President of Israel Reuven Rivlin is this year’s senior Israeli speaker at the GA, the annual gathering of the North American Jewish federations. And this is not an easy job: Los Angeles is sunny, and visiting the city is surely enjoyable, but Rivlin came here as the representative of an establishment that is not highly popular with the leadership of US Jewry. Some call it a “crisis” in Israel-Diaspora relations, some deliberately want to avoid the C word. Terminology aside, the Jews of America – well, many of them – are angry with Israel’s government, and feel betrayed, neglected, disrespected. They want to see change.
President Rivlin cannot give them what they want. Moreover, his speech in Los Angeles today reminded North America Jews that “we must all respect Israel’s democratic process. The decision-making process”. American Jews must respect it, and hence accept that their ability to pressure Israel into doing something that its leadership is reluctant to do it limited. President Rivlin himself respect it, and hence is reluctant to express his support for a specific position in the great debate about – well, what is it about?
In a nutshell, Rivlin’s speech included 5 main messages:
- Israel is wonderful, and don’t you forget that.
- We Jews are partners in good times and bad times.
- Religion and State issues are highly politicized in Israel – and this ought to be taken into account.
- The Jewish world and Israel are changing, and we must understand and adapt to change.
- While we deal with secondary issues, let us not forget the important ones: Iran, anti-Semitism and other serious threats to Jewish existence.
Refereeing to the “crisis” Rivlin used his vast experience as an Israeli politician – one of the most experienced and most successful politicians we have. He used it to remind his North American listeners that “Whether we like it or not, in the only Jewish-democratic state, Religion and State is a political issue”. Obviously, most Jews in the hall do not like it, but Rivlin insisted on reminding them what this reality means: “Around five Israeli governments have fallen on questions like: ‘Can combat aircraft (not on mission) land in Israel on Shabbat?’ Or on the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that is Democracy”.
Was he defending the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to renegade on the Kotel compromise? I would not go that far. Still, he was clearly at least somewhat sympathetic to Netanyahu’s political calculations. This isn’t some joke, he reminded the room, this is serious business of having to run a complicated coalition by delicately balancing conflicting outlooks and interests.
And as for the Kotel: “I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue”. Note what Rivlin did not say: he did not say that there is need to go back to the deal that the government decided to scrap.
The most interesting part of Rivlin’s speech was dedicated to his theme of “tribes” – a theme that Israelis are already familiar with. Israel is no longer a coherent society. It evolved and now has four main tribes battling for space, influence, resources, ideas – while also having to maintain a certain sense of partnership, because they are all partners who have a stake in the success of Israel. “from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority, to a society made up of four clear sectors or ‘tribes’, which are getting closer in size: The secular Jews, the National Religious Jews, the Haredim and the Arabs”.
Not everybody is happy with Rivlin’s formulation, and with the action he advocates based on it. But that’s not the issue for today. What was noteworthy about his speech today was Rivlin’s attempt at counting non-Israeli Jews as a fifth tribe. “we need the partnership with you, the fifth tribe, (and very important one), the Jews of the Diaspora”.
To be a fifth tribe is an honor – you are one of us – and a burden – you are one of us. It means that Rivlin just complicated the choreography of the already complicated dance of having to make four tribes get along with one another. In his speech, he did not much elaborate on this idea, but make no mistake, he probably thought about it, and already has some ideas as to how such formulation can serve us in the field of Israel-Diaspora action.
Is the Jewish Diaspora a fifth tribe? Does it want to be a fifth tribe? This can be an interesting discussion – but a fifth tribe is surely better than a second people.
Still, there are complications. World Jews are no more a coherent group that Israeli Jews are – so maybe they should not be counted as a fifth tribe but rather be added to the four other tribes (three really: secular, Zionist religious and Haredi). Or maybe to include world Jews in this formulation of tribes there is a need to add more than a fifth tribe – maybe a fifth and a sixth and a seventh.
Also: to have world Jews counted as a tribe we must assume a partnership in something. This might be easier for the Jews, but can we add them to a partnership that includes Israeli Arabs? (it is of course possible: because world Jews and Arab Israelis share an interest in the success of Israel).
And there is the numerical issue to consider. There are eight million Israelis and about the same number of Jews in the rest of the world. Is it fair to count Israelis as four tribes – about two million strong each – and then count all other Jews as just one tribe – eight million strong?
One way or the other, a fifth tribe concept is something fresh to ponder, maybe as a little respite from endlessly talking about the unresolved issue of the Kotel.
As for Iran, note that Rivlin agrees with Netanyahu – and he agrees with President Trump.