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A Patriotic Refuge

July 3, 2012 – 9:29 pm30 Comments

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea film posterBy Alex Kats
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the premiere of a documentary film called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It tells the story of a group of mostly Afghani individuals and families holed up in Indonesia, waiting for the right to come to Australia. It follows their journeys through bureaucracy, separation, frustration and terrible living conditions, often in detention centres akin to jails or makeshift temporary accommodation that’s not much better.

It explores the mindset of people in impossible situations and what drives some to become the much-maligned ‘boat people’. Often these are people who are desperate and have been waiting for months, if not years, for a visa to Australia. All they want is a better life for themselves and their families, and though they know the risks and potential consequences, some still choose to put their life savings into the promise of a better life by boarding a leaky boat.

As one of the Afghani protagonists said, he would rather die pursuing freedom than be killed trying to survive the brutality of his own countrymen. This was his fate in Afghanistan, and that is how he ended up in Indonesia in the first place waiting for a chance to come to Australia. That line and many of the images from the film still haunt me.

The underlying message of the film is that the refugees only want a better life for themselves and their families. That is their one true desire, but it seems that all the politicians and most of the public have lost sight of that.

Watching the film made me sad and angry, particularly after seeing that so many people featured in the film are either still in limbo in Indonesia waiting to be granted a visa or drowned at sea after taking the plunge to sail to Australia. Seemingly only a handful actually made it to our shores, legally or otherwise, and these people seem to be intelligent, ambitious and productive members of Australian society, especially Zainab, the 12-year old girl who was the focus of the film, and seemed wiser and more mature than her years would suggest. I suspect she will do well in her adopted country.

Despite these overwhelming feelings of disgust and frustration, in a small way the movie also made me patriotically proud. I have long been accused of being a proud Australian, and this is something that I wear as a badge of honour. I mention this here because I felt that pride again when each of the people interviewed said that they were willing to go through the hell of incarceration, long-term separation and worse, just to have the opportunity to come to Australia. Having not been here, they see our country as a utopian safe haven, and though I’m sure they know they will still have significant issues and challenges if and when they arrive, these will be what we might call first world problems compared to the real life existential battles each of them faced before making their heart wrenching decisions to leave.

With two boats full of potential asylum seekers capsizing near Christmas Island over the last fortnight, all I have heard from our politicians is bickering and buck passing about which offshore or onshore processing solution should be implemented. They argue about this whilst saying that the boats should be stopped, and then many of them cry crocodile tears saying that this situation is hopeless and should be above politics. Yet this has been the rhetoric for more than a decade, and though some of the so-called solutions have been implemented, all of them and all the ideas have been far less than ideal.

They keep arguing about processing solutions rather than actual solutions. And when parliament rose before the winter break, they still hadn’t come up with an agreement, except that both sides keep saying something needs to be done. Only the Greens have called for a somewhat sustainable plan, but on their own their idea will never pass. What I am yet to hear from any politician or from any commentator with even a modicum of respect is a real alternative.

My personal opinion that I would love to hear echoed by someone, and the reason why the film made me somewhat patriotic, is that I think Australia should lead the world by embracing the asylum seekers. These people are choosing to risk their lives to come to our country, and I think we should welcome them openly. Sure, they need to be vetted and cleared for security and other reasons, but that need not take as long as it does, and considering how much Australia spends on keeping them out of our country, that money can be far better spent attracting them in. Maybe then people waiting in Indonesia for months or years wouldn’t have to board boats, boats wouldn’t have to be stopped and there would be no boats overfilled with asylum seekers sinking near Christmas Island or elsewhere.

If the policy makers changed their focus, this so called crisis could be easily eliminated, and we might even be richer for it. After all, after their time battling the bureaucracies and detention centres in Indonesia, Australia or elsewhere, and after somehow eventually making it to Australia, the vast majority of genuine asylum seekers are granted asylum and ultimately become refugees, then permanent residents of Australia.

Sometimes I am amazed that they are still keen to come to this country after everything they have been through, yet many go on to become citizens and proud, law abiding and productive contributors. Apart from what I have read and seen on the news, I know this in an anecdotal way because for the last few months, together with a number of other young Jewish people from our community, I have been volunteering each week in Dandenong, teaching English and chatting to those from Afghanistan or mostly other Middle Eastern countries who have recently arrived.

