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I remember when Israel rescued non-Jewish refugees

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.

Prime Minister Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Israel in 1977 (photo: Government Press Office)

This is how Begin reportedly explained to President Carter his decision to take in the boat people:

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews [the St. Louis], having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.”

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, for example. I grew up hearing and reading those stories about Jews who died because no-one would take them in. That photo, above, of Menachem Begin greeting the Vietnamese refugees in Israel? I found it on the Government Press Office’s official Flickr account.

Almost exactly 35 years after an Israeli ship rescued those Vietnamese boat people, Prime Minister Netanyahu, now leader of the same party once headed by the late Menachem Begin, allowed the world to watch as 21 Eritrean asylum seekers sat in the desert within Israeli territory, pressed against a fence that was built to keep them out. They were denied food or shelter beyond a couple of tarpaulins. They were denied medical care, even though one of the women in the group reportedly miscarried while sitting out there in the hot sun.

“It is important that everyone understand that Israel is not another destination for infiltrators,” [Netanyahu] said. “We are determined to stop the influx of infiltrations that has ensued.”

Today, the government announced that it was allowing three of the refugees – two women and a child – to enter Israel. The other 18 men were turned over to the Egyptians, who may repatriate them to Eritrea. According to Human Rights Watch’s reports, those men face indefinite forced army service, torture or jail in their native country. Or perhaps torture and death at the hand of Sinai smugglers who murder refugees in order to reportedly harvest and traffic their organs. In order to save those two women and a child, they basically sacrificed their lives.

According to an Associated Press report about Israel’s rescue of the Vietnamese boat people, Menachem Begin agreed to take them in and grant them citizenship after Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong had refused to accept them.  He called their refusal “shameful.” Former prime minister Golda Meir added, “Would one not rescue a stray dog or a wounded bird?”

As far as I know, none of the major Jewish organizations have called the Israeli government to task for its deeply shameful and cruel treatment of a little band of Eritrean refugees.

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    1. The difference is, of course, that the Vietnamese influx could be controlled exactly while the present one seems otherwise. The United States does not recognize economic refugees at all, and really cannot, given Mexcio. But this has nothing to do with the plight of those caught between the Israeli fences. They are on Israeli territory, yet the High Court is going to let them sit two more days in a desert; the Court could have ordered a refuge for them until their status is decided, without harm to Israel’s border.

      Instead, Bibi echoes the logic of “infiltrators.” I take that as evidence that something has happened to the moral calculus of the State, evidenced not by the problem of refugees, but rather these exact desert weakened people, in Israel proper.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The first part is right. 300 refugees vs 60,000 migrants and millions more potential migrants behind them. Scale matters.

        The second part is not right. The fence is considered the border as far as all international law is concerned. Accordingly they were not on Israeli territory. It is also disingenous to argue that they should be let in pending a decision on their status when you know bloody damn well that they can not be expelled regardless of the decision on their status. The decision to let them in, in practice, is permanent. Israel has no obligation to do that because they are not refugees deriving from the fact that they are in no immediate danger in Egypt, and they are not from a neighbor state. Their choice to travel through the dangerous desert to get to Israel has absolutely no bearing on that.

        They shoudn’t have been let in. Any of them. Call the UN to deal with their issue, but there is no obligation on Israel of asylum for people sitting outside its territory.

        Reply to Comment
        • K9 – The fence is in Israeli territory, as you know because I corrected you in the comment thread following Haggai’s post.

          The fence is not recognized internationally as Israel’s frontier. Thus the Eritreans were in Israeli territory.

          Further, Israel does have a legal obligation to take in the refugees because it is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

          I warned you against trolling with false information in comment threads, but you persist. So you are banned from commenting on my channel now. I will delete any further comments from you.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Comment deleted. User is banned from this channel.

            Reply to Comment
        • Jack

          Its really funny, Israel brags about its high moral, its civil rights and such but when confronted with actual incidents, like these, they back off calling others to deal with the problem. Thus proving the rhetoric is a bluff.
          Funnw also how Israel say its treated differently, but here as in many other cases its because it acts differently itself.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Comment deleted. User is banned from commenting on this channel.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Al

      Did I get this right? You were brought up to believe that Jews were superior human beings – partly because of the horrors of the Shoah, partly because your teachers were bigots. You’ve now come to understand that Jews – ok, Israeli Jews, if this makes you feel any better – are as self centred and self interested as any other ethnic/social/religious group on the planet. Right?

      So what? Or perhaps you preferred things the way they were.

      Reply to Comment
      • Did you get that right? No. You got that wrong.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      and I remember when the Leftist Martyr’ed Hero Prime Minister had to step down because his wife was spotted in Washington DC, withdrawing cash at their (then illegal) foreign bank account. No ATM’s in those days!!

      Wasn’t that what led to Menachem Begin’s PM-ship?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Khaled

      You’re not taking any prisoners – This article cuts deep.

      Reply to Comment
    5. kidane

      Touching article, good job Lisha!!

      As of some comments above make nonsense!

      As an Eritrean and an asylum seeker in Israel, i already have experienced alot both from the public point of view of my presence in Israel as well as of the Government policy to wards refugees! i couldnt understand why people deliberately want to distort truth and always try to mis-inform others? and some times i ask my self on what world i am living?, it feels like a fake world worth nothing!

      The great Jewish people are losing the right track on the issue of refugees, the leaders made them fear to face the reality on this matter. You know i have a feeling the Isreali leaders some times resemble to the dictatorial regime of Eritrea.

      Any way i really appreciate for the people who work hard to mend the truth!!

      Thanks Lisha!!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      I remember when refugees were grateful, not like the three Eritreans I saw stealing wallets and cell phones from gathers on Dolphin Beach one evening in Tel Aviv.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel, don’t make unsupported accusations here. You shouldn’t make them at all, but this is the only place I can stop you.

        Further, it should be self-evident that a pick pocket in Tel Aviv does not justify starving and expelling 21 refugees. Just in case it’s not self evident, though, I’m pointing that out here.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel


          I saw the crime with my own two eyes last month.

          The Eritreans may have been refugees at some point, but now they’re thieves. That was my only point.

          Reply to Comment
          • Khaled

            I saw George Soros take one billion dollars out of the UK economy. There for I shall blame Robert Oppenheimer and Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein for one individual’s deeds.
            Unfair you say? And to blame the whole of African for three wretched individuals for resorting to petty thievery?
            I saw Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital Asset Strip US Manufacturing companies…”Typical Mormons”, out to get everyone.
            Joe Kennedy made his family fortune with his Wall Street shenanigans…Papal Irish, they’re always up to no good, making money hand over fist.

            We must guard against our baser tribal instincts.

            Reply to Comment
    7. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      Lisa is correct. The pickpockets in a park have nothing to do with those who are raping our border fences.

      Reply to Comment
    8. SomeDay

      Thanks for the touching article. You mentioned a lot of useful facts /things. To me, it seems to be a disasterous moral and ethic situation Israel is confronted with which shines a light on one big misery of our times.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Joel and BPOA – My personal policy for my channel is to ban people from commenting in cases where they show a pattern of making vulgar, racist, stupid comments that contribute nothing to an intelligent exchange. Now, if you two are interested in making sound arguments based on facts, you are welcome. But if all you are interested in doing here is leaving piggish comments that are clearly meant to offend, then I’ll kick you off. End of story.

      Reply to Comment