On my recent speaking tour in the United States, I gave two lectures on the theme "Can Arabs and Jews learn to live together in Israel and the region?" On both occasions, I talked about President Ruby Rivlin's recent historic speech in a Palestinian Arab village in Israel, and the rabbis in the audience were the only ones who had heard about it! And just two days ago, I met with an American government official who was in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission, and he too had not heard of it. I quickly realized that it had not been brought to the attention of people in the West sufficiently, if at all, by the mainstream media, which all too often focus on the negative news coming out of Israel.
This is why I decided to write this blog post, so that this speech would become known around the world.
The new president of Israel, Ruby Rivlin, who was installed as president only a few months ago, comes from the Likud party, a center-right party in Israel. On some issues, he is on the extreme right (such as his persistent resistance to the establishment of a Palestinian state), but on the interrelated issues of preserving liberal democracy and ensuring the rights of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, he is first rate!
On Sunday, October 26, 2014, President Rivlin visited the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim in what is known as "the Triangle," an area of central Israel which hugs the "green line," the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank.
In this area of central Israel, all of the Palestinian Arabs are of Israeli citizenship and are Sunni Muslims (in fact, all Muslims in Israel are Sunni). This town suffered a well-known massacre on October 26th, 1956, which was carried out by Israeli Border Police, who killed 48 Arab civilians who had violated a curfew (that they had not heard about in time). The border policemen who were involved in the shooting were brought to trial and found guilty and sentenced to prison terms (but all received pardons and were released within a year).
Even though the former president of Israel, Shimon Peres, had officially apologized for this tragedy a few years ago, this visit of the current president of Israel went much further than any apology in the past, with a historic speech which was well received within Israel. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the president of Israel is a symbolic figurehead, who represents all the citizens of Israel, including the Palestinian Arab minority. This enables the president to speak with a clear moral voice, more so than ordinary politicians.
Gesture of Reconciliation
Why did President Rivlin go to the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Qasim at this time?
First of all, he was invited by the local Palestinian Arab mayor! This in itself is a positive sign. The fact that the mayor felt comfortable to reach out to the new president reveals that he probably felt that he would receive a positive response, which indeed he did.
Secondly, it appears that President Rivlin wants to make his mark in domestic Israeli history by focusing on Arab-Jewish Coexistence within Israel as one of the cornerstones of his presidency. This is a most welcome development, for it signals that this critical issue for the future of Israeli society will finally be addressed in a sensitive and systematic manner.
As someone who has been actively engaged with this issue in my educational and communal work for more than two decades, and as someone who has brought Jews to Kafr Qasim in the past, I applaud the president for this historic gesture of reconciliation.
What did the president of Israel say at this extraordinary visit to one of the most important Palestinian Arab villages in Israel?
First of all, he offered an apology to the Palestinian Israeli Arab citizens of this village and by extension to all Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel:
Dear friends, I have come here today, as a member of the Jewish people, and as President of the State of Israel, to stand before you, the families of the slain and injured, to mourn and remember together with you... an anomalous and sorrowful chapter in the history of the relations between Arabs and Jews living here.
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. An illegal command, over which hangs a dark cloud, was given here...We must understand what occurred here. We must educate future generations about this difficult chapter and the lessons we learn from it.
Secondly, he expressed acute awareness of the maltreatment of Palestinian Arabs within Israel today, and pledged to address these grievances seriously and systematically:
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, which numbers more than one and a half million, and make up more than 20 percent of the population of the country. 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. And so, even if none of us had sought it, we were destined to live side by side, together, with a shared fate. It is not only the land which we share. We share the same economy, the same welfare system, and a shared public space. We travel together on the same roads and highways, and play together in the same soccer stadiums.
And thirdly, he issued a loud and clear call for dialogue, education and action, for a shared future:
We must all be a part of the struggle against violence and extremism [earlier in the speech he called upon the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to raise their voices against extremist violence]. This obligation falls upon each of us.
Honored friends, I believe that young men and women, Jews and Arabs, have a crucial role to play in our ability to look to the future. I believe wholeheartedly that, if we truly understand that we have no other choice; if we take joint responsibility for our future, the relationship between us can be transformed from a cause of friction, into a source of strength. A symbol of the ability of Jews and Arabs, of all of us, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, to learn to live together. Bless you all.
I commend President Rivlin for this historic speech. It was a very important first step. But, as one of my Muslim partners in dialogue told me years ago, "Dialogue or talk is not enough!"
This inspiring speech -- which is available online -- should be read, studied, discussed and applauded by leaders and citizens around the world. It is the most important call for equal rights and fair treatment of Israel's Palestinian Arab minority by an Israeli Jewish leader in recent decades, perhaps in our entire history. More importantly, it must be followed by a serious and systematic action plan in the years ahead.