Confident Rivlin rejects PM’s despair

April 26, 2017
Sarah Benton

Articles from 1) Mazal Mualem and 2) Chemi Shalev

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lays a wreath during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, April 24, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/ Reuters

How Israel’s president is shifting his country’s worldview

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin objects to the worldview in which all threats to Israel are considered through the prism of the Holocaust, as preached by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

By Mazal Mualem, trans Danny Wool, Al Monitor
April 25, 2017

In his official speech at the Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) on April 23, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin decided to challenge the idea that the Holocaust is “the lens through which we view the world.” It was a refreshing and important approach.

 Rivlin’s speech made headlines and caused a buzz on social media, not least because of his bold statement that the very idea that “any criticism of the State of Israel is antisemitism … is fundamentally wrong, and is dangerous for us a nation and as a people. No less than this, it is dangerous for the memory of the Shoah.”

Although his remarks challenged the approach suggested later in the same ceremony by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, any attempt to drag Rivlin’s speech into the political arena would be doing it an injustice. Instead, this opportunity should be used to engage in an in-depth discussion about Israeli society’s attitude toward the Holocaust, seven decades after the atrocities. Israelis must ask themselves whether they should change their perception of themselves from that of a persecuted victim, constantly threatened by a second Holocaust, to one rooted in strength and self-confidence.

Rivlin abandoned the established rhetoric of official speeches on Holocaust Remembrance Day, attempting to challenge the conventional discourse by an approach that was a bit more complex. He said,

“The more time that passes, the fewer the surviving witnesses to the horrors, the older the State of Israel, so our need to deal with how we relate to the Holocaust and to Holocaust remembrance becomes ever more crucial.”

He continued to present the two prevalent approaches today, both of which he considers dangerous. The first is the “universalist approach,” which considers the Holocaust to be just one out of many cases of genocide that occurred throughout human history. The second regards the Holocaust as the main justification for the existence of the State of Israel and the prism through which it should assess the world.

According to the president, the universalist approach is a dangerous approach because it downplays the Shoah, distorts history and denies the German programme of systematic extermination that was aimed specifically at the Jewish people. He then added, “It denies antisemitism, a malignant disease that is 2,000 years old. … [It] negates the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event that has no parallel, that happened to us, the members of the Jewish people.”

This second approach, identified with Netanyahu, was described by Rivlin as follows: “The justification for the existence of the State of Israel is the prevention of the next Holocaust. Every threat is a threat to survival, every Israel-hating leader is Hitler. According to this approach, the essence of our collective Jewish identity is escape from massacre by joint means. And the world is divided into two: the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ on the one hand, and antisemitic Nazis on the other. And in any case, any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. This approach also is fundamentally wrong and is dangerous for us a nation and as a people. No less than this, it is dangerous for the memory of the Shoah.”

Rivlin emphasized the severity of the threats faced by the State of Israel, but said that these should not be seen as some be-all and end-all. “There is no doubt that in the period since the Shoah we have stood at historic crossroads, moments when we have sensed the threat of ‘the Destruction of the Third Temple/Homeland,’ and of course, the State of Israel may find itself under threat to its very existence. However, we have a state, we have an army. … The Shoah is permanently branded in our flesh. Each of us has a number on our arm. Nevertheless, the Shoah is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.”

Rivlin then proposed a third approach, which makes it possible to remember the Holocaust as an inconceivable human crime targeting the Jewish people with a methodical plan to exterminate them, while at the same time adopting a healthy and mature attitude toward what happened. “We shall always undertake our own defence … the State of Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, but the Holocaust teaches us that we must take our fate in our own hands. The Jewish people have the right and the duty to maintain a defensive force, national independence, sovereignty, here in our historic homeland.”

In his speech, Netanyahu expanded on the theme of hatred of the Jewish people and of the dangers still lurking for Israel today. He said,

“The new-old antisemitism is widespread in certain circles in the West, and it is also common in UN institutions.”

The palpable difference between Rivlin’s and Netanyahu’s speeches, particularly at an official ceremony that is supposed to present a cohesive message, had many listeners contrast the two men’s messages. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote on Twitter that there were “Two speeches on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Rivlin’s was an official speech showing leadership and self-confidence. Netanyahu’s expressed anxiety and sowed fear, while raising historic threats.”

Zionist Camp Knesset member Merav Michaeli also praised Rivlin for his remarks, tweeting,

“Note the president’s important comments: The idea that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic is dangerous to the State of Israel and the memory of the Holocaust.”

Rivlin is identified with the Likud. He is clearly a right-wing liberal, though that places him in a camp that has lost much of its strength over the past few years to the populist, nationalist right. That’s why it is so easy to turn his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech into a political attack. On the other hand, Rivlin is consistent about his positions and his worldview. His remarks are not some heretical rejection of right-wing positions, even if they run counter to Netanyahu’s own comments of the past few years, comparing the Iranian threat to the Holocaust.

In his speech, the president offered Israelis a contemporary perspective on the Holocaust, far removed from the Diaspora approach of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who once described the 1982 war in Lebanon as an attempt “to prevent another Treblinka.”

