Another thoughtful review of my book, which sets it within the context of Israel in the 1950s

Unlocking the Past: Stories from my Mother’s Diary – book review by Jeffrey Cohen

May 22, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

This book, for it is a little larger than a monograph, tells the story of Shira’s mum and her journey in Jerusalem (and getting there and back) as she pursues her PhD at the Hebrew University.

In that, she is just one of many. But this book is set in the 1950s! It is the story of a young woman in her twenties and the experience of being in an emerging country, not yet 10 years old.

There is much written and published about the birth of Israel (say from 1945 to 1950), be it in historical fiction like O Jerusalemor The Sourceas well as shelves of historical and personal accounts. At the other end of the spectrum is more recent works especially those discussing the political and historical (and even economic history) of Israel from the election of Begin in 1977 until today. What is missing is observations of those years between 1950and the Six day War of 1967.

Shira and her sister discovered a diary kept by their mother, Naomi, after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It helps give some of the answers to questions they could no longer ask their mother. It is a labour of love.

Naomi Moldovsky was born in Palestine but had settled with her father in Melbourne. In 1955, she had an opportunity to study Economics in Jerusalem [and to become reacquainted with her mother who lived in Tel Aviv]. The book is a series of short vignettes describing events and feelings about what is going around Naomi. It is also set in a time while she is still single for it is only in 1958 that she does marry. She describes how lonely she felt as a single person in Jerusalem.

Many of us forget that this time was less than a decade since Israel’s Declaration of Independence and fighting a war for survival- and during the writing of this journal was the Suez Crisis. Israel then is not he Israel of today. The Labor Party of David Ben Gurion was firmly entrenched at all levels, not only of government but throughout society. Having lost half of Jerusalem and the main campus of the Hebrew University much was on an ad hoc basis. This is reflected, at least on one level, by the description of the location of her supervisor whose offices were in part of Terra Sancta building where both the humanities and the social sciences were located until much later when it was subsequently moved to the Givat Ram.campus.

Some of the book gives one a sense of déjà-vu. Just as in today’s Israel which experiences terrorist action do too it was in the Jerusalem of Naomi’s time. Described are a number of events which happened in April 1956.

What I missed, for not that much is available, is Naomi’s perception of the Suez Crisis. It was a time of uncertainty with world powers vying for control and influence and the United States forcing Israel and its partners back from the Suez Canal.

The reality of this book is in its style. Shira has taken the words of her mother’s diary and written them in an easy to read form that enables the reader to understand that period of time. It is clearly not intended for those seeking primary documents.

Shira has brought her own literary talents to this book. She has previously worked as a journalist and her sister, Leora, is still in the field. It is a fascinating read.

Shira Sebban

Mazo Publishers $20

 

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum [1996-2001] and has been involved in Jewish Christian Dialogue and Pastoral/Spiritual Care in North America and Australia

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First in-depth review of “Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary”

Book review: Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary

May 17, 2018 by Sharon Berger
Read on for article

Shira Sebban was very close to her mother, Dr Naomi Moldofsky…writes Sharon Berger.

Upon her death she discovered an unknown diary which gave her a glimpse of her mother’s experiences in Israel in the mid-1950s. Not only was she able to discover a side of her mother she never knew, but the diary describes a very different Israel from today.

 

This discovery encouraged her to further explore this early period in Israel, and resulted in her first creative non-fiction work Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Dairy.Using the diaries as the scaffolding Sebban had done extensive research to fill out the stories in an interesting combination of historical insight, politics, social parties, and an array of potential suitors. This intriguing mix of the mundane and historic tells this period of Naomi’s life in a series of short and easy to read vignettes.

Chapter by chapter we get to know Naomi’s unsentimental character better. She is a no nonsense conservative young lady, focused on her economic studies, for which she won a scholarship to study at Hebrew University.  Her parents bemoan her spinsterhood in her late 20s and Naomi grapples cynically with her ongoing loneliness.  After 10 years in Australia Naomi had become “too Australian” and “not much of a sabra anymore. We meet her friends, her professors, and her family and get to know her better as a music aficionado and book lover.

