Responsa II: The Sympathizer

 

After I sent out my Responsa to my review of Nguyen’s book, I received another comment on the original review. The individual had read the book and believed that, instead of the extensive examination on Nguyen’s rhetorical comments on American culture, I should have attended to the two scenes that bracket the book, the American desertion of Vietnam at the beginning of the novel and the Communist interrogation of our hero at the end to reveal something about actual behaviour of both the US and Vietnam rather than just one character’s personal depictions of a culture. Branding America as imperialist is insufficient since that is not what the novel describes. What is depicted is America’s abandonment not its involvement in and conduct of the war. Further, the Vietnamese at the end seems far more ruthless than America ever behaved in Vietnam, so to see the worst traits of Vietnamese simply as imitations of or influences by American culture seems misplaced.

The comment is relevant; focusing on the brackets seems a good idea. Since it ties in with the war that I so unalterably opposed when I grew into my political maturity, it was even closer to me heart and mind even than the issue of refugees. But I cannot begin with America’s war in Vietnam and the abandonment of the country. This blog will zero in on the formation of my view of America even before I became an anti-Vietnam War activist in the sixties.

Let me tell you my starting point that is really my end point. Three of my six children are now American citizens. Some of my grandchildren raised in the United States do not think of themselves as dual citizens; they are Americans period. Further, I love the US – its geography, its energy, its vitality, its creativity, its p. I love the warmth, the friendliness and the generosity of Americans. But I do not love American militarism and American imperialism that Nguyen skewers so strongly in his book.

That perspective goes deep. I was indoctrinated to be anti-American in high school. Not because the US hung Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, though I unfairly judged that to be a witch trial at the time. My education of American history was slim, but I did learn about the War of 1812. The bottom line was simple. The US saw its manifest destiny as including Canada. It was the first war the Americans lost. It was the second war after the War of Independence in which America won the peace.

Britain was involved in the imperative of finishing off Napoleon, a victory that would set the foundation for the largest empire ever known. (I do not know if it really was.) So even though the Canadians with their Six Nations allies beat the Americans, in the 1814 peace deal, America set the precedent as Britain surrendered the forts it held running from Detroit to the Mississippi in return for securing the US as a trading partner. The precedent was also set for a division between British North America and the US along the 49th parallel. At the same time, Britain had sold out its First Nations allies that had been so crucial to the American defeat. At least this was the version of the War of 1812 that I was taught and that I retained. Americans were land hungry. Americans were ruthless Yankee bargainers.

Of course, this was not the “truth.” I would learn of a much more nuanced narrative when I began reading |Canadian history on my own, but it was usually at the further expense of British honour rather than Canadian glory. The general impression of Americans remained. Whatever the causes, whatever the history of the British blockade in response to Napoleon’s (the Berlin Decree) and the effort to recapture British sailors who had deserted and enlisted in the American navy, whatever the record of Britain even impressing American sailors and forcing them to serve the British navy, however the boarding of the Chesapeake by the Brits to recapture deserters that roused the nationalism and anti-British feelings across the US,  the war with Canada was initiated by President James Madison and his cohort of war hawks in Congress to seize Upper Canada and guarantee the expansion of America to the Pacific. This was undertaken even though a very large number of Americans opposed the war.

We used to ride our bikes to Fort York at the foot of Bathurst Street when we were kids. We learned that the Americans had sacked Fort York, not once but twice. However, the American invading forces had been defeated in between at Fort Detroit and again defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Unfortunately, a Canadian hero, the Governor of Upper Canada, Major-General Sir Isaac |Brock, died. Americans were once again defeated at Beaver Dams, largely because of First Nations forces and because of a Canadian heroine Laura Secord, who alerted the British army, the Canadian militias and the main striking force of First Nations.

In these battles, two American armies were lost. The effort to capture Montreal also failed.

However, given the feckless support of Britain, Tecumseh’s Confederacy was defeated and one of the greatest warriors killed. Further, to the consternation of the Brits so proud of their naval power, the British navy was defeated on Lake Erie, though the story on the Atlantic was much different. Washington was burned. Maine was controlled by the British and New York was under threat, but a hapless British general lost that opportunity.

The war left a residue that set the stage for America’s rise in the nineteenth century. Britain had betrayed its First Nation allies and the defeat of the Tecumseh confederacy opened the west, at least in the northern US, to American expansion. The Treaty of Ghent restored the territories gained by the British to the Americans. Perhaps more significantly, the aftermath of the war in the Battle of Louisiana with the British secured the reputation of Andrew Jackson who would feed off populism to become president and ethnically cleanse the Eastern and Central United States of its native population.

I am now in Mexico. My eldest son, a Latin American historian at Princeton, several years ago gave me a volume by Enrique Krauze, Mexico – Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996. What I know of Mexican history I absorbed from this volume.

Mexico and Canada are currently bargaining with the U.S. over NAFTA. It is not the first time. Mexico became independent in 1821, Canada not until 1867. Britain continued to negotiate with the US through the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1845, though Britain legally shared the territory north of the Columbia River, known as the Oregon territory, with the US, Britain, with its First Nation allies, exercised de facto control. At the same time, Mexico included what is now California, Nevada Utah, Arizona New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Mexico was fighting a war in Texas with American expansionists; the American Congress had passed legislation to annex Texas in 1845. American westward expansion had been stymied behind the Arkansas River that cut through the south-west of Kansas and the southern border of Oklahoma.

