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Only Abbas Got Kahana Right

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas confronts right-wing MK Itamar Ben-Gvir during a press conference at the Knesset, last month.
United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas confronts right-wing MK Itamar Ben-Gvir during a press conference at the Knesset, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

I have no particular desire to play defense counsel for Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, of all people, or to join in the “anyone but Bibi” choir, wishing to justify the current government at any cost – but the headlines about the “trains to Switzerland” were totally taken out of their original, and fascinating, context. This is a collective error in listening comprehension, which also manages to miss the more important essence.

The bottom line of what Kahana told students on Monday was not at all that we need to send Arabs on trains to Switzerland, but that contrary to the right-wing fantasy, there are no such trains and there will never be. Therefore, “Neither us nor the Arabs are going anywhere, so we have to find a way to live together, and the current government is an important step in that direction.”

In fact, Kahana was trying to explain, to and from a right-wing point of view, why serving in the same government as the United Arab List is the right thing to do. In the talk, Kahana confessed that he himself, as a right-winger, does indeed fantasize about making the Palestinians disappear.

“If there was such a button you could push, to make all the Arabs disappear, send them on an express train to Switzerland, to have a great life there… I wish them all the best in the world, in Switzerland – I’d push that button.”

Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana at the Knesset, in April.Credit: Emil Salman

It is not surprising, of course, that this is Kahana’s secret desire. It’s the honesty about it that’s surprising. But beyond the expression “trains to Switzerland,” which cannot be heard without an immediate Holocaust association, the essence is in what he said next: “But what can you do? There is no such button, to send the Arabs to Switzerland in a good way, and therefore we are probably destined to (co-)exist in this land somehow.”

And that is the crux of the matter: Kahana understands that there are no trains and will never be, and that we will all live here together. He wrote the same thing on Facebook recently.

In a post defending his participation in a government alongside Mansour Abbas, he wrote: “Maybe you too sometimes have this dream, where allllllll the Arabs decided to migrate to Switzerland one day… and then we wake up and realize that in reality, none of us are going anywhere, and we are probably doomed to live together.”

One of the only people to understand the message was Abbas himself, who said in response: “I understand him and I know where it comes from. He wanted to explain how he came to the conclusion that we have to put up with one another, but that’s not real tolerance, but under duress. We have to live together in the holy land out of choice.”

It is no coincidence that Abbas and Kahana understand each other. They both share a fundamentally right-wing worldview, which holds that there is no chance for a diplomatic process now, and that we should therefore concentrate on civil cooperation.

There were other interesting aspects of Kahana’s comments. In his attempt to explain the Palestinian narrative, and why it is important to know it (“the story they tell themselves”), Kahana is in fact equating the national aspirations of the Jewish people to those of the Palestinians. While he believes that their narrative and aspirations are false, and ours are the Word of God, he does recognize the existence of a narrative and national aspiration on the other side, which is not going to evaporate. (“We waited 2,000 years. For them, it’s only been 74 years.”)

The recognition of parallel narratives and aspirations is far more significant than the choice of the word “trains.” However, Kahana’s conclusion – "that’s why I think chances for peace are non-existent, definitely not in the foreseeable future” – is false. To the contrary, Kahana. The moment you realize that we are doomed to live together with those whose aspirations will not evaporate on some train, you can start talking about solutions – and compromise.

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