This gratifying experience has confirmed to me in a tangible way that all that these people really want is a better life, one that they hope Australia can provide. This is relevant to us today and particularly as Jews because this was the same dream many of our parents or grandparents had just a generation or two ago.

In my case, it was the dream of my parents just before I was born. They grew up in Russia, and though their lives were not in physical harm necessarily, they were certainly persecuted for being Jewish and they knew people who were threatened or incarcerated. Just before I was born they started filling in the paperwork to come to Australia.

Like the current asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, they chose Australia based on reputation alone. And like their predecessors from Eastern Europe who came by boat to this country just prior to or just after the war, they wanted to seek refuge in a place far away from Europe that offered them the potential they could only dream about in Russia in the 1970s.

Because it was already the 70s, like most asylum seekers that we don’t hear about today, our family arrived by plane. For us this was fortuitous timing because it was just a couple of years before the USSR closed its borders, and a decade or so before the fall of communism. Each day when my sister and I think about it, we thank our parents for the foresight and providence that befell them 35 years ago, and hope that we are living up to the potential they dreamt about.

I also wonder if we would have been welcome today, given how strict and unwelcoming the bureaucratic and political system appears to be these days. When I saw the asylum seekers in the film talk about Australia and their dreams, it reminded me of the wide-eyed exuberance of pioneering young Jews from all over the world, when they talk about aliyah and their dreams of a new life in Israel. The scenes and dreams are the same; just the characters are different. I think that as Australian Jews, almost all descendants from refugees and even boat people, we should take a stand, or at least show some more compassionate understanding. That is why I wanted to see such a film, and why I am so passionate about this issue. I urge you to also take a stand.

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  • Marilyn says:

    I have a copy of the film and I am haunted by the faces of those we now know died while our police tried to protect a spy.

  • TheSadducee says:

    “This is relevant to us today and particularly as Jews because this was the same dream many of our parents or grandparents had just a generation or two ago.”

    Wasn’t this the rationale behind Zionism and establishing our own homeland?

    Anyways, nowadays I would suggest that the true problem isn’t so much with refugees (which is a symptom) but rather with dealing with the intrinsic problems within those states/territories.

    By accepting the fact that states are so bad as to cause people to become refugees is a form of complicity – hence we have a responsibility to deal with the refugees because we (the democratic and developed world) are tolerating circumstances which we ourselves would not tolerate.

    I’m not concerned about arguments that say as Jews we should know better – simply put, as humans we should know better and forbid our brothers and sisters from suffering in the first place.

  • Wolf says:

    @ The Sadducee,

    well put!

  • Harold Zwier says:

    Alex, you should join the Jews For Refugees group. They would benefit from having more people who have had direct contact with refugees. Around the 1st June I went with a church group to visit people in the Broadmeadows detention centre. I have only visited once sof far. To have any real impact requires regular visiting and establishing relationships with people there.

  • Alex Kats says:

    Hi all and thanks for your comments.

    Marilyn – yes for me that too was the most haunting part.

    The Sadducee – I agree with you entirely and thanks for pointing this out. I wanted to give the article a Jewish angle, but I agree, as humans we should know better. The problem is that so many of us don’t particularly those whom we elect to represent us in parliament…

  • Levi says:

    “I have been volunteering each week in Dandenong, teaching English and chatting to those from Afghanistan or mostly other Middle Eastern countries who have recently arrived.”

    Do they know that you’re Jewish, Alex?

    I’m also from the former USSR and my family and I fled persecution. We came here legally. I’m sure your family was the same. Hardly a comparison.

    As Jews, we always have a natural tendency to vouch for the under dog. It’s like knee-jerk reaction. But, there are times were we just have to think with the head and not the heart…and act in the interest of our own community.

    When it comes to having very liberal laws on “asylum seekers” Europe sets a fine precedent. We see everyday what is happening in countries like France, Sweden and the UK – particularly to the Jewish communities who fall victim to these “asylum seekers.” Very successful indeed. is something you want to emulate in Australia as well?

    the head not the heart…

  • Alex says:

    Levi, I do think with the head and not the heart and that is why I say Australia should embrace the asylum seekers and welcome them. And as for the volunteering in Dandenong, not only do they know we are Jewish, we do it under Jewish auspices and talk about Judaism and Israel often…

  • Jonny says:

    Alex I’ve enjoyed all your recent pieces. Thanks. Can you continue on Levi’s point?How do those you’ve interacted with respond to your Jewishness?