The day after his speech, Rivlin gave a concrete example of the approach he spoke of. At another speech, this one at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, established by ghetto resisters who immigrated to Israel, he criticized France’s right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who shirks responsibility for her country’s own role in the extermination of its Jewish population during World War II. Rivlin said of this,

“Some two weeks ago, a French presidential candidate denied France’s responsibility for the deportation of its Jewish citizens to the Nazi concentration and death camps. As a sovereign state that has gained national independence, we have a duty to demand from other nations and states not to evade responsibility. … We must wage a war against the current and dangerous wave of Holocaust denial. We must resist the renunciation of national responsibility in the name of alleged victimhood.”

With these comments, the president showed that it is possible to foster awareness and even criticize contemporary manifestations of antisemitism without resorting to pronouncements of rage and destruction.



Cartoon by Sack.

Analysis Rivlin Uses Holocaust Day to Challenge Netanyahu’s Darkness and Despair
Where Rivlin sees a glass half full, Netanyahu sees a glass half full of poison

By Chemi Shalev, Haaretz
April 25, 2017

The annual ceremony held on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem provided an unexpected political drama this year, accompanied by profound philosophical debate. The instigator was President Reuven Rivlin, who used the occasion to tackle Israeli alarmism and absolutism and to implicitly challenge Benjamin Netanyahu in the process. The prime minister, for his part, responded in a way that confirmed and corroborated Rivlin’s complaints.

In what may have been intended as a rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump over his refusal to specifically mention Jews in his statement for the January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rivlin first dismissed the completely “universalist” view of the Holocaust which ignores the uniqueness of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews. He described such a position as “a perversion of history” and “a moral mistake.” Most Israelis and most Jews around the world probably agree.

But then Rivlin courageously tackled the opposite perspective as well, in which “the Holocaust has become the eyeglasses through which we look at the world.” Here, Rivlin challenged the way most Israelis, especially those on the right, regard the world around them, as well as the words and the slogans that Netanyahu uses to persuade them that the Holocaust is eternally just around the corner.

Rivlin took issue with his idol Menachem Begin’s justification for the 1982 war in Lebanon, which was to “prevent another Treblinka.” He said that such an approach consigns the justification for Israel’s very existence to preventing another Holocaust. He described the approach as “dangerous,” one in which “every threat is existential and every enemy is Hitler.” He decried the division of the world to either “righteous gentiles or antisemitic Nazis,” a separation that transforms any criticism against Israel to an expression of antisemitism. Instead, Rivlin offered what he described as “a third way’ that combines the Israeli vow of never again, accentuates Jewish solidarity throughout the world and adopts the Jewish value of respecting all men and women, regardless of their religion or race.

Netanyahu, who spoke immediately after, was either unprepared for Rivlin’s assault or undaunted by it. In his own speech, he lambasted the “naive” belief that genocidal antisemitic hatred for Jews and for Israel will ever disappear. He described ISIS and Iran as seeking Israel’s destruction, just as the Nazis had sought to eliminate European Jews. He said his main mission as prime minister was to prevent the destruction of Israel and that he was doing so in the name of Holocaust victims and survivors. In front of Rivlin’s eyes, he was embodying the worldview that Rivlin had just rejected.

Outside observers might assume that Rivlin was simply making philosophical observations, but most Israelis are well aware of the long-running tensions between their president and their prime minister, which are both ideological and intensely personal. Rivlin has never forgotten Netanyahu’s immense but ultimately futile efforts to prevent his election to the presidency, and he has frequently clashed with him in private and public.

Once considered a solid member of the Likud’s no-compromise hard right and a supporter to this day of the concept of the Greater Land of Israel, as president Rivlin has often spoken out against demonization of Israeli Arabs and leftists and in favour of free speech and the Supreme Court, much to the chagrin of his former political allies. He has often criticized the current government’s ultra-nationalist tendencies, especially when it was Netanyahu himself who was promoting them.

Even though they grew up in the same political camp, in many ways Rivlin is the polar opposite of Netanyahu. He is avuncular, good-humoured, a people-oriented politician, a fair-minded right winger who fostered good relations with Israeli Arab Members of Knesset even when it was unpopular in his Likud party. Netanyahu has a much darker personality. He is obsessively suspicious not only of external enemies but also of fellow politicians, who invariably transform from allies and supporters to rivals and dejected enemies. Where Rivlin sees a glass half full, Netanyahu sees a glass half full of poison. Like his predecessor Shimon Peres, Rivlin is an optimist; Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems enemies and misfortunes everywhere. It is one of the common traits he shares with Donald Trump.

Even though Israelis regularly describe themselves to international pollsters as happy and optimistic, it is Netanyahu’s dark view of the world that gets their vote time and time again. His fatalism is a natural fit for Israeli Jews haunted by memories of the Holocaust and concerned about the real enemies that surround them. Netanyahu’s hopelessness, his insularity, his refusal to differentiate good from bad among Palestinians on either side of the Green Line not only thrive on the natural pessimism of Israelis, they also feed it and perpetuate it and ensure that Netanyahu’s despondency will return him to power time and time again.

Rivlin’s speech was meant to serve as a clarion call against Netanyahu’s despair, which, in many ways, has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By invoking the Holocaust, Netanyahu plays to the natural Israeli tendency to view the world in terms of black and white and to thus absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions, especially the 50-year-old occupation. It is much easier for Israelis to believe that a catastrophe is around the corner, rather than redemption, and Netanyahu can be relied upon to deliver the goods. Rivlin’s efforts, while admirable, seem doomed to fail.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017