Israel Isn't 'Too Small' to Accept Syrian, African Refugees

Just as when Israel took a share of the Vietnamese boat people in 1977, it has the chance in the current crisis to be a light unto nations.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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A different era for refugees in Israel: Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Afula in 1977.
A different era for refugees in Israel: Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Afula in 1977.Credit: GPO
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel is, as the Haaretz headline put it, “too small to absorb Syrian or African refugees,” strikes me as an error. It’s not my intent to suggest that the premier lacks for esprit or proper sentiment. Nor that he is wrong to insist that Israel must control its border against “generators of terror.” But in respect of the refugee crisis that is currently swamping Europe, I am with Isaac Herzog — and Menachem Begin.

That’s an odd couple, to be sure, but mark the last refugee crisis to rival what is happening in Europe. That was the Indochina refugee crisis that peaked in 1979. Millions of Indochinese refugees decamped on foot and by boat, fleeing a communist conquest that had already created a holocaust in Cambodia and was to cast hundreds of thousands into re-education camps in Vietnam. Communists are infamous for the harshness of their lustration. It was a savvy tide that left.

Eventually, America, Australia, Canada, France and Britain would take the lead in resettling the Indochina refugees. That was decided at the Tokyo summit of 1979, which I wrote about in April. It’s a too-little-noted fact that Israel made a point of taking a share of the Vietnamese boat people. There is on the Web, at Aish.com, a dispatch, illustrated with a photograph, snapped in June 1977, showing Begin welcoming a group of “boat children” to the “home” in Israel.

The travail of the Vietnamese boat people is one of the epic stories of my generation. Aish quotes one survivor, Kiem Vu, as relating how there was “no sight of land, nothing except the rumbling sky, the quivering winds, and the trembling heartbeats.” People “are crying for help,” he said. “Soon, they run out of food, raw fish have become their main source of nourishment, but even that is rare... their clothes are wet, and they have had to sleep through the coldest nights. Their spirits and strength are greatly diminished. Why is freedom so hard to find?”

Israel, Aish's correspondent, Menucha Chana Levin, writes, entered the drama on June 10, 1977, when a freighter called the Yuvali spotted a leaky and waterlogged boat with 66 refugees. Its SOS signals had been ignored by vessels from communist East Germany, Norway, Japan, and Panama. On the Yuvali, Levin reports, Captain Meir Tadmor “telegraphed Haifa for permission to take them aboard, even though his ship carried only enough life rafts and jackets for his 30-member crew.”

That was 400 kilometers south of Saigon. The refugees hadn’t eaten for days. Sixteen of them were under age ten. The others were doctors, professors, bankers, nurses, and fishermen. “Yet," Levin writes, "the Yuvali found no port willing to accept its surplus ‘cargo.’” When he pulled in at Hong Kong to seek medical attention, "the British crown colony refused to allow them ashore on the grounds that the Yuvali was not scheduled to call at Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong hadn’t yet made the turnaround on refugees that was eventually decided by its colonial governor, Sir Murray MacLehose. It happens that I was in Hong Kong at the time, writing for the Wall Street Journal, which threw itself into covering the refugee crisis and, via its editorial page, urging nations to look to the refugees as what the economists call “human capital,” meaning as a great net asset to whoever gets them. Hong Kong, though, spurned the gift that the Yuvali had brought.

Taiwan put a cordon around the Yuvali to prevent the refugees from coming ashore. Japan refused them, too. It was Menachem Begin who stepped up, offering to take the 66 refugees who’d been picked up by the Yuvali. Aish reckons that was Begin’s first act as premier. “Only then,” Aish reports, “did Taiwan allow the group to disembark, where they were whisked to Sung Shan Airport for a flight to Israel,” where the immigrant absorption minister at the time, David Levy, greeted them.

“Let them do as we have,” Levy abjured the other nations. Israel eventually took in more than 300 refugees. Begin himself later told U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Israelis “never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews,” a reference to the Motor Ship St. Louis that sought homes for Jewish refugees from Germany, only to be denied entry by the United States, Canada and Cuba, before finally being accepted in various European countries. Begin spoke of how it had traveled “harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused.” Therefore, he said, “it was natural” for Israel “to give those people a haven.”

When Hong Kong turned around and set up a refugee camps for the Vietnamese boat people, its population density was 16 times greater than Israel’s. Herzog calls for a “controlled and limited number of refugees.” He clearly comprehends the danger Netanyahu sees, that the security issues are special, given that refugees are fleeing war in Syria. So, too, are there opportunities. Some to whom Israel gave haven from Vietnamese communism raised Hebrew speaking children. Others eventually left for more familiar territory, Aish reports. I like the way Aish put it: “They left not out of disappointment and frustration, but as grateful emigrants.”

Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.

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