Why have the ultra-Orthodox turned their back on Rivlin?

Before being elected, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin nurtured close ties with the ultra-Orthodox community, but recently a rift has opened between the two sides.

al-monitor Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addresses attendees at the "Haaretz Q: with New Israel Fund" event at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, New York City, Dec. 13, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Andrew Kelly.

Topics covered

yahadut hatorah, ultra-orthodox, shas party, reuven rivlin, reformist judaism, left wing, knesset, israeli politics

Dec 28, 2015

The gap between Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and the ultra-Orthodox sector has been growing of late. Rivlin was elected president in June 2014 with the support of the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset. Some voted for him in the first round, while all of them supported him in the second, decisive round. This month, however, the ultra-Orthodox share what many within the right-wing religious nationalist sector in Israel are probably feeling: Rivlin has betrayed them.

Throughout all his years in politics, Rivlin maintained the image of a traditional Jerusalemite, supportive of Orthodox Judaism and the ultra-Orthodox sector, and wholeheartedly opposed to Reform Judaism. In fact, he once called Reform Jews idol worshippers. Ever since he was elected president, however, Rivlin has slowly been stripping away this image that helped him win ultra-Orthodox supportly, greatly disappointing the ultra-Orthodox community. 

In March, Rivlin tried to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to include other parties in his coalition at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox. He even hinted that a potential coalition partner could be Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, which had spearheaded a contrarian approach to the ultra-Orthodox. He later attacked the coalition agreement between the Likud and ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah, and criticized the exemption from core studies in ultra-Orthodox schools, which was eventually included in that agreement. Furthermore, the president attacked the amendment to the Enlistment Law (on exempting students of rabbinical colleges from the draft), stating acerbically, “Saying that they are ultra-Orthodox is just an excuse. Let them do civil service instead.”

Rivlin’s apparent zigzag when it comes to Reform Judaism is even more infuriating as far as the ultra-Orthodox are concerned. After opposing the Reforms Judaism openly until recently, he used his visit to the White House on Dec. 9 to participate in a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony alongside a Reform female rabbi, who sang the traditional blessing with a contemporary feminist twist — ''Who has performed miracles for our forefathers and foremothers in those days, at this time."

Reactions in the ultra-Orthodox sector were quick to come. “Rivlin always tried to prove to his ultra-Orthodox supporters in the Knesset that he has an affinity toward religion and tradition. Then he tore the mask off his face,” said an editorial in the ultra-Orthodox daily newspaper Yated Ne’eman. “[The president] invested enormous efforts in an attempt to explain to ultra-Orthodox representatives how close he is to religion and tradition, and that he would defend them. This is a betrayal of his electorate.”

Senior officials in Yahadut HaTorah and the Shas Party were quoted by the ultra-Orthodox press as repenting for their “sin” of bringing about Rivlin’s election to the office of president.

These days, attacks on Rivlin are reaching their climax. Many ultra-Orthodox journalists and columnists from established and independent papers attacked the president for “betraying” the ultra-Orthodox sector. They describe at length how he supposedly aligned himself with the Israeli left, while noting that he has been alienating himself from the ultra-Orthodox community of late. They then quoted sources in the ultra-Orthodox leadership, who condemned the president aggressively.

“President Rivlin is a huge and painful disappointment,” a senior official in Yahadut HaTorah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “There is a sense that he has been deceiving us for years in order to win our votes in the race for the presidency, which is something that he had been planning for at least a decade. Now that he no longer needs us, he is changing his positions.”

The same official said, “We were convinced that he would be fair to us, and that he was somewhat closer to our worldview than the other candidates. In the end, because of us, Shas also supported Rivlin in the second round, instead of [former Minister] Meir Sheetrit. There can be no doubt that he was elected thanks to the ultra-Orthodox vote.”

The ultra-Orthodox street once admired Rivlin because of his appeal as a supporter of Jewish tradition. On Dec. 18, however, there was already considerable unrest, so that Rivlin is now talked about in ultra-Orthodox synagogues across the country. Many thought that Rivlin was aligning himself with the left when he participated in the Haaretz conference in New York. They go on to cite the steady support that he receives from the left (against the campaign to de-legitimize him) as further proof that Rivlin has abandoned and betrayed the ultra-Orthodox. The Israeli left is considered to be detached from the ultra-Orthodox community, not least because the ultra-Orthodox community leans toward the right, and because the left supports the reform and the LGBT community, as well as for historic reasons. As far as the ultra-Orthodox community is concerned, anytime Rivlin aligns himself with the left, it is as if he “switched sides.”

“The ultra-Orthodox media is looking for ways to trip us up,” one senior staff member at the president’s office told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The headlines we see are delusional. We get the feeling that someone is orchestrating this. Unlike what the ultra-Orthodox media would have you believe, much of what is written about the president is distorted and false. In most cases, they don’t even bother to check the facts with us.” Though the staff member does not know how to explain what she describes as the “bad blood” the ultra-Orthodox community feels toward Rivlin, she believes that the community simply refuses to accept the fact that the president acts the way he does because he is a true liberal and a democrat in heart and soul.

According to her, Rivlin is the most pro-ultra-Orthodox president that Israel ever had. “Rivlin is the first president to meet so frequently with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox sector. He visits yeshivas [rabbinical colleges], starts the year by visiting ultra-Orthodox elementary schools and promotes aid to the ultra-Orthodox community whenever he can,” she said, adding that the ultra-Orthodox press never reported how Rivlin would not allow the Conservative religious movement to hold a bar mitzvah at the president’s office.

One ultra-Orthodox politician, who was involved in the presidential election and actively supported Rivlin, claims that the problem has to do with how things are communicated, rather than anything more substantial than that. “There is a feeling that the dialogue with the ultra-Orthodox has been abandoned. Essentially, I believe that we have a good president, but unfortunately, the feeling on the ultra-Orthodox street today is that the president cannot be trusted,” he said, asking that his name will not be divulged.

The overall impression is that Rivlin, who was raised in the traditional ideological right, has made and continues to make an impressive effort to draw closer to the various sectors of the population, including those liberal groups in Israeli society and groups who identify with the left. At the same time, however, it also seems that in Israel, it really is impossible to be the “president of everyone.” Every word on some issue or other can be controversial, and in Israel, just about every issue is controversial. This is what alienates the president from certain sectors and communities.

Rivlin takes great care to maintain his official stature as a representative of the entire country. He made history when he participated in a memorial ceremony honoring the victims of the massacre in Kafr Qasim; he takes pride in a visit he paid to Hebron; and he recently met with a large group of rabbis. Nevertheless, the feeling on the ultra-Orthodox street is that the president’s heart is more closely aligned with the left and the liberals. The way it looks now, if Rivlin fails to do something to change that impression of him, the ultra-Orthodox community will consider him persona non grata.

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