Special to the JTA Jewish Involvement with the Boat People, Vietnamese Refugees
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Special to the JTA Jewish Involvement with the Boat People, Vietnamese Refugees

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“To be along the Thailand-Cambodian border in January 1980, is to see death, hunger and hope all rolled into one,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Judea in Tarzana, California. “It is the Holocaust.”

It is there, moreover, that this writer learned that the final act may soon be played out Within the next few months, we may yet see another vast human tide of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees that will pale last summer’s onslaught which in itself was a natural disaster.

In an interview in Hong Kong, just after Jacobs and Elmer Winter, past president of the American Jewish Committee, visited Thailand and Cambodia, Jacobs told me the crowded Shum Shui Po camp in Hong Kong was nothing compared to the thousands caught in open-air huts in camps sprayed by the cross fire of politics of famine, politics of hate and politics of war.

He agreed that the Cambodian people have become the pawns of geopolitics. The Vietnamese backed Phnom Penh regime which has overrun. Cambodia is fighting the deposed Pol Pot regime and in so doing may push out 300,000 men, women and children in refugee camps which straddle the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Thousands of Cambodians could soon be pouring out of the area deeper into Thailand. Because of lack of food, many will starve as did many thousands this post summer, thus reminding the world again of the sounds and sights of emaciated and sick children.


In the midst of all this human tragedy, one sight that moved the two Jewish leaders in this border area which resounds with gunfire and shelling in the background, was the Red Magen David emblazoned on the green outfits of the Israeli medical team. “There are four or five such teams throughout the area,” Jacobs said. “They obviously are an inspiration to others.”

He talked to some of the Israeli doctors and nurses in Hebrew, he related, and he could sense that these were dedicated men and women who would never stop their work of saving human life. The medical team members were married individuals who gave up their daily life in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa to be in this part of the world — thousands of miles from home.

But, continued Jacobs, Jewish involvement in the caring for the starving, for the refugees, is not limited to the Israeli team. In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, American Jewish concern is recognized by officials at the American Embassy who, according to Jacobs, are well aware of the re-settlement offers made by his synagogue as well as congregations throughout the U.S.

Jacobs pledged to continue his efforts to arouse the American Jewish community to greater re-settlement efforts regarding the boat people.

“My fact finding mission to Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia has changed my life and deepened my commitment to re-settlement here in our country and elsewhere. It is a rare privilege to be alive and to be able to sponsor a family,” declared this rabbi who is the chairperson of the (California) Governor’s Citizen Task Force of Refugees. While he said that for now, food is getting through to the starving on the border, he added he would continue to plead for American Jews to contribute monies for Cambodian relief.


As a spiritual leader, Jacobs believes that the American Jewish community must become even more involved in the plight of the boat people and the starving Cambodians. “As a Jew, I came away from the Nazi Holocaust with an obsession. It is from the Book of Leviticus and translated for me it says, ‘You shall not stand idly by while the blood of your brothers and sisters cries out to you from the earth.'”

He asserted that he would like every rabbi to visit this part of the world and see the situation personally. “They would never be the same,” he said, adding what he termed was an agenda for the American Jewish community now; To translate its Judaism, fewer words and more action, such as resettlement of more Vietnamese families in the U.S.; and an increase in the amount of funds raised for Cambodian Relief.

Jacobs, who last summer attended the International Conference on the Vietnamese Refugees in Geneva, is proud of a letter which he received from Vice President Walter Mondale, who wrote: “The concern you and the Jewish community in America have shown for the plight of the refugees in Indochina has been greatly appreciated by this Administration and me personally. As we continue to seek ways to lessen the suffering of these people. I am pleased that we can count on your support.”

(Tomorrow: Part 3)

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