President James Knox Polk was the warrior president of the United States who, through lies and manipulation, initiated the war with Mexico. But his success depended in good part on whether he could bluff and defeat Britain in peace talks. Through skillful negotiations and deceit (I am not sure whether he was as mendacious as Donald Trump, but the two belong in the same camp), he managed to separate Great Britain from Mexico. In return for peace with the US, Britain ceded the territory that is now Oregon and Washington State and abandoned Mexico to its own fate. The 49th parallel became the major dividing line between Canada and the US. The 54:40 American hawks, who dreamed of expanding the US up to the border with Russia in Alaska, thought Polk had betrayed them.

Polk had greater ambitions. With Britain out of the way, facing a dispirited, economically weak and divided Mexico with a political system that mixed “monarchical” leadership with populism, with a relatively smaller population, most of whom were Amero-Indian and resentful of |Mexico City, Polk seized the opportunity open for American expansion in the south-west. He knew that American power, backed up by its initial industrial might, its far superior armaments and its much better communications and transportation systems, could defeat a politically divided Mexico. Even its allied ruling elite were divided. General Santa Anna was a despot. Lucas Alamán, his political partner, was not. He wanted a republican state governed by the rule of law. His proposal, to cede Texas that had declared independence in 1836 to prevent a larger war that he foresaw Mexico was bound to lose, was rejected.

The Americans invaded Texas in 1947. The excoriations thrown at him by John Quincy Adams had no effect. Neither did the denunciations of the young Abe Lincoln or his demand that Polk provide evidence that Mexico had invaded the US. Mexico was blockaded at sea. Though the people of Mexico were united and rallied against the American invaders, they were no military match, though the Mexicans put up a far more spirited defence that Polk had expected. Though their sacrifices had been enormous, they eventually lost. The American flag in September of 1847 flew over the National Palace. Nine days after the peace treaty was signed in 1848, Americans struck gold in California.

Victory arrived, but not without the Mexicans resorting to guerilla warfare. The US responded, as imperialists do, with war crimes, with beating civilians wans hanging alleged insurrectionist leaders in public squares. The precedent of atrocities was multiplied in the destruction of the Comanche Empire that followed. Americans set a precedent for genocide in the nineteenth century. This does not mean that all Americans misbehaved. A number were generous to the civilians, for America is by and large constituted by a generous people. After the war, Mexicans in the territories ceded to the US were offered citizenship and freedom of worship in spite of the pervasive racism of America, particularly coming from its militaristic side. Blacks were not the only victims. First Nations were treated even worse.

America is a divided nation. It always has been from the time it expelled the United Empire Loyalists. Those who threatened the empire were evicted or forced to submit or both. The US ended the nineteenth century with the ten-week Spanish-American War, the long occupation of Cuba, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and Guam and the reduction of the Philippines to a satrap.

Responsa: The Sympathizer

I want to thank those who wrote and welcomed me back to blogging. However, I am still on holiday for another month so if I resume, I expect my blogs will be infrequent. But, who knows. Infections are very hard to get rid of.

I was asked a number of questions. The first was about why my response was so over the top. The simple answer – it was not. I checked the reviews. They were much shorter and covered the gamut of character and plot, atmosphere and style and did not focus in depth on one theme. But they were just as effusive. The novel did win a Pulitzer.

Why did I not discuss the flaws and only mentioned that they existed? My excuse – the novel was too terrific to focus on the distractions. For example, one flaw I believe was the excessive drinking in the novel, particularly among the Vietnamese characters. The novel is an alcoholic’s dream. But the characters like the crapulant major depicted as alcoholics are rarely described as drinking let alone drinking to excess, whereas the most sober characters drink like shickers.

Was the novel satirizing the Vietnamese imitation of this American trait? I do not believe the novel here was satirizing the Vietnamese community or how much the Vietnamese men had become Americanized, for this was not a trait I have observed at all in my dealings with the Vietnamese. Further, as Nguyen explained in an interview, in using the plot device of a Vietnamese man confessing to another, he was offering a conversation between and among Vietnamese to portray and satirize American culture and the extent to which the Vietnamese sometimes aped its worst traits. But, in this case, do they? Or was the novel then satirizing drinking as a fictional device? I suspect the latter, but I am afraid it did not work for me.

In one sense, the novel is a satire of the spy novel itself. Making the central character a mole had to be a tribute to John le Carré who invented the term. On the other hand, among the many writers Nguyen cites as sources, specifically on the Vietnam War and on Francis Ford Coppola’s film, I did not find le Carré among them. Besides, the anti-hero, Smiley, is le Carré’s chief protagonist and he hunts moles rather than being one himself. Nguyen’s character, who has such a lofty as well as deprecating view of himself, is a counterpoint to Smiley who is modest to a fault as well as self-deprecating.

However, if Nguyen’s novel is in part a satire of the spy novel, why did I not write more about lies and betrayal that provide a central core and fascination in that genre of fiction? Because Nguyen inverts this theme. The protagonist, Man, his handler, and Bon swear fealty to one another at the age of fourteen, and though one is on the opposite side of the other two ideologically, they never betray their pledge of loyalty to one another as much as one might abuse the other in the end. In one sense, the novel is a romance about male bonding and a satire of it at the same time. There is no Kim Philby, or simulacrum to Philby, in the novel.

Why did I never explain my reason to focus on the theme of Vietnamese acculturation and American culture? Two reasons. Nguyen saw this as the major thrust of his novel. Second, as I thought I suggested, this was the issue in which I personally was most interested. But why did I not talk about fictional devices at least to illustrate how they advanced the theme instead of quoting so much? Good point. The protagonist is, after all, a Hamlet figure and the war film he helps produce is called The Hamlet, for Nguyen’s novel is about the schizophrenic character of the Vietnamese for whom divisiveness is central – into North and South, into communists and nationalists, into imitators of Americans obsessed with a woman’s cleavage, itself a reflection of division.

