by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
His granddaughter calls him “Care Bear.” Israelis know him as Ruvi, their beloved national grandfather. Peers describe him as “honest and uncorrupted…standing like a solid rock in defense of democracy.” To world leaders, he’s President Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s tenth president, who’s earned the respect of influencers and ordinary people alike with his integrity, humility and genuine concern for those he pledged to serve.
On July 9, Israel bids farewell—in an official capacity at least—to Rivlin when his seven-year tenure as president ends. What better time to pay tribute to the president whose legacy will continue to shape Israeli society long after he leaves office—and the formidable man behind the position?
The president of Israel largely fulfills a ceremonial role, serving as a symbol rather than a center of authority, with the real power resting with the prime minister. Yet the dearth of political power imbues the position with unique strength, Rivlin explained shortly after his inauguration.
As the “public face” of Israel, Rivlin vowed to steer clear of political embroilment. Rather, he sought to “serve as the social pulse,” keeping his finger on the heartbeat of the nation and then acting as go-between with the political powers-that-be, encouraging them to compromise and put their differences aside to solve the nation’s pressing problems. The people could only trust him if he was wholeheartedly committed to their well-being, he argued.
Rivlin further set out to inspire the people to fulfill their mandate as a “light to the nations”—even when facing a perpetual tide of criticism on the world stage. Defending the Jewish state is important, he held, but first and foremost, Israel had to take its place “in the historical chain that has seen the Jewish people as the consistent and unfailing provider of revolutionary and innovative ideas that benefit the world as a whole.”
Rivlin made good on his pledges. Once president, he hung up his politician hat and spent his term presiding over—and interceding for—the people of Israel, much like a shepherd guides its flock, with a vision for the future, compassion, concern for their well-being and a firm hand.
But there’s more to the man than the vision or the position.
Vegetarian. Fluent Arabic speaker. Devoted husband. Grieving widower. Loving abba (father). Caring sabba (grandfather). Modest. Statesman-like. Down-to-earth and straight-talking. These are but some of the attributes and adjectives that describe Israel’s tenth president.
Rivlin was born in Jerusalem in 1939 into the Jewish state’s equivalent of the royal family. As the ninth generation of Rivlins to call Jerusalem home, the president often recounted how his ancestors settled in the City of the Great King in 1809 after deciding that the coming of Messiah was imminent and that they wanted to be onsite for His arrival. In the more than two centuries since, the president has been the latest in a long list of Rivlins to leave a notable mark on Israeli society.
Jerusalem holds a special place in Rivlin’s heart. He’s famous for starting his radio interviews with: “Greetings from Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,” and has proudly proclaimed united Jerusalem “the capital of the Jewish people”—past, present and future. It seems fitting then that Rivlin played a role in its reunification, fighting alongside the Jerusalem Brigade paratroopers who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation during the 1967 Six Day War.
A law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem followed his military service, after which Rivlin launched his career as the Beitar Jerusalem football club’s legal advisor, and then its team manager and chairman. Prior to his days as a politician, the president-to-be was also a member of the Jerusalem City Council, the El Al Executive Council and the Board of Trustees of the Israel Museum—to name but a few.
Rivlin’s first foray into politics came in 1988 when he was elected to the Knesset (Parliament) representing Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political party. His political journey to the presidency included a stint as Minister of Communications and two terms as Speaker of the Knesset.
Rivlin was elected president in 2014, attracting support from across Israel’s political spectrum. Even representatives from parties that traditionally take an anything-but-Likud stance casted their votes in his favor.
The new president had big shoes to fill, following former President Shimon Peres, an internationally acclaimed figure and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Yet Rivlin was clearly the man for the job. An annual survey conducted by the Dialog Institute one year after his inauguration elected Rivlin as the Jewish state’s most beloved politician. He took the top spot with an overwhelming 72% satisfaction rating—only 5% shy of Peres’s score at the end of his tenure.
During his seven-year tenure, Rivlin saw Israel through various ups and downs. The biggest challenge was arguably the political deadlock that sent Israel to the polls for four consecutive national elections in two years with no conclusive results, no permanent government and no prime minister.
As Israel floundered politically, Rivlin came under pressure to untangle the gridlock. Yet the president remained resolute, guarding the integrity of the position and refusing to take sides. “The politicization of the presidency,” he warned, “would pose a real threat to the institution and its function.”
True to his pledge when taking office, Rivlin instead used his influence to assist the political powers-that-be to put their differences aside, compromise and move ahead for the good of the people.
It’s this—Rivlin’s concern and compassion for the people he pledged to serve—that runs like a golden thread through his presidency. Upon assuming office, he declared the President’s Residence the home of every Israeli and ordered that anyone be allowed to visit. And during the coronavirus lockdown, Rivlin took to social media with an initiative called “Story Time with President Rivlin,” reading a storybook to the nation’s children to give frazzled parents a much needed brake.
In turn, the nation reveres him as their beloved “national grandfather.” When Nechama, his wife of 50 years, passed away in 2019, more than 4,000 Israelis from across the country flocked to the President’s Residence to console their beloved Ruvi.
So what’s next for Israel’s soon-to-be former president? Rivlin has put some thought into what the future holds, but his plans are contingent on the approval of a group of important advisors. “The young man that I am, I will have to consult with my grandchildren…,” said Rivlin.
Photo Credit: Mark Neyman Government Press Office/Wikimedia
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