Israel W. Charny

A shameful Knesset vote to help evade, deny and hide the truth

Failure to pass a bill to memorialize the Kafr Qasim massacre allows Jewish Israelis to persist in believing they are uniquely exempt from humanity’s darkest impulses
Memorial for the Massacre in Kafr Kassem of 1956 in the center of Kafr Kassem
Memorial for the Massacre in Kafr Kassem of 1956 in the center of Kafr Kassem

Last week the Knesset overwhelmingly – and shamefully – voted down a proposal to establish recognition of the mass murder of innocent, unarmed Israeli Arabs in Kafr Qasim in 1956. Along with the traditional targets of war, men, the victims of this massacre also included women and little children.

The original event is well known. It was the first day of the Sinai War and the IDF declared a curfew that morning for Arab areas. However, the announcement of the curfew came after the residents of Kafr Qasim had already taken off for their daily agricultural jobs and on returning home they had absolutely no idea at all that they were late for a curfew. An Israeli officer had issued to a group of platoon commanders what in itself was a dangerously vague and deadly command to kill all violators. All but one of the commanders had the common sense not to blindly execute the stupid and vicious command, but one commander did order his troops to shoot and kill, and they stupidly and viciously followed his order.

They slaughtered 49 Arab civilians and wounded 13 more. Among the dead were 13 women and girls. Twenty-four victims were below age 13, including two children age 8. Several victims who did not die immediately were shot again while lying wounded.

The verdict of the Israeli court was historic and unambiguous. Judge Benjamin Halevy called the order to shoot and kill “a manifestly unlawful order,” and subsequently the rule was made in the IDF that part of the basic training of all soldiers would be to learn the principle that one must not obey illegal orders.

Several presidents of Israel – including Shimon Peres, Reuven Rivlin and on Friday Isaac Herzog – have made pilgrimages to Kafr Qasim to participate in the annual ceremony of commemoration of the massacre and directly or indirectly have apologized for Israel’s tragically evil actions. However, the vote in the Knesset against the proposal for a bill in memory of the victims is already the second time that our national legislature has rejected such legislation.

In 1992, my colleague Daphna Fromer and I published in the academic Journal of Traumatic Stress an intriguing study of the attitudes of our Israeli society towards Kafr Qasim. We purposely sent graduate students to the box office at the Tel Aviv Museum where people were purchasing tickets to view Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 9-hour film, Shoah. Obviously, these were people who cared deeply about the Holocaust, and our basic question was would they also care to some meaningful extent about the non-Jewish victims of a genocidal massacre committed by us Jews?

One hundred and seven people participated in the study. Of them, 62% condemned the Kafr Qasim massacre, but 38% either accepted it or “explained” it. In our discussion of the results, we noted that when compared with other social science studies of attitudes towards persecution and destruction, these results were less damning than the results found for example among Americans surveyed about their attitudes toward the massacre at My Lai; but from what we consider a larger Jewish and humanistic point of view, the results were still disappointing and troubling.

We concluded that our study touched “the poignant irony that even people who were victims of the archetypal event of mass destruction in the history of human civilization [the Holocaust] are also subject to the same lawfulness to an extent greater than we would wish and hope for.” Moreover, we had also found that “this attitude was especially prevalent among survivors of the Holocaust, children of survivors and others who had experienced themselves as having lost family in the Holocaust [and] suggest the age-old truth that being beaten leads to greater probabilities of beating others…”

The Knesset’s disgraceful vote against commemorating Kafr Qasim leads to a devastating conclusion. This conclusion is one that we have otherwise learned bitterly from the Shoah and have also been taught by many events in the history of our human species: The potential for becoming a genocidal killer is widespread in the human race. We have every reason to believe that the readiness to murder groups of helpless human beings is present in all peoples. We now know factually from a variety of events such as the murders at Kafr Qasim that this potential is accessible also in our Jewish people.

None of this is to suggest a surrender to the potential for evil. Not by any means. Because it is also true that there is a universal human potential for cultural values of decency and non-violence and rescue of other people.

But right now we need to ask the hard questions. Why did no fewer than 93 members of our Knesset vote against official recognition of the massacre in Kafr Qasim and its inclusion in educational curricula? Why did several members of our most officially ‘liberal’ party, Meretz, walk out without voting? Is there any difference between denials by others of our Holocaust, which arouse our fierce indignation, and our denial by evasion?

In a larger frame, is the State of Israel committed to what is considered the basic Jewish value that is embodied in the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill? In general, how aware are we as a community that Israel consistently avoids, evades, ignores the calls of history to recognize and oppose the mass genocidal murders of other peoples?

Thus, our obscene failure to recognize the Armenian Genocide to this day (at the very least it is high time we follow this year’s full recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States). Thus, our Knesset voting some months ago against proposed legislation to recognize the ongoing genocide committed by ISIS against the Yezidi people. Thus, our almost total silence about — and our continued economic cooperation with — the perpetrators of ongoing genocides such as by China against the Uighurs and Myanmar against the Rohingya.

Good morning Israel. It is time for the country to wake up to its need for a higher morality.

About the Author
Prof. Israel W. Charny, who lives in Moshav Shoresh outside of Jerusalem, is the director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide and author of the just published "Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth versus Politicization of History," available from the publisher, Academic Studies Press (Boston) or Eurospan Bookstore in London.