In an impassioned plea for Jewish-Arab amity, President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday called on all political camps in Israel to take up the cause of reconciliation, insisting the country’s future depends on forging a “shared Israeli identity” that acknowledges Arabs as “part and parcel of this land.”
Addressing the leadership of the International Friends of Givat Haviva (The Center for a Shared Society), which presented him with an award for his work toward coexistence, Rivlin laid out the steps he said would ultimately establish trust between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
“[I]t is important to say that the vision of living together, so needed in Israeli society, is one that deals with the shaping of a civil language, with the building of a joint economy, and with the forging of a shared Israeli identity,” he said. “This is a vision, and an Israeli hope, of which we are in need.”
Rivlin said that opposing narratives were at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a “zero sum game between identities, between national stories.
“My independence is your catastrophe,” he said, alluding to the Palestinian Nakba, marked with an annual day of mourning that coincides with Israel’s celebration of its independence in 1948. “You build your identity, which negates mine, and I build my identity, which negates yours.”
In order to begin to mend the relationship between Jews and Arabs, he continued, it was “essential” for both groups to “recognize this, as painful as it may be,” before moving on to “nurture the positive identities of each side, and from within these identities, reach out to the other’s culture and story.”
Further appealing to both sides to recognizing each other’s identities, he said the pride of both Jews and Palestinians lays “in the honor and the importance we attribute to the chain of generations, the spiritual inheritance from our forefathers, and our connection to our land.”
Israeli Jews, he said, “need to acknowledge that the Arab public is part and parcel of this land — a public shaped by a collective cultural identity.” Attempts to achieve change by expecting one side to relinquish its identity, Rivlin continued, are “destined to fail.”
Besides recognizing Arab national and cultural identities, Rivlin also said that more practical steps must be carried out by the Israeli government in order to attain trust. “Equal access to resources, and to employment and economic opportunities, are a basic condition for trust. Just as they are the basic obligations of a democratic state toward its citizens.”
He further added that just as Israel’s Arab population must needs learn Hebrew “to perfection,” the time has come for the Arabic language to also be studied by the Jewish population. Language, he said, “leads from the ear to the heart.”
Rivlin, a former Knesset member for the ruling right-wing Likud party, hinted that not enough is being done by his own political camp to promote trust. “The mission of building confidence between the Jewish and Arab communities is not solely the task of the left or any particular political camp. It is the mission of all for whom this land is dear.
“No single political camp can be allowed to take ownership, or dictate the language of this task. Just as no single camp can shirk its responsibility toward this task. The fact that the subject has become associated with a particular camp, both on the Jewish and Arab sides, is nothing short of tragic,” he added.
The key to a breakthrough, according to Rivlin, is to enlist new forces from the mainstream of both societies. “The dealing with the relations between Arabs and Jews, must be moved into the mainstream’s consciousness; in the public, political and media spheres.”
Rivlin seemed to be hitting many of the same notes voiced by Joint (Arab) List leader MK Ayman Odeh, who, at the same event, called for the Israeli government to grant the Arab population wider national rights.
“You can’t only talk about civic equality; we are a people as well as citizens, and deserve national rights as well as civil rights,” Odeh said, adding that it will “harm no one, it will only add and enrich.
“Just as I study Hebrew in school, Jewish children should study Arabic from the first grade. Does it bother anyone? We should enjoy there being more than one nation, more than one culture,” he said.
During his speech, Odeh quoted famed Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky to show his knowledge of Zionist culture, while complaining that Arab cultural figures, such as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, are left out of school curriculum.
“Why shouldn’t you study about Mahmoud Darwish? But more importantly, why shouldn’t I study about my history? Why do I study about Zionist history but not about the Palestinian resistance movement?”
Darwish, incidentally, was quoted at length by Rivlin during his speech.