Israel needs a president, but let’s stay away from politicians and rabbis

While President Moshe Katsav has yet to resign from office and a person has the right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise, rumors are already circulating as to who might possibly be his successor.

There are even those who question whether Israel needs a president at all and whether it might not be more efficacious to transfer his limited legal and ceremonial functions to the prime minister.

Given the state of Israeli politics and the very low opinion in which some of our nation’s leaders are currently held by the public at large, the last thing we need right now is a prime minister who is also president.

While the American model has much to recommend it, the United States has a constitution that protects civil liberties in a way that Israel can only dream of. Given that fact, it would be inadvisable to grant even more power to our prime ministers than they already exercise. And, anyhow, our prime ministers don’t seem to last for more than a couple of years. Do we really want a new president with that level of frequency?

So whom should we go for? Reuven Rivlin, Shimon Peres or Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau? The first two should be discounted simply on the grounds of their being politicians. The ceremonial role of president of the State of Israel should not be viewed as a consolation prize for aging politicians who are being put out to grass. That both demeans the office and politicizes it.

Both Rivlin and Peres have well-known political platforms. However, as a figurehead, Israel’s president should be a uniting force in a divided country and should not be someone who will ab initio be viewed with suspicion or discounted by those who do not share his political views. A zebra cannot change its stripes.

In some ways, it might be tempting, therefore, to opt for a figure like Rabbi Lau. There is much to recommend him. He is a faithful spokesman for the survivors of the Holocaust. He has found a way of appealing to secular Israelis, many of whom see in him the acceptable face of Orthodox Judaism. However, he has at least one major failing. Like our current president, he has a problem with Reform Jews.

Just before the rumors surrounding Katsav surfaced, the president of the American Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, was on one of his frequent visits to Israel. Israel’s president refused to address him by his rabbinical title, arguing that his religious convictions prevented him from doing so. Quite understandably, such a rebuff angered Reform Jews throughout the world, who interpreted such behavior as a slight of their elected religious leader. Under such circumstances, Rabbi Yoffie refused to meet with him.

While President Katsav is entitled to his own religious convictions, he should have put his personal prejudices aside once he became president of the State of Israel and, in a certain sense, president of the Jewish people. He was apparently unable to do so.

Now if such is the behavior of Israel’s president, who only puts on a kippa when he prays, what can we possibly expect of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who is seldom if ever seen without his black homburg?

Of course, a person should not be judged by his apparel but by his actions. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. At the time of the Ne’eman Commission, when Jewish leaders of all streams were addressing the conversion crisis, Rabbi Lau, the then Ashkenazi chief rabbi, refused to meet with a delegation of Reform leaders. While such intolerant conduct may be acceptable in some circles, it ill behooves a prospective candidate for the presidency of the State of Israel. The Jewish world expects Israel’s presidents to be figureheads to whom they can all relate and who will visit their institutions and synagogues. Rabbi Lau, on past record, is clearly not the man for that.

What Israel needs – and I think most Israelis feel this way – is a president who can be respected by all, a person who will unite ranks rather than divide them, a person untainted by the rough and tumble of Israeli politics. It may be a retired judge, an academic, or someone from the world of the arts, but let’s stay away from politicians and rabbis. Their place is in the Knesset or in the synagogue or perhaps, given the age of some of the prospective current candidates, at home playing with the grandchildren.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)