American Jews Must Pressure Trump Administration to Change Policy Towards Vietnamese Immigrants
One of the most implausible might-have-beens in modern history occurred in 1946, when future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and North Vietnam’s Politburo Chairman Ho Chi Minh stayed at the same hotel in Paris and became friends. Ho offered Ben Gurion a Jewish home-in-exile in Vietnam. Ben-Gurion politely declined.
Israel offered reciprocal hospitality 30 years later, when the Jewish state permitted entry to some 360 Vietnamese refugee “boat people.” The most well-known rescue operation of this effort occurred on June 10, 1977, when an Israeli freighter ship called the Yuvali, en route to Taiwan, sighted more than 60 stranded and starving refugees. During the late 1970s, approximately 800,000 Vietnamese people fled the country by sea. Many were robbed, raped, or murdered, mostly by Thai pirates.
Of Israel’s decision to accept some of these refugees, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, 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.”
One newly-arrived refugee thanked the government of Israel and Prime Minister Begin for having “give[n] us a homeland while the other countries were still reluctant to take us when we left our country to flee from the barbaric regime of communism.”
Though many of the refugees left Israel for France or the United States, approximately 150-200 stayed. Among the names of prominent Vietnamese Israelis: Israeli-born Vaan Nguyen, a poet and actress; Dr. Sabine Huynh, a translator, sociologist, and author; and Dao Rochvarger-Wong, who headed Bank Hapoalim in Singapore.
Vietnam and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1993, with Israel opening its resident embassy in Hanoi. Ties, including defense cooperation, between the two nations, are generally friendly. In addition to Vietnamese people working in Israel, some 2,000 Vietnamese students study there. Israel has also provided humanitarian aid to the country on several occasions, and Israel and Vietnam also cooperate in such fields as agriculture, information technology, and biotechnology.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for which I work, has long been a champion of “the boat people” and other Southeast Asian refugees.
I mention this history because American Jews and Israelis should be interested in a story that is receiving scant attention in the national media. Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans have rallied in Orange County, California’s “Little Saigon” — where 300,000 reside — against a Trump administration effort to deport thousands of Vietnamese war refugees because they committed minor offenses after finding refuge in America.
More than 8,000 people, most of whom have already served time for minor crimes, are threatened with loss of residency status by the same cruel logic at work on the US-Mexico border. The Trump administration wants to change a pact signed in 2008 under President George W. Bush that protects Vietnamese people who came to the US before July 12, 1995 from being deported.
Trump’s policy is hardly keeping in the spirit of President George W. Bush and of Prime Minister Begin.
To quote the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”: “And the signs said, ‘The words of the prophets/Are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’/And whispered in the sounds of silence.”
Now, it is time to speak up!
Harold Brackman is coauthor, with Ephraim Isaac, of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (2015).