The main character may see both sides of an issue, but he is even more hapless than Hamlet. His assassinations are as gratuitous as the murders in a Tarantino film, but they have no finesse. His schizophrenia always sabotages his own actions.

That brings up another flaw that I found in this brilliant novel. I think that Nguyen has a keen ear for the inner voice and thought, almost keener than anyone I have read, but he has a tin ear for actual voices. Read what the characters say – you really cannot tell the characters apart. Just compare Nguyen’s novel to any of le Carré’s who is an artist of mimicry. There are some exceptions in Nguyen, such as the General’s speech or those talks of Richard Held, the prototype of the American ideologue of permanent war who makes Trotsky, the originator of permanent revolution, look like a piker. However, even in these cases, it is content that gives the character away, not the timbre or tone or inflexion. They do not have individualized voices. But Nguyen’s novel is so much more profound than those of le Carré, who is not just a terrific writer of spy thrillers, but a great novelist. But the detailed portrayal of voice and gesture, of clothes and composure, of breathing and glances, all the devices that help make the surfaces of the characters so vivid, are just not there in Nguyen, at least with any great skill. However, the probing of the inner world more than makes up for this deficiency. Far more.

The major difference, however, is that le Carré is not an artful dodger but an artful liar, someone obsessed with dissimulation both as a mechanism and a subject matter. Nguyen is too interested in truth and the spy format is simply a great device to explore his obsessions. In Nguyen, the characters, in spite of their erudition, seem clueless. In le Carré, it is M16 and the institutions sponsoring the spying that are portrayed as clueless.

From one point of view, novels are projections of a novelist’s personal obsession, in le Carré’s case, his relations with his mendacious and irresponsible father. Nguyen’s may be with an officious and uptight authority figure, but I suspect not. Nguyen has a long career ahead of him to give us time to figure that out.

Obviously, in such a rich novel, this type of conversation could go on endlessly. And should.

Thank you for writing.

American Culture and Vietnamese Refugee Integration: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

by

Howard Adelman

The Legacy Of Ho Chi Minh: Nothing is More Precious than Independence and Freedom (cf. p. 27 of the novel)

The writing is full of biting irony. Well-paced, harrowing and comic, complex and compelling, riveting and reflective, the plot combines a capacious imagination with a great attention to detail, a dialectic of the absurd and the real, critical and satirical and full of tawdry scheming to advance the grand goals of history. Though there are many asides, they are never at the cost of the story line. Lush, decorative and extravagant language is squeezed out for penetrating original similes and metaphors in a minimalist presentation that is all the richer for it, almost too rich in circling round and round its prey.

The reflective self-consciousness characteristic of the twentieth century novel, this exploration of the marrow of memories, is at once taken upwards into the world of ideas as it explores the real meaning of hell-on-earth. Rich in treachery, the novel ignores the subtle body language of the French wink and nod, half-glance and raised eyebrow, for the succinct and direct. To live is to suffer because desire will always put life at risk and value sacrifice much more than happiness. For a very long novel, the number of scenes is quite limited, but each is as crowded and packed as the streets of Saigon were before it fell in April of 1975. The characters do not so much grow as multiply like the cancer that eats them from the inside. And the questions raised are always astute. Instead of terminating in a confrontation with one’s steely-eyed and immovable and implacable conscience, the protagonist crashes into the black depths of nothingness to finally encounter and confront his sin.

The book is simply brilliant, not flawless, but all the more powerful in spite of those flaws. A spy thriller, a refugee story of flight and integration, a tale focused on identity, on loyalty and disloyalty, a ghost story, the definitive story of the American War in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective but more a tale of war crimes than of war itself, a portrayal of the end of the American involvement in that war in its vivid and horrific detail, brutal and tender, an essay on filmography and representation of the first war in history where the losers wrote the history instead of the victors and Hollywood still served to launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles of Americanization “to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart” (173), a reflective perception on American culture, an anti-utopian treatise, an exposure of the fraud of both the dialectic and linear progressive myths of history, a buddy tale of hedonism and stoicism, a story of political and social ideas and of torture and terrorism, of conflicting ideologies each of which turns into a suit that anyone can wear draped on its corpse, a narrative of Vietnamese communism suffused with Catholicism and sin where red is the colour of revolution and blood, versus good luck and fortune, a novel in the form of a bildungsroman, but really a tale of a Vietnamese adult’s (rather than formative) years of embodied re-education rather than a spiritual education, a story of truth and deception, of humanity and inhumanity, but mostly a narrative about morals and about reaching through time, through conundrums and paradoxes, into loss and pain, into a black hole.

The novel is so rich in themes that I can focus on only one of them. That allows you, the reader, to endlessly explore one of the myriad of others. I concentrate on the experience of a refugee trying to integrate into America and from the outside developing a very jaundiced but perceptive insight into American culture. Natalie Walter in her essay, “Heimat” in The New York Review of Books(23 November 2017, LXIV:18) wrote this of her refugee grandparent’s efforts to integrate into British society: “Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK during the war were given a leaflet by the British Board of Jewish Deputies admonishing them to abide by British customs and never to speak loudly in public.” (12)

I had the same experience, but from the other side of the table. In 1979 in Toronto, we were welcoming the first contingent of Sino-Vietnamese Boat People, the latter a name bestowed on these refugees by our media, but in the novelist’s critical reflection, “a name one might think referred to a newly discovered tribe of the Amazon River or a mysterious, extinguished prehistoric population whose only surviving grace was their watercraft.” (151) The reception for these “Boat People” was held in the Chinese Community Centre on Cecil Street, which, in its previous life was a synagogue with the Hebrew writing still embossed into the stonework, a synagogue in which my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah. The perceived VIPs offered speeches of welcome.

