President Reuven Rivlin made history on October 26, 2014, by being the first sitting Israeli president to participate in the annual memorial ceremony of the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre in which 48 Arab civilians were killed.
He was back again on Sunday to dedicate a new women’s center in the city, but primarily to meet with the young leadership forum as well as with the women’s leadership forum.
Although the president’s visit had been planned well in advance, it was particularly meaningful, coming in the wake of two separate attacks against Arabs last Thursday. One attack was against three Israeli-Arab citizens on a beach near Kiryat Haim; the other was against two Palestinians near the Yitzhar settlement close to the Tapuah junction. In both cases the victims were severely beaten by their Israeli-Jewish assailants who allegedly engaged in extremely uncomplimentary epithets, in the first case telling the victims that they had no right to be in Israel, and that they should go back to where they belong.
Rivlin was raised in a home in which his parents had many Arab friends, and who grew up on the philosophy of Jabotinsky, to show respect for and goodwill towards the resident Arab population. He has therefore always felt at ease among members of the country’s Arab community, and has frequently urged the removal of barriers to the construction of additional housing and schools in the Arab sectors.
In his Israel Hope project, he has also encouraged municipalities and major business enterprises to provide more employment for Arabs, particularly those who are qualified to work in high tech. He has also praised the relatively large representation of Arab doctors and nurses who are staff members in Israeli hospitals across the country.
Rivlin, who frequently declares that there is no conflict between a Jewish and a democratic state, is always angry when he hears about nationalist Jewish attacks against Arabs.
At his inaugural address in the Knesset, he told of how some of his father’s Arab friends had promised to protect him if hostilities took a turn for the worse, to which his father had said that when the Jewish state becomes a reality, there will be no need to protect the Arabs because Israel will be a democracy.
Rivlin has repeated this many times, insisting that the Arabs are not marginal and should not be treated as such.
DURING HIS visit on Sunday, Rivlin said that Kafr Kassem is a place of hope, innovation and partnership between the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
He also told his hosts that: “Confidence in the institutions of the state and full partnership in society are your right and our obligation.”
As an example of improving conditions for the Arab population, Rivlin recalled that only two weeks previously, it was announced that a new neighborhood with 1,600 housing units would be built in Kafr Kassem and that the project would include commercial and industrial areas, places of employment, public institutions, parks and public transport facilities.
Rivlin emphasized that this decision by the Ministry for Construction and Housing was the righting of a great wrong that had been perpetrated for years.
The president conceded that the current period is fraught with complexities related to trust and cooperation between Jews and Arabs. “We cannot afford to rest until every citizen of Israel feels at home here,” he said.
In relation to the incident near Kiryat Haim, Rivlin warned that it behooves everyone to understand that extremism of this kind can lead to a situation beyond control. Disputes which Israel’s citizenry have with one another can go on for years, Rivlin acknowledged, “but these disputes cannot be resolved without the implicit comprehension that we are all destined to live in this land. It was not imposed on us to live like this.”
Rivlin requested people on all sides to remain calm, and asked the police to finalize their investigation as quickly as possible.
A long-time advocate for equal rights for all sectors of the population, Rivlin said that it was untenable that any sector of the population should suffer discrimination.
Prior to Rivlin’s initial visit to Kafr Kassem, Israeli officialdom did everything it could to evade responsibility for the killing of 49 Arab civilians who, unaware of a curfew due to wartime conditions, either left their homes or were on the way home.
The order with regard to violators of the curfew was not shoot to wound, but shoot to kill. Rivlin characterized it as “a terrible crime” and was told by relatives of the deceased that they had been waiting for 58 years to hear an official representative of the State of Israel admit that it was a crime.