Today, 65 years ago, Dr. Chaim Azriel Weizmann was inaugurated as Israel’s first president. Eight presidents later, the Israeli public is debating whether the $17 million annual expense is worth it.
In July, President Shimon Peres will conclude his term of seven years, during which he restored the presidency’s reputation, badly tarnished by his predecessor’s criminal charges and arrest. Peres earned worldwide respect and admiration for his leadership in striving for peace, democracy and humanity. Last year, leaders from across the world celebrated Peres’ ninetieth birthday, and recently he was announced a Guinness record holder as the oldest acting leader in the world.
The President of the State of Israel is elected every seven years by the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) in a secret vote, and primarily fulfills ceremonial functions as head of state. Many of the president’s powers are formal, such as assigning the task of forming a new government to a member of Knesset. In addition, the president assumes public functions and activities. Among the president’s formal functions are signing laws, receiving the credentials of new ambassadors of foreign states, approving the appointment of civil and religious judges, the State Comptroller and the Governor of the Bank of Israel, pardoning prisoners or commuting their sentences, etc.
Candidates for the presidency are proposed by the large political parties, and are usually well-known public figures. Reviewing the list of candidates offers a great opportunity to understand Israeli society today: On one hand, we have the expected politicians like Minister Silvan Shalom and a few others; on the other hand, we have Jewish heroes such as the Jewish Agency’s chair and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. We see on the list representatives of Israel’s pride- Nobel Prize laureate Professor Dan Shechtman–as well as past Israeli army general, Avigdor Kahalni. We have one rabbi on the list- Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, the founder and current president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and three women- Dalia Itzik, former Member of Parliament, Dalia Dorner, former Supreme Court judge and Adina Bar Shalom.
Bar Shalom is the oldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Sephardi ultra-Orthodox leader. A ground breaker in the world of ultra-Orthodox women, Bar Shalom is the founder of an ultra-Orthodox college for women in Jerusalem.
Who will be Israel’s next president, assuming there is still such a post? Will it be a past politician like most of them, or someone who will be able to shift the paradigm? Will the next Israeli president be elected to serve the needs of the global Jewish community or will the next president address the needs of the Israeli public? Or perhaps our first woman prime minister Golda Meir will be followed by the first Israeli female president? And are we mature enough to elect a president who is not only a woman, but also represents the ultra-Orthodox minority, with a strong affinity for the Sephardi community?
Like everything that goes on in Israel, these elections will put our society under the spotlight. One thing is certain, serving as the president of the Jewish State is a great honor, and although the role comes with very limited power, still involves a great deal of influence. For many around the world, President Peres was the ultimate Israeli, one who leaders felt comfortable with, could exchange ideas and thoughts with, and pay respect to.
We must hope that our next president will have these abilities and continue President Peres’s tradition.
Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center