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Israeli president's apology offers a rare hope for coexistence

With his unprecedented and heartfelt speech in Kafr Qassem commemorating the massacre there, President Rivlin has outlined a future of equality, respect and shared identity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Israeli President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin visited the Palestinian town Kafr Qassem in the Triangle region of Israel on Monday to commemorate the massacre of 49 of its residents by Border Police in 1956. He was the first president to attend the formal memorial ceremony, and only the second president to visit, according to Haaretz.

After nearly 15 years of a severe deterioration in relations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, the visit stood out as a good-will gesture rarely seen on the part of any Israeli leaders. During the vicious climate of the war over the summer, the Israeli public became more accustomed to its elected officials calling Arab citizens terrorists, traitors, and trojan horses and calling to boycott Arab businesses (shouldn’t this be made illegal?).

But even before the war, the previous Knesset passed laws targeting Arabs and debated mean-spirited bills; and the bigot Avigdor Liberman’s star has only risen. These developments topped a dark decade that began with the killing of 13 Arab citizens in October 2000 during demonstrations – a traumatic turning point in relations back then.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin greets an Arab-Israeli elder during a memorial ceremony in honor of the Kafr Qassim massacre October 26, 2014, held in the Arab-Israeli town Kfar Qassem. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin greets an Arab-Israeli elder during a memorial ceremony in honor of the Kafr Qassim massacre October 26, 2014, held in the Arab-Israeli town Kfar Qassem. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The Kafr Qassem massacre in 1956 took place amidst escalation on the eastern border with Jordan and the start of the Sinai campaign. A curfew on Arab towns in the Triangle area – much of the Arab population lived under military rule from 1949-1966 – was changed from 9 p.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone violating the order was to be shot. Many of the residents were farmers were out working their fields when the change to the curfew was announced. Military personnel in the other towns realized that residents would be unaware of the new curfew time and concluded that the order was not logical. But in Kafr Qassem, Border Police soldiers opened fire, murdering 49 unarmed civilians returning from the fields.

This terrible chapter may have precipitated some progress. The state takes pride in the fact that Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Halevi tried the killers and set a legal precedent in Israel by decreeing that it is a soldier’s duty to refuse a “manifestly illegal order, on which the black flag of illegality flies.” Soldiers who carry them out can be tried; soldiers who refuse can draw on this as a legal defense. Further, some say the Kfar Qassem massacre hastened the end the military rule that Israel’s Arab minority lived under for the state’s first 18 years.

But such progress is heavily circumscribed, even schizophrenic. The duty to refuse is indeed a value in Israeli life, but in practice it is extremely complicated for a soldier to navigate in real time. Regarding the massacre itself, lengthy prison sentences for the key guilty parties were whittled down through bureaucratic and political decisions including, inexplicably, a presidential pardon. And it was another 10 long years before the military rule over Arab citizens ended.

Fifty-eight years later, the president’s visit was a symbolic sign of brotherhood. He said things I have longed to hear, particularly after years of vitriol from Israeli-Jewish political leaders.

The State of Israel has recognized the crime committed here. And rightly, and justly, has apologized for it. I too, am here today to say a terrible crime was done here… We must understand what occurred here. We must educate future generations about this difficult chapter, and the lessons which we learn from it.

This paragraph is for all intents and purposes an apology. The president’s emphasis on teaching future generations is a change from earlier attempts to hide the state’s crimes. Rivlin’s vision is a step away from the lie of false purity, and calls on Israel to confront its deeds head on. He went on:

I came here today, specifically during these difficult days to reach out my hand, in the belief that your hands are outstretched to me and to the Israeli Jewish public in turn. Friends. I hereby swear, in my name and that of all our descendants, that we will never act against the principle of equal rights, and we will never try and force someone from our land.

This statement pushes the bar from the “is” to the “ought;” it is, for once, a desirable vision for a way forward compared to the ills of the present.

Rivlin then said something rarely heard in Israel from the left or the right: he stated that this is also the homeland of Arab-Palestinians. In so doing, he addressed them not as a fifth column, newcomers or subjects, but as indigenous citizens and equals; as partners, not problems. In a nearly buried sentence, he made their identity part of the nation.

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who returned to their land after two millennia of exile. This was its very purpose.

