Israel Offers Asylum to Syria’s Children

By Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Questions about borders and belonging, safety and security weigh heavily on many today. Who belongs in America? Who may cross the border into that promised land? How can the nation’s security be maintained? The questions burned brighter with each scratch of a pen toward an executive order.

Halfway around the world, we Israelis worry about many of the same issues. Migration, refugees and terror are critical concerns here as well, and Israel has tried to manage these threats – sometimes in very controversial ways.

While we aren’t certain what the right response is, we do know that a great deal is at stake for both nations.

Some of what might be at risk seems obvious; we are worried about our safety, our economy and our culture. But also at stake is our very essence – our mission and our soul.

In 1977, Israel was profoundly shaken when the Likud political party came to power under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Until then, the idea of a conservative government in Israel had been practically unthinkable. Surprisingly, one of the first things that Begin did was grant asylum to a group of 66 Vietnamese refugees escaping the Communist takeover – people who were rescued by an Israeli ship after they were denied refuge by other countries.

The Israeli freight ship “Yuvali” spotted the refugees’ boat as it traveled toward Japan in June 1977. The refugees themselves were in terrible shape, having been adrift in the stormy South China Sea for a week. Captain Meir Tadmor contacted Haifa, Israel for permission to bring the suffering, ragged and starved group aboard. He brought the refugees first to Hong Kong, then to Taiwan, and then to Japan; all refused them entry. Begin finally cut through the world’s apathy in a decisive action by declaring the 66 Vietnamese refugees to be citizens of Israel. Suddenly, they had protection. As Israeli citizens, they were permitted entry to Taiwan in order to be transported to the airport for a flight to Israel. Ultimately, more than 300 Vietnamese refugees were granted asylum in Israel between 1977 and 1979.

Why? What moved Begin – the radical right-winger – to do such a softhearted thing?

He himself explained his motivation to President Jimmy Carter:

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, 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.”

The story of that boat, the St. Louis, haunts our Jewish memories, because we often think about our own ship and its 900 refugees who, after escaping Nazi Germany, were refused entry by country after country – including the United States and Canada. The St. Louis was eventually forced to return to Europe with most of its desperate and endangered passengers. Hundreds were eventually murdered by the Nazis.

The deep and painful memory of that experience – of being vulnerable refugees pleading for international protection and so often finding none – made Israel able to respond with not only compassion, but also with empathy, to the desperation of another people.

And so today, as the world increasingly closes doors on others, Israel has remembered how to open hers.

Israel has bravely welcomed thousands of Syrians in need of urgent medical treatment during Syria’s current civil war. But the country has refused to accept refugees from what remains an enemy state – until now. Last week, the State of Israel announced plans to bring some 100 Syrian children to safety in Israel, with the help of international aid organizations.

For the first time since the Syrian civil war began, Israel will welcome Syria’s children in with open arms. These orphaned children will receive asylum in the place I am thankful to call home.

I am proud to say that the Israel of today remembered the spirit of Begin – the spirit of our people and our essence and calling as a Jewish State. May we never forget.

Faydra Shapiro

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the Executive Director at the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.