Without any collaboration, we all made the same speech. Our ancestors were immigrants to this country. Many were refugees. They were like you. And you are now part of us. You are just like us. Then the representatives of the National Chinese Association addressed the refugees in Chinese. A friend provided me with a simultaneous translation. Like ours, and again without collaboration, all their speeches carried the same message, but the content was the opposite. They insisted that the refugees must remember they are Chinese and they are symbols of what it is to be a Chinese person in Toronto.

Do not let us down. Do not shame us. Most of all, if you are in close quarters with Canadians who are born here, do not cook with fish oil even though fish sauce is the universal solvent with variety, subtlety and complexity. (Nguyen 70) The Sino-Vietnamese refugees were being told to give up one of the most significant elements of their culinary culture. The refugees were being told by the Chinese-Canadians that they were different, that they were representatives of that difference, that as a minority they were not equal but would have to conform to the dominant culture. And that was right after we, in our oblivious condescending way, were denying difference, were failing to recognize the special horror they had been through, were being indifferent to the challenges and hardships they would confront in being aliens in an alien land. Instead, we drowned them once again, but this time in sweetness and sentimentality.

How could we pretend to empathize with them? How could we presume to get inside their skins, inside their pain and suffering? Nguyen’s novel is precisely about that effort, but from the perspective of a mole, of a spy, of an alien agent. A sympathizer is not simply one who sympathizes with another, but one who does so to get inside the other so that he can critically reflect on that otherness. He is engaged in spying, not empathetic re-enactment. He is a sleeper agent, (57) not because he is somnambulant and walks and talks while asleep, but because he is under a compulsion to think and talk to prevent himself from sleeping lest someone discover, including himself, who he represents. “Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep.” (355) For war never dies; it is the one thing that just goes to sleep. (225)

As the novel opens, the first person narrator says: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” But not simply any ordinary spy for, “I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” The true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus.” (374) This singular perspective is what allows an American to feed on the narcotic of optimism. However, seeing two sides is also a limitation. A superb mole can observe himself and he can identify and observe an Other, but he cannot “observe himself as someone else.” (342) He sees two sides but does not possess a way to synthesize them dialectically. Until he can, the symbiotic desire for both recognition and being remembered will not come together. More pointedly, they will tear him apart.

What were the two sides? The US imperial, colonial and militaristic state and society was suffused with delusional exceptionalism and stereotyping of the other. “(N)othing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” (218) And the other side? Vietnam was “the jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States.” (7) Given their habit of singing as they faced death, the Vietnamese “were the Italians of Asia,” (16) but in life served as “a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body politic?” (69) And in America, “most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through nor looked down on these newcomers.” (94)

“All right, a loser is what I am…I’m a loser for believing in all the promises your America made to people like me. You came and said we were your friends, but what we didn’t know is that you could never trust us, much less respect us. Only losers like us couldn’t have seen what’s so obvious now, how you wouldn’t want anyone as your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors could believe your promises.” (163) It was a version of the Groucho Marx story. Who would want to belong to the same club that you were willing to join?

Americans and Vietnamese were culturally at war. It revealed itself even in how young men and women came together, in romance. “Americans understood dating to be about investments and gains, short or long term, but we saw romance and courtship as being about losses. After all, the only worthwhile courtship involved persuading a woman who could not be persuaded, not a woman already predisposed to examine her calendar for her availability.” (244)
Was the clash really of civilizations or was it one between civilization and barbarism? For the American side had lost too. And who were the real barbarians, those who used the old barbaric tools of torture or those who made torture into a science, those who inflicted pain on the body or those who drilled into the mind with unending questions until they came face to face with nothing?

On reflecting on the million who died in the war and the 200,000 to 400,000 who died in trying to escape from the political regime of the victors, “they would not have believed how they died, just as we could not believe that the Americans – our friends, our benefactors, our protectors – had spurned our request to send money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope.” As the General, to whom the protagonist was an aide-de-camp, said, nothing “is ever so expensive as what is offered free.” (4)

But the two cultures were also one and the same. “ ‘(C)onsistency is the hobglobin of little minds.’ Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America.” (12) However, the same thing could be said of Vietnam. Yet America was very different, as exceptional as it claimed to be, but not in the way it claimed. “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl. America, a country not content to give itself a name at its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA [Was Britain not referred to as the UK, though a duet rather than a triplet or a quartet, itself a revelation?], a trifecta of letters outdone later by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” (29)

This is written as America once again works on honing its muscles and enhancing its strength at the same time as it once again seeks to withdraw from its extensive involvement in the world. America remains the same just as it is ever changing. But the change seems to be one of circling, perhaps in the form of a spiral, but circling nonetheless. However, America has not learned that it “could no longer could win wars.” (246) This contrasted with Vietnam where, “violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them.” (246)

When the protagonist returns to America in 1975 as a refugee, it has unalterably changed from the US he experienced as a foreign student. Then, whether he observed the antiwar faction or the pro-war gang among the ex-pat Vietnamese community, “Regardless of their political clique, these students gulped from the same overflowing cup of loneliness, drawing together for comfort…hoping for the body heat of fellow sufferers in an exile so chilly even the California sun could not warm their cold feet.” (93)

“By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were of a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.” (61) But that was 1975. Three years later, Americans would come face-to-face with stories of suffering and dying in Indochina for which they were not directly responsible, for which the successor communist regimes bore the heavy weight of guilt. But that is when the story ends, not when it begins. But also where it begins as the full story of what it means to be a Vietnamese “sympathizer with the Left, a revolutionary fighting for peace, equality, democracy, freedom, and independence, all the noble things my people had died for and I had hid for.” (61)