However, the State of Israel will also always be the homeland of the Arab population…The Arab population of the State of Israel is not a marginal group in Israeli society. We are talking about a population which is part and parcel of this land, a distinct population, with a shared national identity and culture, which will always be a fundamental component of Israel society… [emphasis mine].

And in a slapdown to the far-right, he legitimized the fact that they will not surrender their identity to embrace that of the people who conquered them:

…The Jewish public must understand that the ambition of so many to live alongside a Zionist Arab minority, which proudly sings the Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem), will not, and cannot be realized.

The president even acknowledged some of the most sensitive tensions among Arabs in Israel: their commiseration with Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, racism and the daily scourge of discrimination of resources and opportunities in their own country.

I am aware that the establishment of the State of Israel was not the realization of a dream for the Arabs of this land. Many Israeli Arabs, forming part of the Palestinian people, feel the hurt and suffering of their brothers on the other side of the Green Line. Many of them experience not uncommon manifestations of racism and arrogance on the part of Jews.

…We must state plainly — the Israeli Arab population has suffered for years from discrimination in budget allocation, education, infrastructure, and industrial and trade areas. This is another obstacle on the road to building trust between us. A barrier which we must overcome.

These statements are close to perfect-pitch in terms of bold moral leadership, with a vision of an Israel that I can support.

But like the Kfar Qassem episode itself, the new president’s speech represented contradictions in his intentions, that marred the notion of real progress. Some of his words are sentiments that could actually perpetuate the very dynamics he hopes to shift.

Oddly, he called on the Arab citizens of Israel to renounce violence and terrorism and accused them of not doing so, although there hardly is any (nationalist) violence or terrorism in this community.

The Arab population in Israel, and the Arab leaders in Israel, must take a clear stand against violence and terrorism. All that live here, must today stand up and speak out against violence, against those who try to plunge us into the abyss. And I must tell you, this voice is not being heard. Neither clearly nor strongly enough.

It is understandable that the president was emotionally overwhelmed, having just attended the funeral of the three-month-old infant killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem last week. Practically during his visit, a second person died of injuries from that attack. As if a three-month-old is not horrible enough, this woman, a tourist, was just 22 years old.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaking during a memorial ceremony in honor of the 1953 Kafr Qassim massacre October 26, 2014. (photo: Yotam Ronen)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaking during a memorial ceremony in honor of the 1956 Kafr Qassem massacre October 26, 2014. (photo: Yotam Ronen)

But the implication that citizens of Israel are somehow linked to terror attacks by Palestinians under occupation (East Jerusalem Palestinians cannot be viewed in any other light, especially in recent months) is frankly absurd. It reinforces the idea that all Palestinians are the same – and all are terrorists.

The statement also makes me wince, coming after a summer when over 1,000 civilians, and not one, but hundreds of children were killed by Israel’s army. The war was an extension of a daily, systematic 47-year violent military occupation. By his logic, the president should implore Jewish Israelis to condemn the killing of innocents in Gaza.

Still, in a net assessment, I believe the president’s intentions are genuine, and it is high time that Israelis see some leadership from at least one corner of the country. He has laid out a path – not a perfect one – but at least broad outlines for a future of equality, respect and shared identity. The Israeli people and government must pave the road with policy.

Related:
Why the Left’s best president might come from the Right
For Palestinian citizens, 1956 massacre is not a distant memory
‘Bad apple’ narrative still rotten 57 years after Kafr Qasim Massacre

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    COMMENTS

    1. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People, who returned to their land after two millennia of exile. This was its very purpose.

      However, the State of Israel will also always be the homeland of the Arab population…The Arabic population of the State of Israel is not a marginal group in Israeli society. We are talking about a population which is part and parcel of this land, a distinct population, with a shared national identity and culture, which will always be a fundamental component of Israel society…[emphasis mine]

      And in a slapdown to the far-right, he legitimized the fact that they will not surrender their identity to embrace that of the people who conquered them:

      …The Jewish public must understand that the ambition of so many to live alongside a Zionist Arab minority, which proudly sings the Hatikvah (national anthem), will not, and cannot be realized.

      I’m fairly gobsmacked. I never thought a Jewish statesperson would ever think this way, let alone say it. It would have been better if he would have said the Palestinian population is not “a marginal population” but are “part and parcel” of this land. And he went to Kfar Qassem and apologized – something I’ve never heard an israeli leader do. I hope this is the sign of a change of heart and maybe, God-willing, we’ll start to see each other as brothers and sisters first and foremost.