  • Alex Kats says:

    Jonny, considering we volunteer under Jewish auspices, they react well. But we are not there to discuss religions. We do on occasion, particularly when there is something significant – undoubtedly next week we will talk about Ramadan – but generally we are there just to chat with them and to do so in a casual environment, unlike school for instance. They know we are Jewish, we know most of them are Muslim, though some are Christian, Buddhist or have no religion, and that’s it. It’s not an issue and doesn’t matter. We see them as people who came here for a better life, and that is why I am passionate about this…

  • Marky says:

    I would be more interested to hear the addressing of Levi’s second last paragraph.

  • Levi says:

    The fact that Jews are under siege in countries like the UK, Sweden & France due to Europe’s very liberal policies on “asylum” seekers is exactly why Australia should adopt the same policies. makes sense.

  • Marky says:

    Yes, that is what I would like to see addressed by Alex and co. He did not respond to that.

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks Alex

    I’m on a different track to Marky and Levi I think. i’m asking for my own personal interest in involvement.

    Sounds like it’s possible that you’re the first Jews they’ve ever met and that they may be very sensistive to this issue.

    If identity is simply ignored… what’s the relavence of you guys being under the auspice of a Jewish banner? Don’t you simply become good people, there to help however you can… why organise or present under a Jewish banner at all?

    I realise it’s not the main goal of your presence, but how deeply can you really understand the person your dealing with without understanding their religious groundings and cultural background especially in areas like tolerance of others. And surely you can add value by sharing your views. Is there a vision to that end?

    I ask genuinely as this isssue has held me back from being more active in the Jews for Refugees space.

  • Alex Kats says:

    To Levi, Marky and Jonny,
    Though we are there under Jewish auspices, we are not there to discuss identity, religion or culture. Our main purpose in the short time we have each week is to teach English or to be a sounding board for them in English. Having said that, if any issues regarding religion etc ever come up, we don’t shy away from them, and I have learned a lot about Muslim and Christian culture in that context, and also what it is like not to be part of the mainstream in a country like Afghanistan. They tell us about music and culture, etc. It is very interesting, and we share with the info about Jewish festivals, etc.
    As for ‘Jews under siege’ in Europe, my personal opinion is that it has very little to do with what you call ‘liberal policies’ on asylum seekers. With that said, let me reiterate again that I think all asylum seekers, whether they are coming to Australia or Europe, should be vigorously vetted before they are let in. But that is very different from putting up barriers as Australia does now. I think Australia should welcome them and encourage them, but should make sure they are genuine asylum seekers and safe before letting them in. This all comes back to not having double standards. Where would we all be if Australia put up the same barriers years ago when our families tried to get in? Does it really matter that we were coming from Europe rather than the Middle East??

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks for the info Alex.
    Well said on point 2.

  • Marky says:

    Double standards?? Our refugees coming from Europe were zero risk of violence. It’s. an insult to compare. Re vetting, most terror threats in Europe(and here) are apparently from second generation born locally.

  • Vardit says:

    This is third hand, but as it is a quote from a Melbourne University Press published book, I assume that it is accurate:

    Quote from Courage by Maria Tumarkin:
    ” … I read Suzanne Rutland’s account of what she called Australia’s postwar anti-Jewish refugee hysteria, of politicians and public figures falling over themselves to protect Australia from becoming a ‘tip for the refuse of Europe’, ‘a dumping ground for people whom Europe itself, in the course of 2000 years, has not been able to absorb’. … Hence the ‘are you Jewish?’ question on the immigration forms of the time. …”

    Sounds as though we are now saying similar things about the possible absorption of Muslim immigrants based on their apparent lack of absorption into European society.

  • Levi says:

    I’m not sure if the concept of ‘honor killings’ existed in the Jewish communities of Europe or whether Jews murdered innocent people and perpetrated massacres like the one we saw recently in France or regulary harassed and bash people on a daily basis….etc, etc.

    Legitimate comparison.

