The following is an expanded version of my contribution to a group blog post by +972 writers, in response to Israel’s refusal to take in a group of Eritrean refugees who were left to bake in the desert sun for a week without food or medical help, while the army prevented activists from bringing food or a physician to examine them.
In 1977, Prime Minister Begin authorized citizenship for 66 Vietnamese refugees. The captain of an Israeli freighter in the South China Sea found them huddled on a leaky boat, low on food supplies, and took them in, bringing them to Israel after they were denied refuge in Taiwan. Begin granted the refugees citizenship in his first act as newly-elected prime minister. He was leader of the Likud party, which won Israel’s national elections after 29 years of uninterrupted rule by the rival Labor party.
At my Jewish day school in Canada, we were told by our teachers, who tended to represent the National Religious point of view, that Begin had done a mitzvah. The narrative we were taught was that the Jews, who had lost six million in the Holocaust because none of the countries that convened at the Evian Conference agreed to take them in, would behave differently now that they had their own state.
This is how Begin reportedly explained to President Carter his decision to take in the boat people:
Over the next two years, Israel took in approximately 300 Vietnamese refugees and gave them citizenship. Vaan Nguyen, the daughter of one of those refugees, was born, raised and educated in Israel. Today she is a published poet, journalist and actress who lives in Tel Aviv. A few years ago, she appeared in a documentary film about her family in Israel and her journey to visit her father’s village in Vietnam.
Today, websites that celebrate Jewish life and religion boast about Israel’s generosity to the Vietnamese refugees, which is compared to the many stories we were raised with – about Jewish refugees who committed suicide within site of the Swiss border after they were denied entry,...Read More