KAFR KASSEM — The word had come down from the region’s high command: kill any Arab villager who breaks curfew. It was October 29, 1956, the first day of Israel’s Sinai campaign, and the army was worried about raids coming through the villages near what is now the Green Line, then still the Jordanian border.
Many villagers in Kafr Kassem hadn’t learned of the curfew, and on their way home that evening, a Border Police unit shot and killed 43 men, women and children and injured 13. Six more Arab Israelis were killed in clashes that lasted throughout that evening. Later, the Israeli judge who presided over the case would call the order to open fire “blatantly illegal.”
Sixty years later, during an event Sunday night at the Kafr Kassem cultural center, a panel that included a former chief of the Shin Bet domestic security service, a prominent rabbi, Arab Israeli MKs and academics agreed that the wounds have yet to heal.
Moreover, they argued, the conditions that led to the incident have only grown worse.
One of the speakers at the event was Ami Ayalon, a former politician who used to head the Shin Bet as well as the the Israel Navy.
“I apologize on behalf of my country, whose soldiers killed its citizens who had done no wrong. The mark of Cain will only be erased when each and every one of us will tell and teach our children about this,” said Ayalon, who is now head of the national security program at the Israel Democracy Institute, which organized the event.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister who also holds the title of Norway’s chief rabbi, said that Ayalon had already said all that he had been preparing to say, so he set his notes aside and spoke “straight from the heart.”
Melchior addressed the crowd as if from the pulpit of a synagogue — he is in fact the rabbi of a congregation in Jerusalem — quoting scripture and citing rabbis, including the late religious Zionist visionary Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
He said that for him, the horror of the massacre was surpassed only by the fact that those responsible were quickly released from prison, and some even promoted.
“This led me to ask many questions on the essence of [Israel’s] existence. I was educated in a Jewish study hall. There I learned why we are Jews and why we exist. As Jews we’re supposed to build a model society… Recognizing the massacre is essential to our existence here, in order to build this model society.”
The late Israeli president Shimon Peres in December 2007 apologized for the massacre during a visit to the village for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, and in 2014, Reuven Rivlin became the first sitting Israeli president to participate in the annual ceremony.
The mayor of Kfar Kassem, Adel Badir, called the tragedy “ a wound that still bleeds” and maintained it was a deliberate act that stemmed from existing prejudices and norms.
MK Issawi Frej (Meretz), a resident of Kafr Kassem, said the anti-Arab atmosphere that existed in 1956 was “even stronger” today.
He argued that Jewish idea of chosenness feeds into a sense of superiority and leads to the demonization of the other.
The Jewish concept of the “chosen people” usually refers to the idea that God made a covenant with the ancient Israelites when they accepted His laws.
Frej also noted that more than 4,000 people had attended a rally in the village on Saturday marking the 60th anniversary of the incident, saying it showed that far from fading in the public consciousness, the massacre was etching an ever-increasing mark on residents.
“We stand by our right for the state to recognize and take responsibility for the massacre and all that it implies. Even if it will take another 100 years,” he said.
After the event, The Times of Israel asked Frej what he would like the government to do in order to make amends for the massacre in 1956.
“First, to insert the massacre into Jewish and Arab education and the lessons learned from it,” he said.
Second “To make Jewish and Arab youth internalize the narrative of the other… No more ‘I’m part of the chosen people and he’s a guest here,’ or the opposite,” he said.
‘Good progress for Kafr Kassem’
Sarsour Mustafa, 72, of Kafr Kassem, who said his grandfather was born in the village, said “the event brought the two nations together.”
Mustafa said he remembered the massacre well, and that a friend of his who sat next to him in school was killed in the incident.
“This is good progress for Kafr Kassem,” he said, noting that every year, more and people have been coming to the village to commemorate its tragedy.