The American president signed one of his first executive orders, temporarily barring all refugees from entering the United States. And I find myself thinking back to the first orders of another leader whose ascension shocked a nation, nearly three decades ago.
On May 17, 1977, the Likud, headed by Menachem Begin, won the Israeli election by a landslide. Words like “political earthquake” and “shock” seemed like understatements at the time: Until 1977, Israel was consistently led by the left-leaning workers’ parties, especially Mapai. Suddenly, and for the first time since 1948, the socialist and mostly Ashkenazi elites found themselves ousted by the religious, right-leaning and Mizrachi masses. This “was such a game-changer in Israeli politics,” Daniel Gordis recently wrote, “that no existing word seemed to suffice.” Therefore, the Israeli television created a new word to describe it: “HaMahapach,” the revolution.
The leader of this “revolution” was, indeed, a rebel. Begin, the former leader of the infamous “Irgun” (a Jabotinsky-esque paramilitary organization that spearheaded an armed revolt against the British Mandate In Palestine in violation of the mainstream Zionist policy), was perceived as the arch-nemesis of everything establishment. His supporters celebrated his victory as their chance to thoroughly transform Israeli society. His critics, both in Israel and abroad, feared that Begin would destroy the Jewish state. They didn’t march in the streets in protest, but neither did they hide their disgust and trepidation. What disasters, they speculated, were just around the corner? What would the rebel-turned-prime-minister do next?
But Begin’s first official action as Israel’s prime minister had nothing to do with war-mongering or with his so-called “fascist” agenda. Neither did it target the establishment or outline a method for “draining the swamp.” In fact, compared to the doomsday predictions of his rivals and the fervent hopes of his supporters, Begin’s first order could be seen as anticlimactic.
Four weeks after his election and a week before the formation of his government, on June 12, 1977, Menachem Begin started his career as Israel’s prime minister by granting asylum to 179 Vietnamese refugees who were picked up at sea by an Israeli ship, having been denied asylum by other Asian countries.
“We remember the MS St. Louis,” Begin told President Carter when the latter commended him for this decision. “We remember the Holocaust.”
The MS St. Louis, a ship that carried 937 mostly Jewish refugees from Europe in 1939, had to turn back when the US denied these men, women, and children entry. 254 of its passengers were trapped in Western Europe when Nazi Germany invaded. They died in the camps.
For Begin, the MS St. Louis was more than a tragic story: It was a moral imperative. As a Jew, he couldn’t stand by while other refugees were denied asylum and effectively sentenced to death by an apathetic world. As a Jew, and a Jew who remembered the MS St. Louis, Begin couldn’t simply look the other way.
Like Begin, many of us remember the MS St. Louis. In fact, over the past weekend the story of that doomed ship became a household name thanks to the St. Louis Manifest, an online commemoration project that recalls each of the 254 victims by name.
My name is Werner Stein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz pic.twitter.com/nCgt9V33xm
— St. Louis Manifest (@Stl_Manifest) January 28, 2017
Like Menachem Begin, we remember the MS St. Louis. But what does the memory mean to us? Will it remain a platitude, a tweet to share — or will it inform our actions, as it did Menachem Begin’s first decision as Israel’s prime minister in 1977?