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Israel Explores Dark Pages of Its Past

Kfar Qassem, FTWP
A woman mourns at the grave of a relative killed by Israeli soldiers in the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 31, 1999; Page A1

KAFR KASSEM, Israel Even now, the stories are told and retold in the village--from grandfathers to grandsons, from aunts to nieces--and they are harrowing.

They describe the 9-year-old girl who was shot 28 times by Israeli soldiers. The 11-year-old boy, a bullet wound in his chest gushing blood, who died in his grandfather's arms. The truckload of workmen ordered off their vehicle and mowed down where they stood, execution-style.

By the time the shooting stopped that evening in 1956, Israeli troops had killed 49 peaceable residents, half of them women and children, in the village of Kafr Kassem, about 10 miles east of Tel Aviv. All the dead were Arabs and all were full Israeli citizens, headed home at dusk from work in fields and factories--and unaware that a military curfew prohibiting movement after sundown had been imposed an hour or so earlier.

Israel has never apologized officially for the massacre, which took place in an atmosphere of Arab-Jewish tensions on the eve of the 1956 Sinai war. But this year Israel took a step toward coming to terms with it. On Friday, the 43rd anniversary of the incident, Israeli civics teachers were instructed to lead a one-hour discussion on Kafr Kassem in their classes.

"We would like to tell students our history as it was," said Education Minister Yossi Sarid, who issued the directive. "We have nothing to be ashamed of, and we are very proud of the Zionist accomplishments. Nevertheless, we made mistakes, and sometimes it was not too beautiful and sometimes you can notice various defects in the Zionist efforts."

Sarid's decision fits a growing move in Israeli schools to shine a light on some dark pages in Israel's past and to challenge long-cherished myths of the state's founding and early history. The new teachings explode some of the most basic assumptions that Israelis have about their state.

For instance, new ninth-grade history books point out for the first time that some Palestinians left their land and became refugees during the 1948 war of independence because they were expelled by Israelis or feared for their lives if they stayed--particularly after a massacre in a village called Deir Yassin. And the books debunk the widely held view that Israel's victory against five Arab states was an astonishing triumph by an outgunned underdog.

To many Israelis, and to the historians who have written the new textbooks, the teachings amount to the replacement of myths with facts. Facing up to the truth about Israel's past is a sign of the country's strength, they say.

"Just like the Americans have to come to grips with what happened with the Indians and to the blacks, we have to come to grips with what has been terrible and wrong in our history too," said Aviezer Ravitsky, professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The debate generated by this new approach has sparked controversy among politicians, scholars and working Israelis alike. In general, the argument runs parallel to the broader debate here between Israelis prepared to compromise on land and other issues with the Palestinians and those who fear that such compromises imperil the existence of the Jewish state.

Many younger Israelis are able to look at the country's early days with more detachment than their parents, and most seem to support Sarid's initiative to highlight the massacre in Kafr Kassem. Many believe Israel, militarily stronger and more developed than its Arab neighbors, is also mature enough to sift through the good and bad in its past.

But a strong current in Israeli society remains viscerally opposed to reexamining the formative myths. For those people, the founding and building of Israel was a morally pure chapter of history, and any other view is unwelcome. Sarid and some of the authors of the new textbooks have received venomous and threatening letters and e-mails.

"These new historians want to show that Israel was wrong in every step it took," said Gideon Ezra, 62, a conservative member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "They would like to show that all the wars we had with the Arabs are because of the Israelis and not because of the Arabs. People don't remember the 1948 war, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1973 war."

Said Eran Cohen, 39, an electrician in Jerusalem: "It's just more groveling to the Arabs. . . . I don't think we should teach [Kafr Kassem]. The people who committed the crime were punished. Okay, some soldiers went too far, but the times were different."

One lightning rod for the debate is the author of one of the three new history textbooks used in ninth-grade classes, Eyal Naveh. His book, "The Twentieth Century," directly challenges the notion that the Jews were in all cases outgunned by the Arabs in the 1948 war.

"On nearly every front and in nearly every battle, the Jewish side had the advantage over the Arabs in terms of planning, organization, operation of equipment and also in the number of trained soldiers who participated in the battle," wrote Naveh, 47, an American-trained historian.

In Kafr Kassem, where the pain of the 1956 massacre still touches many families directly, there are echoes of the broader debate in Israeli society--from the vantage point of the victims. They insist that despite the new teaching in Israeli schools, Israel still has not done enough to address its actions.

"Admit it!" said Jamal Freig, 63, who survived the massacre by hiding under a truck as his fellow villagers and uncle were raked with machine-gun fire. "Say, 'We're sorry!' Ask for forgiveness. I don't want any compensation money."

Yet Freig, who was 19 at the time of the massacre, acknowledges that he is more in demand than ever to tell his story to classes of Jewish students and other groups around Israel. "The Jews I meet, especially this year, they're ashamed," he said.

That contrasts with Israel's attitude toward the massacre for at least 20 years after it took place, when it was all but ignored. At the anniversary of the killings each year, Israeli security agents arrested the handful of political activists in Kafr Kassem to ensure no one would commemorate the event too loudly.

When, in the late 1970s, Israelis began discussing the massacre more openly, the emphasis was usually on the Supreme Court decision that had allowed the troops involved to be punished for following an illegal order. But few are aware that the 11 soldiers and officers held responsible for the murders were all swiftly given amnesty; none served more than three years in prison.

And the massacre is not treated in the broader context of Israel's treatment of its million-strong Arab minority, even though that is how Israeli Arabs and Palestinians tend to see it.

These days Kafr Kassem is a scruffy village of 15,000 plagued by many of the economic and social ills of other Israeli Arab communities. Drugs are a problem, and so is land; residents say the government confiscated much of their farm land to build a high-tech industrial park on the edge of the village.

In the village itself, the massacre 43 years ago is the focus of more attention than ever. Many families name their children after a relative who died in the shootings. Each year on the anniversary, Oct. 29, black flags are strung along the streets and schoolgirls wear black disks in their hair. In the village schools, a haunting, locally produced video dealing with the massacre is shown to pupils as young as 3 and 4.

Aziza Taha, 51, was 9 when the massacre took place, and she describes in chilling detail watching the death of her 11-year-old cousin, Talal Issa, who, with blood gushing from a bullet wound in his chest, was dragged indoors where he died in his grandfather's arms.

Tears still well up in Taha's eyes when she tells the story. "It hurts in my heart," she said.

Washington Post researcher Eetta Prince-Gibson contributed to this report.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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