On July 12th, I took a group of rabbis from North America who were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute on a study tour to two Israeli Arab towns. In the first town– Baka el Gharbiyah– we visited the Al Qasemi Academy (see previous blog posting). In the second town, the town of Kafr Kassem, we were guided through the town by Shahin Sarsour, an advisor to Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour. Sheikh Sarsour was the former major of the town and is now an elected Member of Knesset, representing the United Arab List, the Israeli Arab political part connected with the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, with which I have been in contact and in dialogue for many years.
Sheikh Sarsour was supposed to be with us for the day, but he was called to be in the Knesset for some urgent discussions and votes! This is just one example of the fact that he—along with members of the other three Israeli Arab political parties who serve in the Knesset – are fully engaged with Israel’s democracy, as parliamentarians, with all the inherent difficulties of being part of the minority in this country.
In the absence of Sheikh Sarsour, we were fortunate to have the assistance of Shahin Sarsour with us all day, to answer so many of the questions raised by the rabbis on the study tour. As someone who had lived in northern California for 12 years and is now back in Kafr Kassem, he was both gracious and forthright in providing honest answers to all of our questions.
In Kafr Kassem, we met with the vice-mayor and members of his staff in the meeting room of the local council. They shared with us many of their problems, with a particular focus on how hard it is for Israeli Arabs to build homes, as compared with Jewish citizens of Israel. One of the most interesting parts of this discussion was that there were some major disagreements among the people from Kafr Kassem who spoke to us. Some of them tried to say that things were improving, especially under the leadership of the new Israeli Ministry for Minorities, headed by Professor Avishay Braverman (former president of Ben Gurion University and now a Member of Knesset with the Labor Party). And others said that the situation was not getting better at all, and was a result of long-term institutionalized discrimination, which is still going on to this day.
In addition to the discussion at the city council, we were also taken to see the Museum of the Martyrs (and we drove by the memorial in the center of the town). This museum commemorates the well-known massacre of 48 people from Kafr Kassem in October, 1956, on the eve of the Sinai War– in which Israel Border Patrol soldiers killed villagers who did not obey the curfew that was imposed upon them at that time.
We were guided by the director of the museum who told us repeatedly that the government of Israel has never really apologized for this massacre. Yet, on the bus ride back to Jerusalem, people on the bus looked up this story on Wikipedia and found that the border policemen who were involved in the shooting were brought to trial and found guilty and sentenced to prison terms. Two officers were sentenced to 17 and 15 years imprisonment, later reduced to 5 years, and served a short term. The case established a famous legal principle concerning the fact that security personnel must disobey illegal orders. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, in October 2006 schools around the country were instructed to observe the Kafr Kassem massacre and to reflect upon the need to disobey illegal orders. In December 2007, Shimon Peres, President of Israel, formally apologized for the massacre.
In short, what we learned from this experience is that the “double narrative” very much applied here, i.e. there is a Palestinian and an Israeli narrative to this incident, as there is to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. The Palestinians usually lay the entire blame on Israel for what happened, and the Israelis do exactly the same thing, in reverse. Unfortunately, neither side usually listens sensitively to the pain of the other in this ongoing conflict. One of the main goals of this study tour— and of the work of ICCI in general—is to learn to listen to both meta-narratives –and the many sub-narratives that come up on both sides—in order to develop greater understanding and more empathy with the other.