  • Levi says:

    Speaking of France…I once met a French Jewish lawyer in Israel who spent the best part of the 90’s volunteering her time to advocate for ‘refugees’ in France. in hindsight she regrets what she did and ironically (like a large number of French Jews)) became a refugee herself… I wonder why. But in our effort to build a cosmopolitan utopia, let’s not allow little known facts like that to get in the way. After all the muslims are the new Jews…

  • Doodie Ringelblum says:

    No, Jews didn’t have “honour killings”. But they certainly engaged in Europe in an organised fashion in armed rebellions, political assassinations, assisted in and led the violent overthrow of government and in the process were involved in the deaths of many people – “innocent” and “guilty”.
    All comparisons are odious – but if you wish to draw them……

  • Levi says:

    Valid point. As a member of the Bund movement you would certainly know better than anyone else.

  • Levi says:

    And they did all of these things out of a desire to build a utopian society…how ironic.

  • Levi says:

    Doodie’s point brings us back to the issue of the importance of why Jews should act in their own interests. Whenever Jews chose to act in the interest of some other cause – one usually with a cosmopolitan//utopian theme- then it almost always has devastating consequences for their host countries the world at large. We certainly saw this in Europe with the likes of Marx and Trotsky.

    fighting for the ‘rights’ of illegal immigrants from Islamic countries to live here is not in our interest. It is however, (very ironically) consistent with the interest of the cosmopolitain Jew…the same type of Jew who organized armed rebellions and political assassinations in Europe. The same Jew who zealously persecuted his own brethren in Russia for refusing to abandon their faith (see Soviet Jewish revolutionaries). One need only look at Sweden, France or the Uk to see the consequence of embracing such a policy where race riots, honor killings, fatwas and anitsemitic attacks are the norm.

    And any comparison between the Muslim immigrants of today to Jews escaping the Holocaust are absolutely obscene.

  • Doodie Ringelblum says:

    Levi – I don’t actually understand your point.
    The Jews of Czarist Russia were persecuted both because of their ethnicity and because of their economic status.
    Do you think the “cosmopolitan Jews” of Russia (I’ve never heard them described as such!) should have accepted that persecution? Or they should have arranged a revolution on their own? Or should they have pursued their own self-interests (as you argue) in conjunction with others who shared at least some similar aims?

    Don’t confuse those who happened to be Jewish with those who identified their cause as Jewish. Marx and Trotsky weren’t representing Jews or Jewish interests. They didn’t claim to, and nobody thought they were. On the other hand the Bund WAS acting as a Jewish organisation – in fact exactly as you suggest – it was representing Jewish interests first and foremost – socioeconomically by supporting the overthrow of an oppressive and antisemitic regime, but also culturally by insisting that Jews maintained their distinctiveness.

    I see no distinction b/w the arguments against letting in “illegal” migrants now and the arguments 30 years ago against allowing in Vietnemese boat people. Or b/w the arguments against Muslims now and the White Australia policy. Except that the latter also excluded Jews.

  • Levi says:

    ironically the consequences for overthrowing the Czarist regime turned out to be a lot worse for hundreds of millions of people – including the Jews. The Jews who were in involved in the revolution turned on their Jewish brethren like a bunch of Nazi Kapos. They thought they knew better and were well meaning – i.e. by forcing their Jewish brethren into abandoning their religion and embracing Socialism and universalit values, it would serve the “greater good”. They used all kinds of methods against their own – jail, torture, exection etc, Of course we all know what happened to these Jewish revolutionaries – Stalin didn’t spare them either and neither did he spare their brethren. the old Czarist regime by comparison turned out to be a lot better. As I mentioned before – I come from a family of Soviet refugees. We arrived here when I was a boy. So I have a pretty good insight into what happened. And yes, the Bund is responsible for creating that terrible situation. Everyone has good intentions of course – peace, love, equality, humanity – as the saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    As a former refugee who came here legally, I can tell you that alllowing people to enter here illegally makes it much harder for real refugees to come here. And please don’t play the race card and bring the white Australia policy into this. a morally repugnant comparison. Australia today is a very tolerant country and already takes in it’s fair share of refugees – including accepting people of the Muslim faith. Allowing people to come here illegally by the thousands every year makes it so much harder for the real refugees to come here.

