On June 12, 1977, only four weeks after the electoral “revolution” that brought Menachem Begin to power, he announced that Israel would accept 179 refugees who had fled Vietnam in rickety boats and were fished out of the middle of the sea by an Israeli cargo ship.
They were flown to Israel and received a warm welcome. Two years later, Israel accepted another 197 refugees from Vietnam, and they too were received with joy. If we were to conduct a street poll today about Begin, everyone will remember him for two good deeds he committed: accepting the refugees from Vietnam and the peace with Egypt.
And now from far-off Vietnam to nearby Syria. The war there began almost six years ago, with a popular uprising against the brutal dictator Bashar Assad. Like his father before him, he ruled through the bayonet. Over the years of his rule, he repressed his opponents and prevented freedom of press. Tens of thousands of Syrians who were suspected of lacking affection for the regime were thrown into prison. They were kept in dungeons, in inhuman conditions while suffering torture – even to death.
Assad invested most of his budget in the military and passed out government jobs and power to his confederates, members of the Alawite group, a small minority to which he belonged. And like every dictator, he lived a life of ostentatious luxury while his people were sinking into poverty and shortage – until the uprising, which rather quickly turned into a brutal civil war.
During this war Assad massacred his citizens without mercy, including bombing them and using chemical weapons, while on the other side were jihadist organizations specializing in rape and beheadings. So it should be no surprise that since 2011, some half a million people were killed in Syria, two million were injured and 4.8 million became refugees and fled to neighboring countries: Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Some managed to reach Europe too, particularly Germany.
Recently, the world has been following the horror going on in Aleppo, where a total war of annihilation is now being conducted over the city. In addition to aerial bombings, residents have suffered from a shortage of food and water, to the point of starvation. There is no mercy for anyone. A small 7-year-old girl named Bana Alabed became an international celebrity when she told on social networks of the horrors she endured. In the end, she was evacuated just this week, along with another 4,500 residents who managed to escape from the ruined eastern part of Aleppo.
This great disaster gives one no peace, but it cannot be compared to the Holocaust. The Shoah was a one-time event in history, the fruit of a satanic plan, organized and orderly, to exterminate the entire Jewish people. There is no such plan for the citizens of Syria.
We don’t need to go as far as a different planet in order to feel we need to act. Syria is in our neighborhood, just across the fence on the Golan Heights. We must not ignore it. These are the rules of behavior that apply to every human being: Whoever sees their neighbor in distress is commanded to help. It is basic humanism.
So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the right thing when he announced this week that Israel will find ways to aid civilian casualties from Aleppo. Good, but not enough. After all, Israel has already treated a few hundred of the wounded who have come to the field hospital it set up on the northern Golan Heights.
Now the time has come for a much more important act, one that would raise our standing in our own eyes and would grant us a place among the civilized nations. Netanyahu needs to declare that Israel is willing to accept the weakest and most vulnerable: the orphans. All of them. I am sure many Israelis will want to adopt them.
That too is not enough. In addition, Netanyahu needs to make a decision on accepting a respectable number of refugees, let us say about 20,000. Today, given our economic situation, which is many times better than the situation that existed here in 1977, it is possible to do this easily.
This is Netanyahu’s opportunity. After all, he too wants that some day when they sum up his actions, the acceptance of some of the Syrian refugees will be attributed to him. Netanyahu, be Begin.