Editorial | Israels president must represent all the people

This week, Israeli lawmakers elected Likud Party stalwart Reuven Rivlin as the country’s 10th president. He will take office in late July, replacing Shimon Peres, whose term ends June 25. (See story on page 14.)

Stepping into Peres’ shoes will be no easy task. The 90-year-old elder statesman is the last of his generation of political leaders. He has served the Jewish state — and the Jewish people — long and well, acting as his country’s moral conscience. In his tenure as president, a largely ceremonial position, Peres elevated the office to one of real leadership, forging alliances abroad and inspiring Jews around the world with his unvarnished idealism and commitment to peace.

Rivlin is not the international figure Peres is, nor does he share his universalism. It’s hard to imagine Rivlin stepping forward to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand, as Peres did on the White House lawn in September 1993. It’s even hard to picture him planting a tree with the pope in the Vatican gardens, as Peres did on June 8.

Rivlin is known as a man of his convictions, and until now, they have been formed largely by his partisan political activities. That must change. And it will change. Rivlin said so himself, when he declared in his acceptance speech that he is resigning from the Likud Party to become the president of all Israelis — “Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, those who are more observant and those who are less.”

But does the president-elect include all potential Israelis in that statement, specifically non-Orthodox Jews?

Rivlin is on record as refusing to use the word “rabbi” for Reform spiritual leaders, most recently during his 2007 run for Israel’s presidency. His spokeswoman told Haaretz columnist Allison Kaplan Sommer last month that his approach to religion “would not change” if he were elected. And he has never rescinded the harsh words he had for the Reform services he attended in New Jersey in 1989, telling the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that it was “idol worship” and “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

This lack of even the most basic respect for the largest stream of Judaism in North America is unconscionable. It feeds into the worst stereotype of the secular Israeli, who holds up the Orthodox synagogue he would never step into as the only legitimate form of Judaism.

We call upon Israel’s new president to change his tune, and change it quick. Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry depends on it.