their own group. “Today, the first grade classes are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim,” Rivlin noted. He said the demographic processes that these numbers represent have “created a ‘new Israeli order’ … in which there is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups” and consisting of “four principal ‘tribes,’ essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”
It was a perceptive analysis that has escaped many Israelis, including, as Rivlin noted, many of its leaders.
Perhaps anticipating the likely response of many Israelis, the president stressed that “the ‘new Israeli order’ is not an apocalyptic prophecy. It is the reality.”
All these different groups, said Rivlin, are here to stay. And whereas the Israel Defense Forces once “served as a central tool for fashioning the Israeli character. In the military, Israeli society would confront itself, would consolidate, and shape itself morally, socially and in many ways economically,” now that over half the population — most Arabs, most Haredi Jews and a growing number of secular Jews — does not serve in the military, this is no longer the case. “Israelis will meet for the first time, if at all, only in the workplace,” Rivlin said.
He called on Israelis “to abandon the accepted view of a majority and minorities, and move to a new concept of partnership between the various population sectors” resting on what he called “four pillars”:
1. A sense of security for each sector, so that it is confident that joining the partnership “does not require giving up basic elements of their identity”
2. Shared responsibility for Israeli society and the state
3. Equity and equality
4. The creation of a shared Israeli character.
It was a remarkable speech, first of all, because it is true. By 2059, according to a 2012 report by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli Arabs will be 23 percent of the population and Haredi Jews will be 27 percent. Already, as evident by this year’s election results, Israeli society is increasingly divided into rival ethnic, cultural, religious and geographic groups that have little in common. Whether it’s the animosity between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, the conflict between Jews and Arabs, the hatred between left and right or the rivalry between Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel, in recent years Israeli politics has increasingly reflected this growing divide, with views and ideologies largely replaced by cultural and ethnic affiliations.
Rivlin’s speech was also remarkable for its candor, the same candor that has helped make Israel’s “one-state president” — he believes in a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river — also its most popular public figure.
In his address to the Herzliya Conference, Rivlin proved that he is president of the real Israel. It’s not as obvious as it seems: Israel’s current government governs an imaginary country, its prime minister presides over a fictitious land. In their imaginary version of the state, Israel has a clear Jewish Zionist majority, its Jewish identity doesn’t clash with its self-definition as a democracy (as it has so often in recent years), and senior ministers honestly believe that any criticism must stem from anti-Semitism and they pretend Israel can just boycott the entire world.
In the land of leaders leading imaginary lands, politicians who face reality head-on are a rare breed. Also at the Herzliya Conference, opposition leader Isaac Herzog repeated cliches of yore, such as disengagement from the Palestinians — as if that’s still possible, as if the two-state solution can simply be revived. Warning that the creation of a binational state would endanger Israel, Herzog ignored the fact that the binational state is already being created.
Whether they are trying to segregate buses on the West Bank or they believe that “boycotting the boycotters” is a recipe for foreign-relations success, Israeli politicians seem to be disengaged from reality, lost in solipsism. Theirs is a country where acts have no consequences, where cultural and demographic shifts trends are meaningless or transient.
But there is a real Israel, even if its politicians refuse to acknowledge it. More a federation of tribes than a unified society, it is on the verge of radical change. Its people often live in fear of each other. It has a richness of culture, of languages and sensibilities, but it is also incredibly ethnocentric and extremely exclusionary. It can redefine itself. It must redefine itself. But in order for that to happen, its leaders must first come to terms with its real face.