But was this not the American rhetorical ideal? Was this not the America the Vietnamese general extolled as he spoke to and rallied his fellow exiles. “I am here to tell you that what you remind me of is America’s great promise! The promise of the immigrant! The promise of the American dream! The promise that the people of this country hold dear and will one day soon hold dear again, that America is a land of freedom and independence, a land of patriots who have always stood up for the little man no matter where he is in the world, a land of heroes who will never relent in the cause of helping our friends and smiting our enemies, a land that welcomes people like you, who have sacrificed so much in our common cause of democracy and liberty. One day, my friends, America will stand tall again, and it will be because of people like you.” (119) “And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese…must claim America,” (274) for America will not give itself to you.

In that time, and once again, Donald Trump stands the American dream, but this time on its head and turned inside out into a nightmare of American boosterism at the expense of the immigrant and the refugee. Once again Americans have surrendered and are “cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” (254)

Were the Occident and the Orient never to meet as equals at the same time on a common playing field? Or was it the case that the twain could never meet? Was Kipling’s claim, as the protagonist opines (63), an accurate diagnosis or a myth even more powerful than the one of equality and peace let alone a higher symbiosis of Occident and Orient? Was the protagonist’s trip into the heart of darkness really a trip into the depths of hell and despair, a trip taken through a diahorea of words by one who was a born listener who had mastered “the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word”? (75)

This is a book of truth and insight, of “the best kind of truth, the one that meant two things,” (121, the one that meant that nothingness, doing nothing while facing nothing, was the one thing that was more important than waging war for freedom and independence.

Israel’s African asylum seekers: What needs to be done

FEBRUARY 8, 2018, 2:26 PM 11

BLOGGER

Israel is home to nearly 40,000 African asylum seekers and migrants – of whom some 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% Sudanese – some of whom began to arrive as early as 2005. At the time, asylum seekers from these two countries – both of which are dictatorships that brutally repress their populations and violate their human rights – began to arrive in Canada.

As a Canadian member of Parliament, I chaired the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, founded in 2003, where we documented the Darfurian genocide and the subsequent ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities perpetrated by the Khartoum regime, and where most Darfurians from this killing field received asylum in Canada.

Equally, the Eritreans fled a country which has been characterized as the “North Korea of Africa,” and where National Service can be tantamount to indefinite slave labour. The Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights – where I served as vice chair – held hearings into the human rights situation in Eritrea, with witness testimony and evidence documenting the major human rights violations perpetrated by this dictatorial regime. Some 97% of Eritrean asylum seekers received refugee status in Canada.

I write as the Israeli authorities have begun handing out deportation notices pursuant to the government’s “Infiltration Law” adopted by the Israeli Knesset in December, and where deportations are due to begin in March 2018. As of this writing, women, children under 18, and families — as well as Darfurians who have received protected status (some 600) — will not be deported.

When the Darfurians and Eritreans first started to arrive in 2006-8, Israel initially did the right thing in granting them temporary protected status, understanding that deportation would amount to a violation of its obligations under the International Refugee Convention, which Israel had ratified and the adoption of which it had championed in 1951.

However, as the arrivals continued to increase, with the numbers rising to a high of 2,000 per month in 2011, the apprehension grew of African asylum seekers as a security and demographic threat. The political and public discourse dramatically changed with them now characterized as “infiltrators” — “mistanenim” in Hebrew — which was as prejudicial as it was pre-judgmental in effectively predetermining a status which had yet to be determined. That rhetoric began to worsen as the numbers grew, with the “infiltrators” now being increasingly referred to as “criminals” and “predators” – and by government officials, even as a “cancer” – all designed to “make their lives miserable so that they will want to leave,” as one government minister put it at the time.

Indeed, as I testified before a Knesset Committee in 2011, Israeli political leaders — who should have known better — were then engaging in ongoing incitement against asylum seekers that was designed to stigmatize, criminalize and expel, rather than evaluate and properly determine their status according to law. Moreover, the situation of asylum seekers/migrants was further mishandled from the beginning by the dispatch of them to South Tel Aviv where the infrastructure was already crumbling before their arrival – rather than any equitable dispersal around the country – and where the increasing “criminalization” of these asylum seekers only served to incite the otherwise neglected Israelis in South Tel Aviv against them. I myself have made many visits to South Tel Aviv over the years, and I acknowledge and appreciate the pain and fear that besets many of these residents. But this could — and should — have been avoided by not sending the asylum seekers to South Tel Aviv to begin with, by not inciting against them, by instituting a proper refugee determination process, and by respecting — rather than restricting — their right to access employment and social services until such time as their asylum request could be properly processed — which has still yet to be done.

The completion of the construction of a wall in 2013 effectively brought an end to the “infiltration.” Indeed, not one African asylum seeker arrived in 2017, and none since May 2016. But the notion that they are a security and demographic threat had been seriously embedded and still remains. Indeed, the political and public discourse characterizing them as infiltrators still remains as well, and with all its attending prejudice and predetermination. And most importantly, no fair, effective, and efficient refugee status determination process (RSD) has yet been established (I have some familiarity with such a process, as it was set up in Canada during the period where I served as Minister of Justice and attorney general, and where I then recommended it to Israel at the same time that the initial arrivals of Sudanese and Eritreans were taking place in Israel as they were in Canada.)

