Israel's Overdue Reckoning With Its Arab Citizens
Few outside Israel may recognize the name Reuven Rivlin, who at one time was known as a decent person without much pizzazz. When he was elected to succeed the wildly popular President Shimon Peres in June, many anticipated that Rivlin would be nothing more than a placeholder.
Sunday, though, Rivlin provided at least part of the answer to why he is much more: He is making healing the rift between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens a top priority.
Peres was a tough act to follow. In 1977, he served as acting prime minister when Yitzhak Rabin announced he would step aside (but for complex legal reasons could not resign) after a minor financial scandal. He served again after Rabin was assassinated almost exactly 19 years ago. He also was prime minister once with Yitzhak Shamir in an unusual agreement under which they, and their competing parties, would rotate in the position.
Three terms without ever having been elected, especially in a society as cynical as Israel's, was bound to make him the butt of jokes, and it did. And thus, not many people expected much when he was appointed president (a largely honorific role), after Moshe Katzav resigned in disgrace in 2007 and was jailed for rape.
But the naysayers were wrong. Peres's eventual popularity, both at home and abroad, was particularly important as relations with the U.S. soured because of the frosty (at best) relations between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A fan of technology, a politician untouched by scandal and with a youthful spirit that was relished by an often-exhausted country, Peres warmed hearts. He even made an adorable YouTube video about looking for a job after he left the presidency this summer.
When Rivlin took over, racism directed at Israel's Arabs -- a concept that isn't new in Israel -- was a problem. (Israel's population is just shy of 9 million people, about 20 percent of whom are Arabs.)
There have been occasional beatings of Arabs by Israeli teenagers, and the police are often accused of not doing enough. But the hatred provoked by the killing of three Israeli Jewish teenagers in June was vicious. Acts of violence were committed by only a small minority, but they were vocal, and worse, the poisoned climate eventually led to the horrific killing of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
In many ways, though, Israel has moved on. Whatever introspection the murder of Abu Khdeir might have prompted quickly dissolved in Israelis' rage over a summer of rockets, and for a while, it seemed the festering blemish on Israeli society wouldn't be discussed.
Rivlin, however, seems determined not to let that happen. Last week, he told a group of Israeli academics that "Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease." But talk in front of academics (who in Israel, are largely left-leaning) doesn't mean a great deal. On Sunday, Rivlin proved he meant business. He went to the Israeli-Arab village of Kfar Kassem and apologized for a massacre that took place there 58 years ago.
After the establishment of the Jewish State, Israel imposed martial law on its Arab citizens (a policy that, ironically, the right-wing security-minded Menachem Begin was instrumental in ending). In October 1956, with heightened tensions along the Jordanian border, a curfew was imposed on the Arab villages along the border. One of the commanders decided the curfew would begin at 5 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., and border policemen were instructed to shoot anyone who violated the order. But word of the changed curfew didn't reach all the workers in the fields, and many were out past 5 p.m. Most platoon commanders allowed returning workers to reach home safely, but one decided to obey the order, and 49 Arabs (including many women and children) were shot and killed by the security forces.
For Israel's Arabs, the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956 is a symbol of their treatment at the hands of Israel's government. And until this year, no Israeli head of state had ever attended the annual memorial ceremony in the village. Peres had expressed "regret" for the incident in 2007, but he didn't apologize and didn't attend the ceremony.
To his credit, Rivlin didn't hide. At the ceremony yesterday, he told villagers that "the criminal killing that took place in your village is an irregular and dark chapter in the history of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living here."
"A terrible crime was committed here," he said, "illegal orders topped by a black flag were given here. We must look directly at what happened. It is our duty to teach this difficult incident and to draw lessons."
It was a major step forward and long overdue. It correctly received much attention in the Israeli press. But it isn't enough. Whether Rivlin's willingness to engage a dark and painful chapter in Israeli history will make a difference will depend largely on whether he is joined by the person with the real power, Netanyahu. Will the prime minister will crack down on "price tag" violence against Arabs by settlers and other expressions of hatred that are too often brushed aside, and join Rivlin in making this issue a national priority?
Will this make Rivlin as popular as Peres was? Probably not. But if he can force Israel to confront these painful parts of its history and get Israelis and the prime minister to focus on this issue, he may leave an important mark on this still-emerging society.
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Daniel Gordis at email@example.com