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Sunday, October 10, 1999

The past is here and now

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz

Too little, too late, but still, something: Israel is beginning to cope with the darker chapters of its past.Too little, because this process is only in the incipient stage; too late, because it could have and should have begun much earlier. But when the prime minister and the education minister dare, beyond what their predecessors did, to touch the past, then the signal has clearly been given. On the face of it, this work was begun by two or three "new historians," who deserve all praise, and is only now beginning to show fruit; but actually, it is an unavoidable historical process.

Even if Israel had not begun to dig around in its past, that past would haunt it constantly. The past is here, and there is no way to escape it. Nor is this merely history; it involves issues with current implications that are of inestimable importance. The more that Israel moves ahead and accelerates this process, however painful it may sometimes be, the more the country and the prospects for peace will benefit.

Two official statements voiced last week heralded the onset of the change. The prime minister, for the first time, expressed regret, in Israel's name, for the suffering that was caused to the Palestinians; and the education minister took shame in the state's name for the massacre at Kafr Qasm in 1956. Ehud Barak took one small step on the long road to recognizing our responsibility for the injustice that was done, and Yossi Sarid recognized our full responsibility for one specific event. Modest though they are, these are good voices that are emanating from the new government.

In his statement in the Knesset, Barak expressed regret in the name of his government for the suffering of the Palestinian people, but was quick to express a reservation: regret yes, but not "a sense of guilt or the taking of responsibility." Is Barak's regret here similar to the regret he expresses in the government's name for an earthquake in Turkey or for the eruption of a volcano in Ecuador? Is his proposal "to take part in the effort to heal the wounds of the wars with good will" similar to his proposal to send the IDF's rescue unit to a place where a natural disaster has struck? That is highly unlikely, and so Barak's declaration has greater meaning than he is perhaps ready to acknowledge to himself.

The prime minister attributed the Palestinians' suffering to the "conflict." Did he mean to say that the "conflict" is a kind of heavenly body that cannot be intercepted, over which no one has control? Or, worse, did he perhaps seriously mean to say that the Palestinians and the Arabs bear sole responsibility, them and only them, while we have no responsibility for anything? A people without a land who came to a land without a people and who bear no responsibility for the consequences of the lethal and inevitable collision that followed? Does Barak really think that we are not responsible for any of the suffering of the past, or that of the present? Not for the expulsions, and not for the torture? Not for erasing hundreds of villages, and not for arresting tens of thousands without trial? For nothing? It is difficult to believe that the prime minister of Israel seriously believes in either of these unlikely possibilities. There remains, thus, a third possibility. Barak has slowly come to recognize that reconciliation is impossible without an attempt to cope with the past, which continues to bleed even today in the refugee camps and in the occupied areas, and without accepting responsibility for the injustice that Israel is to blame for inflicting on the Palestinians. Only in this way it is possible to view the small step forward that he took.

Suffice it to consider the progress that has been made since Barak's mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, addressed the same subject, but in a manner far less forthcoming, in his Knesset statement upon being sworn in as prime minister in 1992: "You, the Palestinians, who have not known even one day of freedom and joy, would do well to listen to us, if only this once. Take your destiny in your hands at long last, and do not miss again an opportunity that may not come again. A hundred years of bloodshed and terrorism by you have brought you only suffering, humiliation, bereavement and pain." The tone of lordship has been replaced by a note of regret, the assignation of full responsibility to the other has been replaced by a proposal for an endeavor to heal the wounds of war. Although the way be long, the importance of Barak's step should not be underestimated.

Nor should the importance of the step taken by Sarid be downplayed. What should have been self-evident long ago has materialized only now, at the initiative of the new education minister. Here there is no danger of undermining our full justice and our right to the land, but only the declaration of a full and sincere apology and a drawing of lessons, without any "ifs" or "buts," from the horrific massacre that was perpetrated at Kafr Qasm. It was no accident that The New York Times devoted a report to this subject and noted that Sarid had called on the country's teachers to cope with a dark chapter in Israel's past.

Sarid seemingly did the self-evident. But in the Israel that cut down innocent passersby in 1956, it takes a courageous education minister in order to direct teachers, 34 years later, to deal with this dark chapter in the classroom. Thirty-four years until a cabinet minister expresses public shame for a massacre? It's a fact.

It's also a fact that the right wing railed even against this. It should have happened the day after the massacre, but it's happening only now. Still, better late than not at all. This is a crucial step with respect to the victim and no less so toward our students.

Yossi Sarid will become one of the country's most significant education ministers if he makes the inculcation of the full truth about the history of Zionism one of his goals; just as Ehud Barak will do much to advance the peace process if he recognizes, at long last, the injustice we did to the Palestinians

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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