Regrettably, the refugee status determination system established in Israel made it unduly difficult to even make an application, took an inordinate amount of time to get an answer, and when the answer came it was invariably negative, as evidenced by the fact that only some 10 asylum seekers — nine Eritreans and 1 Darfurian – have received Refugee status. Accordingly, of the some 40,000 African asylum seekers, fewer than 15,000 have been able to submit claims since the RSD process began (since 2011-2012). Of the 15,000 claims presented, fewer than a third have actually been reviewed, and only 10 asylum seekers have been recognized as refugees — and that only after a long and protracted battle in Israel’s courts. In a word, this statistic represents the lowest number of asylum seekers recognized as refugees in the Western world. Again, to compare Israel with the same Western demographic: 97% of Eritrean asylum seekers who applied for a refugee status in Canada received it, and the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who applied for refugee status. The Israeli acceptance rate is 0.056%.

In addition to the unjust and unfair refugee determination process, the Israeli government has taken a series of ever-increasing measures to make the lives of African Asylum seekers/migrants in Israel harsh and difficult. It is particularly alarming that in this context:

  • No rights (social, labour, health) accompany African visa holders in Israel;
  • Though African migrants are not officially forbidden from working, the mention on their visa that “this is not a work permit” makes their employment situation unstable and often precarious, even as many are working in restaurants, construction, and cleaning positions that are helpful for Israelis and the Israeli economy;
  • A deposit law that came into effect in May 19, 2017 makes the situation of the African Asylum seeker/migrant all the more challenging, because 20% of their already meager salaries are seized by the government — returnable to them only when they leave — while also obliging their Israeli employers to pay an extra 16% of taxes, even if they employ 2 A5 (humanitarian) visa holders;
  • As of 2012-2013, Israel had declared it had negotiated removal agreements with two African countries. Those who agreed to leave Israel voluntary for these countries (commonly known to be Uganda and Rwanda) were given $3,500, and Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the receiving government;
  • While Israeli authorities report that receiving governments have committed to providing African migrants arriving from Israel with protective status while facilitating their integration, researchers and witness testimony, my own examination has shown that the receiving countries have provided neither status nor protection for the African migrants arriving from Israel. Indeed, most of the Africans have had to leave, and many have suffered abuse and worse in their attempts to seek safety and security elsewhere.

This is what should — and can — be done:

  1. Suspend, if not repeal, the planned forced deportation/imprisonment protocol of the Israeli government as set forth in the amendment of the “Infiltration Law” adopted in December 2017 — embodied now in the deportation notices sent this week to African asylum seekers/migrants, and which 25 distinguished Israeli legal experts have now characterized as a violation of international law and basic human rights.
  2. Recognize the dangers involved in deporting refugees to a country like Rwanda, under conditions that are kept secret, where there is no official guarantee of safety and integration, and where manifold reports detail the danger and risks inherent in such deportations.
  3. Establish a just, fair, and effective refugee status determination process so that refugee claims can be made to begin with, processed in a timely and fair manner, and where just determination can be made in accordance with international standards.
  4. Provide asylum seekers awaiting the processing of their asylum requests a temporary protected status that ensures a minimal safety, stability and dignity (including the possibility to work legally and gainfully) and protection against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
  5. Provide a protected status to some 6,000 non-Arab Darfurians as recommended in a legal opinion written by the refugee status determination unit itself three years ago, but never acted upon.
  6. Ensure minimal standards for children and youths — in terms of access to education, health and welfare — while ensuring protection against their deportation.
  7. Cease and desist from the ongoing campaign of incitement against, and defamation of, Africans in Israel. Simply put, end the discourse re “infiltrators,” end the incitement that scapegoats them as dangerous predators who are responsible for all that ails South Tel Aviv, and cease and desist from any political or electoral manipulation of both the vulnerable South Tel Aviv residents and this vulnerable African constituency.
  8. Respect the independent plight of South Tel Aviv neighbourhoods and seek to rehabilitate them. As African scholar Sheldon Gellar has put it, “money now used to finance prisons, detention centers, and deportation logistics and payoffs can be reallocated to fight crime, improve housing, infrastructure, and public services in south Tel Aviv. This policy would provide some compensation to south Tel Aviv residents for the burden caused by placing large numbers of African asylum-seekers in their neighborhoods without a plan and against their will.”
  9. Ensure proper access to services in cities outside of Tel Aviv, and in Israel’s periphery, and reinforce migrant communities all over Israel (through local involvement, community organizations, local volunteering opportunities on behalf of migrants), especially in cities like Eilat, Beersheva, Haifa, Petah Tikva, etc., where important refugee communities already reside.
  10. Engage constructively with the UNHCR, which has had a standing offer to work with Israel to resettle asylum seekers, and which is prepared to facilitate the resettlement of upwards of some 10,000 of them. If Israel engages in a policy of resettlement to third countries, it needs to ensure that such resettlement is to countries where asylum seekers will be treated with dignity and where they will be guaranteed status, stability, well-being, and dignity (for example, in a country like Canada, where the Jewish communities would play a role in sponsoring, welcoming and integrating refugee families).
  11. Appreciate the asset that the African Asylum seekers/migrants can be for the Israeli government and society in matters of diplomacy and the economy, as well as a bridgehead to Africa.
  12. Stop punishing employers who hire African asylum seekers. Indeed, the current policy exacerbates labour shortages and necessitates bringing in more foreign workers to fill the gap. The policy is especially harmful to hotels, restaurants, and the tourist industry.
  13. Develop an immigration policy, that is anchored in the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, protecting Israel’s security while respecting the values of respecting the stranger, which is referenced some 36 times in the Bible.