At times it is a bit tricky to keep track of the cast of changing characters surrounding her and once or twice the reader is introduced to a character and then left hanging as to what happens with them. However this is the limitation of writing creative nonfiction, one of the fastest growing literary genres.

Most poignant are Sebban’s descriptions of Israel, in its nascent statehood, which transport the reader to a totally different world from today’s start-up nation. Descriptions of armoured plated vehicle convoys to the Hebrew University Mt Scopus campus, the elegant Edison cinema, Jerusalem neighbourhoods newly built on the ruins of Arab villages,  and a no mans land occasionally interrupted by sniper fire dividing the Israeli controlled West Jerusalem from the Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem were all very real during Naomi’s stay.  She also refers to fascinating interactions she had with newly arrived immigrants from Yemen and Egypt.

Sebban’s skill is in recreating these scenes in vivid detail for the reader, almost making one feel like they have been taken back in time. While her detailed descriptions are recognisable to anyone who has spent time in Israel the passage of only 60 years has totally transformed these depicted landscapes. The archival photos interspersed throughout the book further help bring both the characters and locations to life.

The book highlights how much has changed in such a relatively short time. Naomi describes a time when people did not have telephones in their homes and communicating plans was challenging. Yet today Israelis have one of the highest rates of mobile phone usage in the world.

Interestingly some things have changed very little even with the passage of time: ultra-Orthodox rioting against the use of public transportation, Jerusalem’s sleepy nightlife, Steimatzky’s book stores, impatient Israeli crowds, terror attacks, and Independence day military parades, to name a few.

Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diaryoffers a brutally honest look at Israel in the 1950s. Naomi has not been swept away by her experience in the Holy Land. Eventually she leaves Israel for Australia via Europe. She notes in her typical dour humour of her travelling companions, “All five claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”

It is difficult to be impartial when writing about someone so close to you but Sebban has done an excellent job of being honest with the subject showing not only her achievements but also her shortcomings and frustrations. In doing so she has made Naomi’s story come to life in an enchanting way.

Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary

My book is now available either as an e-book on Amazon or in paperback from Mazo Publishers. It can also be purchased from Golds World of Judaica in both Melbourne and Sydney, as well as from the Sydney Jewish Museum and Lindfield Bookshop.

Shira Sebban had long abandoned hope of uncovering more details of her mother Naomi’s past, especially after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

That was before Sebban and her sister discovered a diary Naomi had kept during a study trip to Israel in the mid-1950s.

Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary brings Naomi’s vibrant and descriptive diary entries back to life as a series of creative non-fiction short stories. In so doing, Sebban embarked on a fascinating journey, exploring a place and space so different to her own. Not only was her mother still single, but she had also become somewhat of an outsider, having returned to her birthplace after a decade away in Australia.

Covering an 18-month period, from late 1955 until mid-1957, beginning with Naomi’s arrival in the then divided city of Jerusalem to take up a scholarship at the Hebrew University, the chapters portray what life was like in the new State of Israel, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Disparate events are covered, from social, cultural and political public happenings to more personal concerns like love and loss.Naomi’s friends included future advisor to Margaret Thatcher, Alfred Sherman, renowned concert pianist, Nelly Ben-Or, and Ilan Hartuv, now best remembered as one of the Entebbe hostages, whose elderly mother, Dora Bloch, was among those killed.

Importantly, we gain an understanding of what it was like to be a single, young and intelligent woman during the foundation years of Israel.

American and Canadian readers can purchase either version on Amazon.

UK readers please click on this link to Amazon

French readers please see this link (English version)

The paperback version in English is also available worldwide from Mazo Publishers.

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My latest article on the Vietnamese families recognised as refugees in Jakarta published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age today

Turned back by Australia, Vietnamese recognised as refugees in Indonesia

  • Shira Sebban

Ever since they were forcibly returned by Australia to Vietnam two years ago, mother-of-four Tran Thi Thanh Loan and mother-of-three Tran Thi Lua have lived in constant fear of a harsh jail sentence.

