They were 66 men and women who had spent four days huddled in a leaky fishing boat. It was June 1977 and the group of Vietnamese nationals, fleeing their war-torn country, was spotted in the South China Sea by the Yuvali, an Israeli cargo ship en route to Japan.
At first, all the passengers asked the Israeli crew for was food and water. But then a woman boarded the Yuvali holding an infant and explained that she and the rest of the passengers were refugees, fleeing Vietnam. Five ships had sailed past them but none had stopped. The captain of the Yuvali, Meir Tadmor, decided to bring the refugees on board and sailed on to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. No one was willing to take in the refugees.
Back in Israel, the Likud’s leader Menachem Begin had just been elected prime minister in what is known as the “Revolution,” as the Likud defeated the Alignment bloc – later to become the Labor Party – which had controlled the state since its founding in 1948.
While there were definitely more pressing matters to deal with, Begin decided, in his first official act as prime minister, to grant the 66 refugees asylum. Only then did Taipei allow the group – later to be known as the “Boat People” – to disembark the Yuvali at a Taiwanese port and board a flight to Israel.
Like many of Begin’s decisions as prime minister, this one too was taken in the shadow of the Holocaust, often cited as his primary motivation for the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and then the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
“We all remember the ships with Jewish refugees in the ‘30s which wandered for seven days and asked to enter certain countries and were rejected,” Begin said in the Knesset when announcing his decision to allow in the Vietnamese refugees.
“Today there is a Jewish state. We have not forgotten what happened to us and we will be compassionate.”
In the following two years, Israel let in around 300 additional Vietnamese refugees. Was it in Israel’s economic or military interest to take in the Vietnamese refugees? Seemingly no. But was it the moral and ethical thing to do? Begin definitely thought so.
This story is important to keep in mind as the war in Syria nears its sixth anniversary and the death toll tops 500,000, many of whom have been killed in the past few weeks in Aleppo, where some of the heaviest combat continues.
While Israel is concerned with the continued fighting and anarchy in Syria – and particularly the presence of ISIS and Hezbollah in the country – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done an admirable job in maneuvering between keeping Israel’s border quiet while at the same time keeping Israel out of the Syrian quagmire.
Israel’s Syrian policy has been twofold. On the one hand, it has done everything possible to avoid conflict, retaliating only when the occasional rocket or mortar shell lands on the Golan Heights.
When it comes to refugees, though, Netanyahu has also made his position clear. Last year, after some Knesset members suggested Israel absorb a small number of Syrian refugees, the prime minister said the country was too small to take them in.
Israel, he said, was “not indifferent to the human tragedy” in Syria, but “is a very small state. It has no geographic depth or demographic depth” and must therefore control its borders against illegal immigrants and terrorism.
Two other redlines Israel set on the Syrian front were the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and any attempt by the Lebanese-based guerrilla group or its chief sponsor Iran to establish a presence on the Golan. Numerous air strikes attributed to Israel in recent years have been focused on preventing both from happening.
Deciding not to take in refugees doesn’t mean Israel hasn’t done anything. It has treated around 2,500 Syrians in a field hospital on the border as well as at regular hospitals throughout the country.
But is this enough? As children are massacred by barrel bombs, is medical treatment all Israel should be offering? Does the Jewish state, founded on the ashes of the Holocaust, a genocide carried out while the world turned a blind eye, not have a greater responsibility? Is it possible that Israel needs to do more and take in refugees as Begin did in 1977? At the turn of the century, it seemed that the digital age would help prevent atrocities from happening. The argument was simple – due to the existence of smartphones, Internet connections and the fast dissemination of news, it would be impossible to hide large-scale murder, on the scale of what is happening in Syria.
What this argument didn’t take into account though was that the world could ignore what it knows is happening. Yes, the world knows about the murder and killings in Syria – we all see the videos that come out of Aleppo on a daily basis – but it is for the most part turning a blind eye. It is not doing much to stop it.
I do not mean to downplay the complexity of what is happening in Syria, a war that US President Barack Obama said recently “haunts” him. “Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?” he told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in an interview for Vanity Fair.
Obama’s dilemma is understandable. While the president is haunted by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the United States is haunted by the prospects of another Iraq war – a war that starts with good intentions but doesn’t have a clear “day after” thought out ahead of time. Russia’s presence in Syria and its military interests there only further complicate the situation.
Israel’s dilemma is also understandable. It is true that a massacre is taking place just over the northern border, but Israel’s strategic interests seem to require of it to sit on the sidelines and to safeguard its own security.
Israel, for example, could fairly easily destroy the Syrian Air Force and eliminate Bashar Assad’s ability to drop barrel bombs on Aleppo. On the other hand, an operation of that scale could draw Israel into a protracted conflict with Syria, something Israel understandably would like to avoid. With Russia and Iran already in the country, a larger Israeli military role could very quickly escalate.
While all of this is true, there is another fact that cannot be ignored. Innocent people are dying.
I took these questions to Asa Kasher, an Israel Prize laureate, Tel Aviv University philosopher and co-author of the IDF’s code of ethics. Kasher admitted that there is no clear answer.
As the Jewish state, Kasher said, Israel had a responsibility when the Syrian war started to speak up and help rally global support for action to end the bloodshed. Yes, Israel alone could not bring a solution, he said. But, it needed to speak up.
“We have a greater moral responsibility since we know what it was like to be left aside,” Kasher said. “We have a special status as the Jewish state but also as a democratic state that sanctifies life.”
Kasher calls this a “moral declaration,” a responsibility to speak up although not necessarily act. Should Israel allow in Syrian refugees as Begin did in 1977, I asked him.
Kasher is not sure although he seems to believe that symbolic acts carry weight in today’s world. If the State of Israel, a country threatened by Syria, allows in refugees – even if a nominal number – then other countries will feel compelled to do some introspection of their own.
One vocal proponent of allowing a small number of refugees into Israel is Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern. A former IDF major-general and the son of Holocaust survivors, Stern told me Israel has a moral imperative to do more in light of the ongoing tragedy in Syria.
On the one hand, Stern agrees with the government’s policy to stay out of the Syrian war and not to carry out missions like bombing the Syrian air force. The US and Russia are already there failing to find a solution, he said. “We do not need to add enemies – especially not long-term enemies – in the Middle East,” he added.
But, Stern said, Israel has an obligation to do more than it is currently doing. “We suffered when people stood on the sidelines but we are strong enough today to make some gestures,” he said regarding the question of refugees.
“We are the Jewish state and have the Law of Return, but we should not be hysterical about accepting a couple hundred refugees,” he said, adding that “we also should not be cynical to say that such a small number is negligible.”
Israel, we should not forget, is a nation made up of refugees.
There are European Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to Israel after World War II and those who were evicted from their homes in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa after the state was established in 1948. The Jewish people knows what it means to be a refugee, not to have a home and to be on the run for your life.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes there are no good answers. Can Israel do more when it comes to Syria? Yes. But should it, at the risk of what may follow?