  • Doodie Ringelblum says:

    Levi – if you think that the Bund (or even the majority of Jews) who supported the Russian revolution were involved in later anti-semitic activity then you need to reread your history books. The Bund was more vigorous in opposing communism than almost any other group.

    That the communist regime was worse than the czarist regime is a wisdom born of hindsight. Or do you think that the Jews of 1905 should have supported the monarchy?

    As to the white Australia policy – we agree it’s a morally repugnant policy; but I don’t see why it’s a morally repugnant comparison. The language used today is almost identical to the language used then.

    You say “Australia takes in its fair share of refugees”. We take about 20,000 refugees a year – less than 0.1% of our population. The USA takes proportionally less. Canada and most European countries take about five times as many per head of population and in absolute terms far more.

    The obstacle to “legal” refugees coming isn’t “illegals”. It’s the cap on numbers.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Doodie – if there was a “like” button on GA, I’d “like” your comment.

  • Levi (a refugee from the USSR) says:

    Not only did the Russian Bund support communism and the but they also decided to join the Bolsheviks…

    Are you going to deny that?

    While were are on the topic of reading and re-reading history books, have you ever heard of the Yevsekstia? Most of them (if not all of them) were bundists who joined the Bolsheviks in the glorious revolution. And they did take pleasure in the jailing, executing and torturing of their fellow Jews. They were the worst offenders.

    “That the communist regime was worse than the czarist regime is a wisdom born of hindsight. Or do you think that the Jews of 1905 should have supported the monarchy?”

    As a matter of fact, there were Jews who had the wisdom to actually foresee what was going to happen to their brethren and did actively support the czarist regime and later the White army. As a matter of fact, Jewish support for the Czarist regime went all the way back to the 18th century when the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (Alter Rebbe) supported Czar Alexander in his war against Napoleon. The Alter Rebbe new that the egalitarianism promised by Napoleon would have a devastating effect on the Jews and that as a result the Jews were better offer living in the pale of settelment under the tyrannical rule of the Czar. With hindsight, we see that the Russian victory over the French only delayed Napolean’s idea of imposing a “egalitarinism” on Russia and it’s citizens.

    “Canada and most European countries take about five times as many per head of population and in absolute terms far more.”

    Are you proposing a European type “immgiration” model?

  • Doodie Ringelblum says:

    Levi – The Bund was formally (and vigorously) opposed to the Bolsheviks from as early as 1903 and it was the Bund’s walking out of the RSDLP conference in protest against Lenin that gave the Bolsheviks the majority over the Mensheviks. The Bund supported the Revolution, not the communists.
    Or are you confusing the mainstream Bund with the ComBund? The Bund was declared illegal in the Soviet Union in 1918 (precisely because of its opposition to the Communists) – the same year that Yevsekstia was formed, so the notion that it was filled with Bundistn is nonsense. What the ComBundistn did is another story … and another party.

    I am astounded that you think that the Jews in Czarist Russia were better off than they were under the French emancipation? Napoleon was far from perfect – but he gave the Jews the vote. The Czars gave the Jews pogroms! This is your preference? You would have preferred Russia over France between 1812 and 1917?

    As for immigration policy – if its a choice between allowing in a tiny number of dangerous fanatics or excluding a huge number of desperate, needy people – yes, I’d choose the former. Why wouldn’t you?

  • Levi (a refugee from the USSR) says:

    The communist bund evolved out of the Russian bund – the majority of the Russian bund became bolsheviks. So yes, what the Comm bund did was pretty relevant.

    What I think? The alter Rebbe was around at the that time and he seemed to think that Czar Alexander was the better option. The Jews were certainly better off living in the pale of settlement than they were once they were “emancipated” don’t you agree? didn’t you mention something before about “hindsight”?

    ” for immigration policy – if its a choice between allowing in a tiny number of dangerous fanatics or excluding a huge number of desperate, needy people – yes, I’d choose the former. Why wouldn’t you?”

    If the Muslim community of Australia has had a racist, Jew hating, holocaust denying bigot as it’s leader…what makes you think it’s a tiny number of dangerous fanatics? If we saw what happened to the Jews of Sweden, France and the Uk recetnyl – why would I chose the former? Is it really in my interest as a Jew?

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