Israel's forgotten lesson

As the world commemorates the Holocaust this week, it is fitting to remember lessons that Israel once took to heart - and this year forgot.

In the late 1970s, the state of Israel opened its arms to 250 Vietnamese boat people, giving them asylum after ships from Panama, Japan, Norway, and East Germany passed them by. According Vietnamese refugees a home and immediate citizenship was the first official act of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who equated their desperation with that of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. In 1993, Israel gave refuge to 84 Muslims from Bosnia. In 1999, it welcomed 110 Albanians from Kosovo.

But late last month, Israel turned its back on 16 Iraqi Kurds who had snuck into Israel by cutting a hole in the security fence on the sensitive Lebanese border. To show their peaceful intentions, they entered waving handmade Israeli flags. The 12 adults and four children, who had lived in Lebanon for the past three years, begged for asylum and a chance to work.

With their history, Jews can easily identify with the Kurds, the world's largest stateless nation. During the Gulf War, Israelis shuddered at pictures of Kurds killed by Iraqi gas. And Israel is reported to have provided Kurds with military aid in their failed insurrection against Iraq.

Some reports said the Israeli decision not to accept the Kurdish refugees was based on a fear that it might set a precedent for acceptance of other illegal immigrants. The Ministry of Defense maintains its investigation revealed the Kurds' lives were not in danger and that their motivation was solely economic, not justifying asylum.

Yet hearing the expulsion order, the refugees threatened suicide. The next day they were deposited back across the Lebanese border. They refused to move from their drop-off point out of fear of the Hizbullah, the Shiite militia. Finally, after two weeks, Sweden granted them asylum on humanitarian grounds. They arrived there April 9.

Fifty-eight years earlier, in October 1943, Sweden accepted 5,919 other refugees - the escaping Jewish population of Denmark. In an outpouring of grass-roots heroism, the Danish Jews were rescued by their compatriots who had been under Nazi occupation since 1940. All segments of the Danish people bonded together in a national conspiracy to inform Jews of their impending deportation to concentration camps. They were hidden in homes, churches, and public institutions, then transported by boat across the narrow waters to neutral Sweden.

In the end, the Nazis apprehended fewer than 500 Jews in all of Denmark. Author Hannah Arendt called the Danish effort "truly amazing ... unique among all the countries of Europe."

Danish police "arrested" Jews, only to deliver them to sailors, who ferried them to freedom. More than 2,000 were concealed in the basements of Copenhagen hospitals. The former prime minister of Denmark interceded secretly to whisk foreign Jewish prisoners off to Sweden. No distinction was made between native Jewish Danes and the German Jewish refugees who had arrived from the Third Reich.

Rowboats, fishing boats, skiffs, schooners - every type of ship volunteered for the two-week-long evacuation. Jews of means paid between $1,000 and $2,000 for the journey, but the bulk of the cost was underwritten by wealthy Danes. In the rest of occupied Europe, Jews sometimes succeeded in buying their way to precious visas or false papers. In the Denmark of 1943, however, people without funds were taken for free. Half of the Danish Jews survived by hiding inside the country until the end of the war.

Last month I found myself standing in line beside a Danish couple at an amusement park in the United States. As we made small talk, I felt the urge to thank them for what their parents and grandparents had done. But, embarrassed, I held back. Too much time had gone by, I reasoned, to bring up these ghosts. My sentimentality would have been gauche, awkward, ex post facto. Now I feel my silence was a mistake. It is never too late to be grateful for such a gift, even if the thanks skips generations.

During that very week, Israel was turning away the 16 destitute refugees. If the coincidence is striking, the parallels are not equal. Granted, these Kurds of 2001 were not under clear threat of physical danger. Yet it is likewise true that accepting them would have entailed nowhere near the risk taken by the Danes in 1943.

Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri decried the Israeli refusal to keep the Kurds, saying: "As Jews, we should know better." But the Israeli government is not to be equated with Jews in general. Although most Jews might know better, the state of Israel did not.

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and writer living near Tel Aviv. She writes a column for The Jerusalem Post.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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