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Lessons from Begin: Is rescue no longer a Jewish imperative?

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Menachem Begin in 1978. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

On June 10, 1977, an Israeli freighter, the Yuvali, captained by Meir Tadmor, responded to an SOS call from a leaking fishing boat that was adrift in the South China Sea. The boat held 66 Vietnamese, including 16 children under the age of 10. They were almost out of food. Water was being rationed at the rate of three teaspoons per child per day, and none for adults.

Ships from East Germany, Panama, Japan and even Norway had previously ignored its SOS calls. But Tadmor took them on board. He understood that helping ships in distress is the first law of maritime menschlichkeit, a point lost on gentile boats. Tadmor tried to get medical help for them in Hong Kong, then a British colony, but was not allowed to dock because he was not scheduled to call there. He next tried Yokohama, Japan, to no avail. In Taiwan, police boats surrounded the Yuvali lest someone surreptitiously try to get to shore.

‘If there is a rescue plan, we will also assume the burden, because rescue supersedes everything else’

The previous month, on May 17, Menachem Begin’s Likud party had won the Israeli national election, taking 44 out of 120 seats (in Israel, it was considered a “landslide”). On June 20, he rose in the Knesset to make the speech asking for a vote of confidence for his new government. He quoted from the prophet Isaiah and spoke of the meaning of the Holocaust, in which his parents and brother were murdered. That was followed by speeches from other members of the Knesset. Toward midnight, the speaker of the Knesset, Yitzhak Shamir, formally gave Begin the floor once again.

At that point, Begin should have delivered his response to his nascent government’s critics. But he did not. Instead, he offered a different message: “On the basis of my assumption that tonight the Knesset will express confidence in the government… and my confidence in the agreement of members of the Knesset across, or almost across, party lines, I announce that tomorrow, my first act as prime minister will be to give instructions to grant asylum in our country to refugees from Vietnam.”

He continued: “We all remember the ships with Jewish refugees in the ’30s that wandered the surface of the seven seas, asking to enter a specific country, or any number of countries, only to encounter rejection. Today, there exists the state of the Jews. We have not forgotten. We will behave with humanity. We will bring these unfortunate people, refugees saved by our ship from drowning in the depths of the sea, to our country. We will provide them shelter and refuge.”

And that is precisely what he did. The Vietnamese were thereupon flown to Israel and greeted on arrival by immigration minister David Levy. Israel thus gained the distinction of being the first country in the world to take in Vietnamese refugees. These were but the first group of Vietnamese to “make aliyah.” (Canada, by way of contrast, would not admit Vietnamese boat people until July 1979.)

By pure, bittersweet coincidence, June 21, 1977, was the 38th anniversary of the return to Europe of the MS St. Louis, with its 900 Jews who had escaped Nazism, only to be refused entry into Cuba, the U.S. and Canada. They were divided among four European countries, three of which were overrun by Hitler two years later.

At their first meeting, then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter publicly lauded Begin for taking in the refugees. Begin replied by situating the act in a continuum of Jewish history and universalism: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War … travelling from harbour to harbour, 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.”

For Begin, rescue was a Jewish imperative. In 1955, when the government debated excluding elderly and ill Moroccan Jews from aliyah because of financial hardships facing the young country, he delivered a stinging rebuke: “If there is a rescue plan, we will also assume the burden, because rescue supersedes everything else.”

He and Yitzhak Chofi, the farsighted head of Mossad, began the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, fulfilling the words of Isaiah (49:6): “And I will give you as a light unto the nations to extend my salvation as far as to the ends of the earth” (and even to the South China Sea).

Today, unfortunately, the story is quite different. Along its border with Egypt, Israel has built a fence that keeps out genuine Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean asylum seekers. When U.S. President Donald Trump signed the executive order to build a wall on the Mexican border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”

We as Jews need to absorb the lesson of the Jerusalem Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, Law 5, which recites how in capital cases, judges impressed upon the witnesses the importance of telling the truth and disregarding hearsay. They told them that killing someone also deprives his unborn descendants of life: “Therefore was Adam created singly in the world (i.e., not en masse like the animals), in order to teach that he who destroys a single life is considered as if he had destroyed an entire world, and he who saves a single life is considered as if he had saved an entire world.”


Murray Teitel is a Toronto barrister and freelance journalist.