      Reply to Comment
      • Suzy

        Thank you, Marnie.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      It will, of course, sound completely lunatic to many here, but the anthropologist Scott Atran makes a good case that apologies can make a big difference in these kind of conflicts (read carefully):

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/opinion/25atran.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      And why should the Israelis apologize first? – the Palestinians have things to apologize for as well. They should apologize first because they have all the power.

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks for that link. I agree with you, humility is really needed here.

        Reply to Comment
      • Disgusted

        The people with the actual military, air force and navy and the least dead should apologies first.

        Palestinians did NOTHING to deserve the Nakba and the many horrors done in the name of Judaism before or since.

        Shame on you.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          “Palestinians did NOTHING to deserve the Nakba and the many horrors done in the name of Judaism before or since.”

          Rubbish. Palestinian Arabs did EVERYTHING they could to ensure that there won’t be peaceful coexistence.

          For instance, they massacred Jews here, more than once, they supported Hitler and they served in Nazi army.

          Reply to Comment
          • All this venom because someone apologized? And someone else suggested it maybe isn’t enough? You can’t please everyone that’s for sure.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            Typical nonsense. Morris and Pappe have clearly documented far more Jewish massacres of Palestinians than the converse. Additionally the few Palestinian massacres (Haifa Oil Refinery, Ben Yehuda Street, Mount Scopus and Kfar Etzion in particular) were carried out by untrained irregulars, and in reaction to earlier Jewish massacres, whereas Jewish massacres were often conducted by trained Israel defence forces, including the Hagannah. The Mufti was an isolated instance of a Pelestinian leader serving Hitler, but the Irgun also made overtures to what they saw as fascist allies in the fight against Britain. Moslems did serve in Nazi armies, but these were from the Balkans. It was logistically very difficult for Arab Palestinians to join up with Nazis (please quote some that did) but Moslem, Christian and Jewish Palestinians enlisted in considerable numbers to fight in the British army against the Nazi threat. Ashley Jackson in his history ‘The British Empire and the Second World War’ describes how “all told up to 30,000 Jews and 12,000 Arabs served with British forces in the war”, though he does point out that the British were reluctant to form Jewish regiments out of a well-placed fear that their training would be deployed against the British themselves, once the Nazi foe was defeated.

            How does it feel to be an ill-informed bigot? Do you even stop to think before you unleash your intemperate venom? Do you not consider, Trespasser, that your idiocies do not serve well the cause to which you are obviously committed?

            Reply to Comment
        • jjj

          ‘Palestinians did NOTHING to deserve the Nakba’?
          Nothing except trying to destroy the young state, kill all the Jews, and so on.
          The NAKBA is a humane event, compared to what would have happened to the Jews had the Palestinians won. Many got displaced – Palestinians are not the only ones, and certainly not the most deprived ones.

          Reply to Comment
          • Felix Reichert

            No larger Palestinian organization has ever called for killing “all the Jews”.

            Typical hasbarist propaganda bullshit, as always.

            Apart from that just the typical and weak as fuck “but other people have and had it even worse!!!” argument.

            Just like SOuth African apologists in 1985 would say:
            “Who cares about human rights in Apartheid south Africa? People in North Korea have it worse than the Blacks here! How dare you single out South Africa? You must be an anti-Boerish racist!”

            Aren’t you people getting tired of your own stupidity?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            have you ever read any history jjj? Had the Zionists restricted themselves to establishing homes within Palestine (as supposedly their objective in the Balfour Declaration) it is doubtful if this conflict would have originated. Unfortunately Zionism always sought to establish a state in another people’s land, and to dispossess and expel them, and understandably they did not welcome the prospect. Yes there was silly rhetoric about “driving Jews into the sea” but the reality was that Arab armies primarily sought to defend the indigenous population in the areas assigned to an Arab state, and after the Israeli exercise in ethnic cleansing was already half complete (May 1948). If the Nakba was indeed “a humane event” then one wonders in what sense you share humanity with the rest of us. It was perhaps the only way to achieve a dominant and extensive Jewish state, but it represents a major tragedy for its overwhelmingly peace loving victims and their descendants. It is also a tragedy for Zionist Jews who will not be allowed the peaceful existence they possibly crave until this injustice is compensated or at the very least acknowledged. It was also a tragedy for your Mizrahi coreligionists who were only forced to leave the lands where they had dwelled for centuries because of popular consternation at the mistreatment of Arab Palestinians. Every people being forcibly displaced (whether Jews or not) should ever be condoned.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Zakkai

