NAZARETH, Israel — When a Jewish lawmaker tweeted that his wife did not want to share a hospital room with an Arab woman after giving birth, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin responded: “When we come to the hospital to give birth, we don’t come as a Jew or an Arab, we come as a human being.”
When fierce public protests broke out after army prosecutors said they wanted to try an Israeli soldier taped shooting dead a disarmed Palestinian assailant, Rivlin urged people: “Trust in the military’s ability to investigate, and attentively and swiftly draw operational and individual lessons wherever needed.”
But Rivlin’s calm voice of reason seems to be a lonely one these days.
Nearly two years into his seven-year term as president, Rivlin often finds himself smoothing over rifts that erupt between conflicting sectors of Israel’s fractious society. Often, the divisions are further inflamed by politically incorrect or downright racist comments by lawmakers or religious leaders from one group or another.
“Those who say they do not want to live together need to understand that we are destined to be together,” Rivlin said this week at an event in Nazareth, a mainly Arab city, showcasing Collective Impact, a rare Jewish-Arab employment initiative.
“I know these are far from easy days in which to bring about change,” he told the program’s directors, chief executives of some of the largest Jewish and Arab-run firms in Israel. “This year, there is a sense that relations between Jews and Arabs have reached a new low, the depth of which constantly surprises us.”
Despite this, Rivlin urged perseverance: “We must not give up. The spirit of our cooperation will prevail.”
These might seem like hollow words amid a decades-old bloody conflict and especially following more than six months of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis and harsh Israeli countermeasures. Some 29 Israelis have been killed in the violence and more than 180 Palestinians, more than half carrying out attacks, since Oct. 1.
Sometimes responses by Israeli-Arab lawmakers only serve to distance Arab citizens of Israel — who make up roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population of 8.5 million — from the Jewish public.
And comments like those of Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, that non-Jews should be forbidden from living in Israel or that it is commanded for Jews to kill “terrorists” who come at them with knives, alienate the Arab community.
“The Arabs are my enemies and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them,” Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich tweeted in response to a report on Jewish-Arab segregation in Israeli hospitals. “It’s natural that my wife would not want to lie down in a bed next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.”
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center on Israel’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and other communities found that there was little social interaction among the groups.
Another study by the Israel Democracy Institute found that most Jews, 66 percent, agree with the chief rabbi’s statements about killing terrorists carrying knives.
In a defining speech in the summer, the president talked of a “new Israeli order.” He noted that demographics were changing and that no one group — not even the Jews — was now a clear majority.
“Israeli society is comprised of four principal tribes growing closer in size,” he said.
It’s a reality that Israel must deal with, the president said.
“Rivlin has been trying to offer a counterweight to extremist views,” said Amotz Asa-El, a commentator on Israeli society. “He is a supporter of the settlements and in some ways even more right wing than [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, but in terms of liberal values, he is a disciple of Jabotinsky.”
Asa-El was referring to revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and an often overlooked part of his doctrine: equal rights for all. Most right-wing leaders, including Netanyahu, point to Jabotinsky’s views that Jewish claims to the land of Israel supersede those of the Arabs and that the state can only be secured through power and not by persuasion.
“Rivlin has made himself very popular in all sectors by lending an ear to anyone who feels they are the minority and that they are being discriminated against or mistreated,” Asa-El said. “He does this efficiently and in addition he is affable and outgoing.”
And although, as president, he does not wield great amounts of political power, he can impact society in a moral way.
“The burden is on the Jewish majority in Israel to prove that the definition of their country as Jewish and democratic is not a contradiction,” Rivlin said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Jews must make the Arabs feel part of society, he said. “The relationship between the Jews and Arabs is necessary to help build a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“If the Palestinians see the Arabs here are living in harmonious coexistence with the Jews, then they might realize it’s not too bad,” Rivlin said.
“We are willing to help him build a bridge of peace with the wider Arab world,” Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam said. The two met following Rivlin’s meeting with the business leaders.
“I wish we had a few other leaders like the president. Then we would have sorted out the problems here many years ago,” Salam said.