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Immigration to Israel: Vietnamese Boat People in Israel

by Naomi Scheinerman

In April 1975, North Vietnamese totalitarian communists defeated the South Vietnam regime and the United States army. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese secretly fled South Vietnam to escape communist persecution and torture. Many escaped in small, unreliable boats and faced harsh weather and threats from pirates as they were turned away by neighboring local authorities. More and more Vietnamese began escaping.

On June 10, 1977, an Israeli cargo ship en route to Japan crossed paths with a boat full of 66 Vietnamese. They were out of food and water, were extremely lost and scared, and their boat was leaking. Their SOS signals had gone ignored by passing East German, Norwegian, Japanese, and Panamanian boats. The Israeli captain and crew immediately offered food and water and decided to bring the passengers on board and transported them to Israel.

Once in Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized the Vietnamese boat people with Israeli citizenship, comparing their situation to the plight of Jewish refugees seeking a haven during the Holocaust. Between 1977 and 1979, Israel welcomed over three hundred Vietnamese refugees.

The documentary The Journey of Vaan Nguyen made by Israeli film director Duki Dror follows Hanmoi Nguyen, one of the original refugees, as he lives in Israel and returns to his town in Vietnam. A writer and restaurant worker, he finds himself suspended between two civilizations, without being fully at home in either one.

Sources: American Zionist Movement; The Jerusalem Post (October 3, 2009)