Since being elected president this summer, Reuven Rivlin has made sure to meet representatives of broad sectors of the public, displaying sensitivity to the symbolism and ceremoniousness inherent in every presidential action and expression. His decision to visit Kafr Qasem on Sunday to attend the memorial event for the victims of the massacre that took place there 58 years ago was an especially important decision.
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Rivlin is not the first president to visit Kafr Qasem and apologize – he was preceded by Shimon Peres – but it was the first time a president had attended the town’s main memorial event. It was a worthy contribution toward healing the rift between Arab society and the State of Israel.
Rivlin correctly stressed the shock that every human being, every Israeli, must feel after such atrocities. The massacre at Kafr Qasem was caused by a series of misunderstandings, which began with vague instructions issued by the military’s higher echelons that were interpreted in a distorted fashion by the lower ranks. The obtuse obedience of those who pulled the trigger led to the killing of citizens who were totally innocent – men and women, young and old.
Kafr Qasem’s legacy is the guideline transmitted from generation to generation in the Israel Defense Forces and Border Police – whose men committed the massacre under the military’s command – that one is obligated to disobey a manifestly illegal order. After Kafr Qasem every officer and soldier must know that he cannot justify murder by saying he was just following orders.
In his address, Rivlin rightly called for coexistence among all Israelis. “I came especially at this time to extend a hand to you,” Rivlin said. “As Jabotinsky said, I swear that we will never try to force anyone out of our country. Israel will always be home to a broad Arab population. The Arab population is an integral part of Israel.”
On Monday, at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, Rivlin added, “This summer we knew how to unite against external threats, but this summer we unfortunately also dedicated quite a bit of time to marking internal enemies.”
The importance of his words cannot be underestimated. When prominent politicians, led by the foreign minister, are not ashamed to suggest removing Israeli Arab citizens and setting a border that would leave their communities outside it, Rivlin’s courageous statements are worthy of praise. They are also an important reminder that there isn’t, nor should there be, any contradiction between being a member of the right and the obligation to demonstrate respect and equality for minorities.