When a country accepts responsibility for such a significant event in its past, one might expect it to erect a monument to the victims, to sponsor the annual memorial ceremony and to honor the memory of those murdered rather than leave the matter to the families left behind, as if it were their problem alone.
By Shirley Racah and Abed Kannaneh
For most citizens of Israel, the 29th of October was just another day. But not for Israel’s Arab citizens. On this date in 1956, 57 years ago — the first day of the Sinai Campaign (the coordinated attack on Egypt by Israel, Great Britain, and France) —the Kafr Qasim massacre took place. A Border Police unit shot and killed 48 villagers — women, men, and children — and wounded 13 more.
Instead of addressing the massacre and its public implications head on, the government of Israel banned publication of the story. Two Knesset members, Meir Vilner and Tawfik Toubi (along with Latif Dori, who was not an MK) reached the village the next day, collected testimonies from the residents and raised the issue in the Knesset plenum. As a result, the massacre found its way to the international news media, and subsequently to the local press. In 1957, the perpetrators of the atrocity were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Within a year, however, they had all been released.
Immediately after the massacre, poet Natan Alterman wrote in the Davar newspaper: “Such an incident must strike every human society as a terrifying nightmare, shake the seats of the supervisors and commanders, both direct and indirect, challenge entrenched concepts, alarm military instructors, and arouse a moral reckoning and search for responsibility — and all of this in addition to the punishment meted out to the perpetrators of the atrocity, so that such things may never happen here again. Never.”
For almost 60 years, Israel has refused to accept responsibility for the massacre. In fact, it invests great effort to remove the incident from the public agenda. In 2007, more than 50 years after the massacre, President Shimon Peres visited Kafr Qasim and said that “an extremely painful event took place here in the past, one that we are very sorry about.”
But accepting responsibility is more than one short sentence in an incidental speech. Every year, the residents of Kafr Qasim assemble at the monument they erected at their own expense and hold a memorial service. Government ministers are invited to attend, but have failed to do so for the past decade; and even before that they rarely made an appearance. When a country accepts responsibility for such a significant event in its past, one might expect it to erect a monument to the victims, in coordination with the villagers and the local authority, to sponsor the annual memorial ceremony and to honor the memory of those murdered rather than leave the matter to the villagers, as if it were their problem alone.
Even more important, the state has an obligation to include the story of the massacre and the lessons to be drawn from it in the official school curriculum, so that Israeli pupils will be aware of this terrible stain on our history. In 1999, the then-education minister Yossi Sarid decided that the topic would be incorporated into the curriculum. But his successors removed the story of the massacre from the agenda of the education system, which today pays it no attention. Cadets in IDF officer candidate courses learn about the massacre and are taught the meaning of a “patently illegal order.” But a majority of IDF soldiers, like most civilians, should, can and must be familiar with the story. It is appropriate that it be included in the core curriculum of the Israeli education system.
The new education minister, Shai Piron, has spoken of the need to get to know and respect various sectors in the country. Here, then, is a challenge waiting for him to act on: mandate that the event be marked in the curriculum. That would convey an important message to all Israeli citizens and pupils, Jews and Arabs alike.
Shirley Racah and Abed Kannaneh are the co-directors of the Equality Policy Department at Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.