      Rivlin seems a decent sort, or at least head and shoulders above the average Israeli politician. His speech was brave and important. However, it had one important flaw, exemplified by the story he told about when left-wing and right-wing Knesset members hugged and cried together after the Gush Katif evacuation in 2005: Rivlin wants us all to gather around our shared values, but we don’t have shared values anymore. The advocates of today’s dominant national-religious Zionism and the advocates of human rights and dignity for all, simply cannot tolerate each other any more. This is a time of polarization, and something has to give. The old consensus is dead, and a new one will arise only after conflict and crisis. I wish it were otherwise, but we are headed for turbulent times.

      Reply to Comment
    4. “Rivlin wants us all to gather around our shared values, but we don’t have shared values anymore. The advocates of today’s dominant national-religious Zionism and the advocates of human rights and dignity for all, simply cannot tolerate each other any more.”

      You nailed it, unfortunately.

      Reply to Comment
      • ruth

        Marnie, you are truly a prolific writer. Mondoweiss, here and everywhere. Propagandizing much?
        At least here you are not as unhinged.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Victor Arajs

      I was disappointed by this article. I think that Rivlin is a dangerous demagogue because he is promoting normalization between zionists and Arabs. He is thus trying to gloss over the theft of Palestine and getting the victims to accept the theft of Palestine. The one ggod thing about your column is that it pointed out that the occupation of 1948 was even more lethal than that after 1967. Finally, Dahlia, you have emotionally termed accident in Jerusalem that led to the death of 2 settlers as terrorism. Richard Silverstein, who I admire greatly, has soberly called the event “The chickens have come to roost”, which is a more accurate and less emotional term

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ruth

      Dahlia and Noam are the only sane voices writing on 972.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Eliza

      Dahlia states that she believes that Rivlin’s intentions are genuine and his speech offers a ray of hope for Israel.

      But what are his intentions and what hope does he offer Palestinians. It seems clear that he is supportive of removing the discriminatory practices that operate against Israeli Arabs/Palestinians (presumably not equal migration policies).

      But what about Palestinians in the O/T and refugee camps?

      As far as I can see, Rivlin is a solid supporter of the settlement process in the W/B and is against a 2SS solution.

      But if his favoured resolution is some form a single state where only some Palestinians are offered citizenship with some areas being Palestinian controlled autonomous zones, then surely we should be seeing his comments within that context.

      Yes, he has spoken out against Jewish acts of violence and discrimination, but this could well just be a realistic assessment that Israel will be a better, more prosperous place if there is a gentler ‘occupation’.

      Yes, I know that as President he does not hold legislative power; just the power to influence. But I agree with Victor Arajas to some extent; his actions and intentions are to normalize realtions between Israeli Jews and non-Jews; possibly to make non-Jewish lives easier, but I cannot see that he would be willing to promote full equality for all Palestinians and threaten the Jewish majority. I can’t see that, at all.

      His public recognition of Jewish violence is commendable but this does not mean that he is actually supportive of equal rights for Jews and non-Jews alike in his vision of ‘Greater Israel’.

      So let’s not get too carried away simply because he seems a decent man able to acknowledge the suffering of others.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza, you got that so right. I do a bit of react first and think later which is to my detriment. You’ve hit all the important points and raised important questions that only time will tell if there’s any substance to his words or was it only lip service. He’s a figurehead, not a legislator as you said, but I hope it has influence in all the right places. Saying one is sorry is very seldom heard in israel. I’ve heard people say it’s considered weak to apologize. That was one of the saddest things I had heard, at that time. Expressing sorrow and and wanting to make an atonement for a wrong shouldn’t be restricted to one day each year.

        Reply to Comment
    8. ‘Round, ‘Round, Get around, I get around, Get around, wooooo, I get around …

      Remember the old phrase information superhighway? That’s what we’re on, we can go where we want, when we want with no checkpoints, road blocks, do not enter or any other keep out signs imaginable. Everyone is welcome.

      I hope by the time my daughter has children, if she is blessed with a good man, that her children will be living in a land that is open for all God’s creation; not one of them in the crosshairs of a soldier, a settler, a hate-filled preacher, imam, rabbi, mayor or prime minister.

      Reply to Comment
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