President Herzog asks for forgiveness at Kafr Kassem memorial ceremony

Speaking in both Hebrew and Arabic, Herzog told the residents of Kafr Kassem that he was standing before them with a bowed head and his heart pained.

 President Isaac Herzog at the Kafr Kassem memorial service, October 29, 2021. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog at the Kafr Kassem memorial service, October 29, 2021.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog participated in the annual memorial ceremony for the 49 victims of Kafr Kassem who were killed by Border Police officers in 1956, because they were unaware that an imposed curfew had been brought forward by four hours, and were coming home from the fields where they worked.

His participation came despite the uproar in the Knesset two days earlier over the defeat of the proposed bill to establish a national day of mourning for the victims.

In 2007, then-president Shimon Peres formally expressed regret over the massacre that occurred on the eve of the Sinai War, but did not attend the memorial ceremony.

Seven years ago, then-president Reuven Rivlin decided to visit Kafr Kassem on the day of the ceremony and to condemn as a horrible crime the event that still sits like an open wound with the community’s residents.

Herzog decided that all in conscience, he must do the same.

 President Isaac Herzog with Meretz MK Isawi Frej, October 29, 2021.  (credit: Courtesy) President Isaac Herzog with Meretz MK Isawi Frej, October 29, 2021. (credit: Courtesy)

Herzog decided that all in conscience, he must do the same.

But the president went a step further than Rivlin: He actually apologized and asked for forgiveness, and acted with appropriate humility.

Speaking in both Hebrew and Arabic, Herzog told the residents of Kafr Kassem that he was standing before them with bowed head and his heart pained, “on the sixty-fifth anniversary of one of the saddest events in the history of our country,” which he described as “an event whose gravity has never been in question. For it is clear to all of us that the killing and injury of innocents are absolutely forbidden. They must remain beyond all political arguments.”

REITERATING THE sorrow expressed in his opening remarks, Herzog later said: “I bow my head before the memory of the 49 victims. I bow my head before you, their families, and before the inhabitants of Kafr Kassem throughout the ages, and on behalf  of myself and the State of Israel, I ask for forgiveness.”

In asking for forgiveness, Herzog said: “I extend a supportive and embracing hand to you, and I pray from the depths of my heart that the merciful and compassionate God will be by your side.”

Invoking an important lesson in sensitive diplomacy, Herzog continued: “History shows us that a country’s strength is judged also by its ability to look directly at events in its past.

“But, my brothers and sisters, the past, difficult as it may be, is the most important engine for our present and future here in the State of Israel,” he said. “The deep wound that opened up here, in this place 65 years ago, is a wound for the whole of Israeli society – Jews and Arabs alike. Since that terrible tragedy, the prohibition on manifestly illegal orders has been engraved in stone.”

This lesson has been taught for decades, he emphasized, and will continue to be taught from generation to generation. Herzog declared his support of the initiative for the massacre to be taught in an organized fashion in the education system.

ALL ACROSS the State of Israel, students at school, youth movement participants, soldiers, commanders and officers in the IDF and all the security forces should learn about this terrible event and the lessons learned from it, he said.

“I too, in my youth and adult life, at school and in the army, studied and investigated this incident, its conclusions and its lessons, which we must never forget, God forbid,” he said. That day, an order was given that was later described by Judge Benjamin Halevy as an order that “pierces the eye and revolts the heart,” with a “black flag waving above it.”

The initiative for teaching the history of the Kafr Kassem massacre came from one of the town’s residents, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz), who lost a relative in the massacre, and another relative of his was injured.

Joint List head MK Ayman Odeh praised Herzog for his apology, which he described as a “correct, important step” taken by the president.

“It is high time the government formally recognizes the massacre and the culpability of the Israeli institutions in it,” he wrote on Twitter.

Herzog noted that the memorial ceremony is not only a moment for soul-searching about the past but also an important opportunity to look at a shared future. “It is not too late to fix what needs fixing,” he said. “On the contrary, this is exactly the time to do so. This is our opportunity, as a society, to say no to prejudice. This is our opportunity, as a human society, to empower what we have in common as citizens and as neighbors. This is not a decree of fate, but a partnership of fate. This is our opportunity to uproot discrimination and hatred.”

Herzog reminded his listeners that in his inaugural address as president, he had said explicitly that he intended to touch on the most painful subjects in Israeli society. “If we do not do so, we will not rise to our shared challenges,” he stated.

“On this day, 65 years after the catastrophe, we shall pray and hope that the memory of the victims will stay with us as a lesson and a compass, and that from the depths of the pain, we shall sprout forth together a shared future, one full of hope.”