In short, what is so necessary now is for parliament and all of government to change the prejudicial discourse, to cease and desist from any incitement, and to put in place a proper refugee status determination system as befits a democracy like Israel, and even more so, as befits a country whose ethics and ethos effectively command us to respect the stranger, let alone not to persecute them.  There is no contradiction, as it has sometimes been suggested, between Zionism and human rights and between Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It is bad policy — and bad proclamations — which create false dichotomies. A Jewish and democratic state — which Israel is — can address and redress these problems, thereby reflecting and representing the best of Jewish tradition and Israeli democracy.

Sudanese and Eritrean Refugee Claimants in Israel

Sudanese and Eritrean Refugee Claimants in Israel

by

Howard Adelman

When reading the portion of the Torah this week in synagogue, Verse 22:20 of Exodus reads: “You shall not harm nor abuse a stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt.” Rabbi Plaut taught me that this injunction in different forms occurred thirty-six times in the Torah, a sign of its significance.

A stranger is a broader category than a refugee. He is a sojourner in a land that is not his. As God prophesied for Abram, or as interposed into the tale after the fact, “your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13) It is not that the land cannot be his. However, if he is enslaved and oppressed in that land, then he will remain a stranger until that oppression ceases. Zipporah named the first son she had with Moses, Gershom, “for he was a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22) You are a stranger if you are in a land that is not yours; if you  are afflicted, you are a suffering stranger..

What if a stranger is in your land? You are not to enslave him. You are not to afflict him. You are not to harm him: “if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.” (Leviticus 19:33) Why? Because you should love him as yourself? No. You do not have to treat the stranger as if he were you. You do not have to love him. You simply shall ensure that he does not come to any harm. Again, why? Because you can recall when you were a stranger, when you were oppressed, when you were afflicted – when you were a stranger in Egypt. You treat him well, not because he is like you, but because you know what it is like to have been him.

All refugees are strangers. But not all strangers are refugees. A stranger can be a tourist, a student-visa holder, someone in your country on business. But refugees can be strangers even in their own land. They can be treated like aliens by the rulers of that country so that it is no longer experienced as their own; they can be persecuted. Or their own land can be so riven by war and violence that they can no longer feel safe there. Whether oppressed or afflicted, they feel forced to flee.

The first type of refugee-cum-stranger in our contemporary period is called a Convention refugee. He has a well-founded fear of persecution directed at him because he is no longer considered a member of that land deserving its protection. The second type is a humanitarian refugee. He is not so much targeted for persecution as fearful of his own and his family’s safety from the extensive violence and conflict in his homeland. Each type is treated differently, even though the injunction not to harm or afflict the stranger still applies.

If a Convention refugee arrives at your border (or your international airport) as an asylum seeker and can prove he has a well-founded fear of protection, your country cannot send him back to his home country for then it becomes complicit in the affliction. The country has several options. It can send the refugee to another country through which he transited as long as that country will not afflict him. The country can offer him protection by giving him an opportunity to prove he was a target of persecution in his own country and, second, if successful in that proof, give him, at the very least, the right to sojourn in that country as an asylee with the same rights and protections as any citizen, or give him an opportunity to become a citizen and not just a sojourner. If your country is a signatory to the Convention, then one can only send the person back to a country through which he transited if that country is also a signatory to the Convention and offers its protection. A country may always accept Convention refugees for protection even if they are not on its territory.

Humanitarian refugees are another story. They have fled their country for different reasons. They may have reached your soil. But they cannot win a claim for refugee under the provisions of the Convention. Nevertheless, your country is still obliged to see that they are not oppressed or afflicted. They cannot be sent home where they will be at risk. They can be sent to other countries, but again only if they will be given protection in that country. They may remain strangers there or in your own country, but the obligation is to ensure their protection.

If in a country’s interests, if in a country’s willingness to share the burdens of refugees, if in a country’s commitment to promoting peace more generally in the world, that country may even go abroad to bring humanitarian refugees home to its soil to offer them temporary protection until the violence ends in that home country and the danger subsides. That country may even go further and offer those humanitarian refugees a path to membership, a path to citizenship, a path to no longer being a stranger in your land.

What about economic migrants, strangers who arrive in your land and want to become members and join to improve their economic security? In the present nation-state system, there is no obligation to provide that opportunity. For a state’s self-interest it may offer such is a possibility; but it is under no obligation to do so.

According to Israeli data, as of June 2016, there were 42,147 asylum-seekers in the country, including 31,000 from Eritrea and more than 8,000 from Sudan. Since a southern barrier wall – really a 140 mile-long fence – was built in 2013, the opportunity for new arrivals has been very limited. Some left “voluntarily”; a relatively small number gained the right to citizenship. There are currently an estimated 38,000 African “illegals” in Israel, the vast majority from Eritrea and Sudan. Of the 15,400 of them between 2009 and 2017 who filed asylum claims (after 2012, they were they required to do so if they wanted to stay), only a miniscule number were successful compared to the majority of acceptance rates in most Western countries. 6,600 claims were rejected and 8,800 are still awaiting a determination of their status. The latter are not targets of removal. Only eleven claimants from Eritrea and 1,100 from the Darfur region were accepted.

Israel has granted the majority “temporary group protection,” that is, accepted that they are humanitarian refugees who cannot be sent back to their home countries torn with violence and strife or, as in Eritrea, life under a very oppressive regime. Eritreans are subject to indefinite compulsory military service; they consider it a form of enslavement. However, Israel does not recognize compulsory military service as a form of oppression. On the other hand, if these refugee claimants who fled Eritrea were to return, they would almost certainly face imprisonment and torture. So whether they are legitimate Convention refugees or not, many argue that they cannot be sent back to Eritrea.

