Israeli President: I’m not a ‘post-Zionist’

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opens the Herzliya Conference June 14.

Jerusalem (TPS) – Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted a discussion of shared national identity and citizenship between Israeli Arabs and Jews during the opening of the annual Herzliya Conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Rivlin rebutted critics who claimed he is a “post-Zionist” for inclusive remarks he made towards Israeli Arabs in a speech at the conference one year ago.

“There were those who labeled me a post-Zionist. To them, I want to say today: I am a Zionist, because I believe in the need, and the moral right for a national home and nation state for the Jewish people.”

“But do I expect all the residents to be Zionists? No,” added Rivlin.

The Herzliya Conference is an annual gathering organized and moderated by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. It is held under the IDC’s academic auspices and draws senior Israeli and international participants from government, business, and academia to address pressing national, regional and global issues.

This year’s conference – titled “Shared Israeli Hope: Vision or Dream?” – tackles issues of  a possible shared national identity between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab citizens.

While the conference is traditionally opened by the president of Israel, this is the first time the president hosted the opening event at his own residence. During his opening speech, Rivlin related his encounter with Israeli Arab school children a few weeks prior.

“Around two weeks ago, I participated in a meeting between religious, secular, and Arab students. One Arab student said to me, ‘I am a citizen of the State of Israel, and I want to identify with the state in which I live, but between the flag, and the festivals, and the anthem which I respect, what can I do, ‘my soul yearns’, but it is not Jewish. I just want to understand from you Mr. President, what is my place?’ This is what she asked me,” recounted Rivlin, referring to a line in the Israeli national anthem which reads “the Jewish soul yearns [for Zion].”

“Personally, I am moved each time I see the Israeli flag raised, and at the same time, I understood and was pained by her question. And she is not alone. Not all the Jews sing the national anthem (HaTikvah), there are Jews who are not Zionists – do they have no right to be Israeli? Is anyone who deals with the issue of Israeli identity a post-Zionist?”

Rivlin described the emergence of a “New Israeli Order” in which there is no clear majority and minority, but rather multiple subdivisions of society. The challenge, Rivlin said, is to build a common identity and ensure “a state which is both A Jewish and democratic state, democratic and Jewish is one utterance.”

Following the president’s speech, Miriam Naor, chief justice of  Israel’s Supreme Court, said that “democracy is not just the rule of the majority.”

“A majority that tramples the rights of the minority is not democratic,” explained Naor, adding that Rivlin “spoke last year about the need to create a ‘common Israeliness.’ We can do this but it requires unity. Our unity must be in agreeing to the rules of the game, only in the context of a democracy that recognizes every person’s dignity.”

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List in the Knesset, expressed support for Rivlin’s speech, yet he also raised the complaints of some in the Israeli Arab community.

“I am deeply convinced that the interests of both [Jewish and Arab] peoples are identical. But I am a man of content and not of symbols. We want full equality, both in civil society and in national rights,” said Odeh.

Odeh demanded that the Israeli government recognize Arab national aspirations in addition to those of the Jewish population.

“The word nation, Mr. President, is an important word. Who knows that better than you? We have to talk about the national rights of Arabs, and that won’t infringe upon anyone else,” said Odeh.

Israeli minister of Development of the Negev and Galilee Aryeh Deri, of the religious party Shas, echoed the need for cooperation and equality between Jews and Arabs.

“Arabs don’t share our nationality but we share a common fate,” said Deri. “We respect the Arab culture and the first step toward living together is full equality.”

Jesse Lempel and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.