In both South and western Sudan, there is widespread violence. If Sudanese are sent home, they are also at grave risk, but of another kind. Israel has also determined that they cannot be sent home. The Population and Immigration Bureau of Israel (PIBI) announced a plan on 1 January for 2018 to offer the Eritreans and Sudanese who were not successful Convention refugee applicants the opportunity to relocate to another African country where they would not be persecuted. As an incentive, Israel would provide them with $US3,500 as well as a free airline ticket as an incentive to assist in their relocation and would pay the countries targeted for relocation an unknown sum. The option was open until 31 March 2018. One hundred officers were hired to implement the program

The two countries targeted for resettlement locations are believed to be Uganda and Rwanda, but for foreign policy and security reasons, Israel has not named the countries. Rwanda categorically denied the existence of an agreement, secret or open, to accept such refugees. Uganda did as well. Uganda already has about one million Sudanese who are protected as strangers in a land that is not their own. They can work. Their children can attend school. However, Uganda has not offered them a route to citizenship. Though protected, they would still be living in a quasi-dictatorship. Of those who have voluntarily left Israel, Israeli government monitors insist they have not been subject to prosecution. Under the voluntary program over the last four years, 20,000 have left. 5,000 went to Uganda. Many of those returned to Eritrea.

Under the new plan, those Eritreans and Sudanese have another alternative to voluntary departure with an incentive. If they do not agree to a voluntary departure, they will be imprisoned. The Supreme Court of Israel will probably rule that such an option would be illegal; when the alternative is prison, then departure is not voluntary. In August 2017, the Court issued an injunction preventing the government from holding these refugee claimants in prison indefinitely. Yet in 2017, Israel forcibly repatriated 5,200 Georgians and Ukrainians and did not offer them an economic incentive to leave voluntarily. Voluntary departure requires agreement of both the receiving country and the so-called refugees,

A number of human rights organizations have claimed that the voluntary exit plan puts vulnerable people at risk. As stated above, some Eritreans and Sudanese have already left Israel voluntarily and evidence has not demonstrated that they are subjected to abuse in the countries to which they returned. The evidence: PIBI representatives contacted 48 of the 163 relocated infiltrators that they tried to contact; not one allegedly complained. Were the others in hiding? Were they induced into assenting that there were no reprisals? It is difficult to say without the observations of independent investigators. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri Deri claims that, “if it comes to my attention there is a danger or the third countries are not keeping their side of the agreement, then of course I will stop it and re-evaluate it.”

However, a human rights report, “Better a Prison in Israel than dying on the way,” (HRW) based on 19 interviews with Eritreans in Europe who previously had voluntarily agreed to relocate to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2016, instead of landing documents and work permits, they claimed that they were deprived of their ID cards and exposed to threats and arrest until they headed for Libya and Europe. The problem with such a report, just as the problem with the Israeli whitewash, is that it comes from a small group surveyed. It is in the interest of these individuals to make a claim of mistreatment to win refugee status in Europe. Finally, Human Rights Watch is on Israel’s bad books for its past reports which were viewed as biased and anti-Israel.

The main issue, however, seems not to be the incentive for voluntary departure, but the threat of imprisonment if the opportunity is not taken. Law professors have protested its illegality. Humanitarians, doctors, rabbis, human rights advocates have all objected. Pilots have insisted that, under such conditions, they will not fly Sudanese and Eritreans faced with de facto expulsion. Some Holocaust survivors have even offered their homes as sanctuaries.
Another criticism has arisen based on self-interest. Hotel owners and restaurants employ many of the Eritreans and Sudanese. They claim the tourist sector would be jeopardized and would face a labour shortage. Deri counters by saying that he will increase the number of Palestinians with permits to work in Israel by 30,000. Further, he insists that Israel has a greater responsibility towards the Palestinians.

At the present time, some Canadian Jews have been protesting the Israeli government actions. The official organization representing the Jews of Canada to Parliament, particularly on the subject of Israel, has been urging Canada to take in some of the Eritrean and Sudanese in Israel. UNHCR confirmed on 7 February that it had initiated discussions with Canada suggesting that Canada accept some of the Eritreans and Sudanese in return for Israel allowing the remainder to stay. Complex negotiations are underway.

In addition to Eritreans accepted as Convention refugees (1,725 in 2014), Canada already has its own program for accepting Eritreans and Sudanese as humanitarian refugees. It accepts Sudanese currently in Jordan since Jordan began deporting Sudanese back to their own country in December 2015. Israel planned to remove 600 Africans per month as they sought to renew their two-month visas.

There have been protests around the world against Israel, but none that I could locate against Jordan, though at the end of 2015, Human Rights Watch wrote a critical report on Jordan’s deportation program. Canada has a multi-year plan to resettle Eritreans in Ethiopia and Sudan, with 4,000 scheduled to arrive by the end of 2018.  However, between January and November 2016, 910 Eritrean refugees were resettled to Canada from Israel under the private sponsorship program. JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) of Toronto helped facilitate some of that movement. Canada has also accepted 1,856 Eritreans as Convention refugees since 2009, and, in recent months, a few who arrived from Israel. The acceptance rate of Eritrean asylum claimants is almost 90% compared to an average acceptance rate overall of almost two-thirds of claimants. The acceptance rate for Sudanese is 72.7%. In the U.S., the acceptance rate is 72.7%.

The answer to the problem of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel may rest on international diplomacy and domestic public pressure and influence rather than on law or ethics. However, that does not excuse nor should it excuse Israel from incarcerating those people as a coercive measure to induce them to leave. Unfortunately, it seems that only when refugees are threatened, as the Indochinese refugees in 1978-79 were threatened by Malaysia and other countries in the Far East, do other countries come forth to share the burden.