They did not know whether Indonesia – where they applied for recognition as refugees earlier this year – would follow Australia’s example and return them too.

Now, however, the two mothers can breathe a little easier: officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have visited the group of 18 Vietnamese asylum seekers, including 12 children, currently in detention in Jakarta to tell them they have been granted refugee status.

Loan and Lua had been facing lengthy prison terms in Vietnam for helping to organise “illegal” departures to Australia on family-owned fishing boats in 2015.

At the end of January 2017, they fled Vietnam for Australia again, only to be rescued 10 days later from their sinking boat off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities.

 The families were among 92 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy in 2015.

Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the two groups were subsequently incarcerated, including Lua, who has complained of being severely mistreated in prison.

Both she and Loan were facing up to 15 years’ jail as repeat offenders under the recently amended Vietnamese penal code. The women maintain police had threatened to beat them in jail for having spoken out to foreigners in the past. They had also told their lawyer, Don An Voh, they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam.

Retired US ambassador Grover Joseph Rees visits the Vietnamese families in detention.

Retired US ambassador Grover Joseph Rees visits the Vietnamese families in detention. Photo: Shira Sebban

According to Loan, her family had originally left in 2015 because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics.

Taken into Australian custody and held at sea for almost a month, they underwent “enhanced screening” by two officials. While Australian authorities claimed they were fairly assessed, Loan said a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.

Loan’s husband, Ho Trung Loi, was sentenced at the time to two years’ jail in Vietnam, seven hours away from the family home. He was subsequently moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, and told he would never be released unless his wife and children return. Frequent beatings damaged his sight in one eye; he suffered a stroke and lost considerable weight.

Last week he was released, after being forced to sign a document stating that he had not been mistreated. He is now seeking medical treatment and is under police watch for the next six months, forbidden to leave his local area without express permission.

The family’s desperate situation first came to international attention in mid-2016 when Loan lost her appeal for leniency despite being the sole carer of her four children, then aged between four and 16, who were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. Donations from ordinary Australians subsequently ensured the children could stay at school and be cared for by relatives. Both Loan and Lua were eventually granted a temporary reprieve from jail.

Meanwhile, however, Australia has continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s public security minister, Lieutenant-General To Lam, to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.

Ineligible for resettlement under current Australian immigration policy, the families in Jakarta now hope to find another country which will offer them a safe haven. “UNHCR said they would soon work with the International Organisation for Migration and the Indonesian Immigration Department to get us out of here,” Loan said.

Canada, which is prepared to take 300,000 immigrants this year, is a serious option.

“Despite their assurance that refugees would face no sanctions or retributions for leaving the country, the government of Vietnam continues to jail, beat, torture and prosecute refugees returned to them by the Australian government,” Canadian senator Thanh Hai Ngo said. “The occurrence of these violations of basic human rights and civil liberties are at the core of why many are choosing to flee and are well known by the Canadian and Australian governments.”

The first Canadian senator of Vietnamese origin, he has agreed to “discuss and bring this re-occurring issue on Vietnamese refugees to the attention of the Australian High Commission and to the appropriate authorities here in Ottawa”. He has also requested full documentation and an update on each of the refugee claimants to help bring their cases forward.

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor and a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney.

Assaulted by Hells Angels in Villawood: Asylum seeker speaks out

An asylum seeker seriously assaulted in detention speaks out, writes Shira Sebban.

AN ASYLUM SEEKER seriously assaulted recently while in detention in Villawood has decided to speak out “even if they kill me” because “too many asylum seekers are being bashed by 501s”.

An influx into detention centres around Australia of 501 Visa holders – non-citizens, many with substantial criminal records, awaiting deportation on character grounds – over the past few years is known to have exacerbated tensions with asylum seekers, leading to a steep increase in violence

At the end of January 2017, 420 detainees were being held in Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, including 149 “501s” and 84 “illegal maritime arrivals“, according to the latest Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) statistics.

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Refugees are being locked up with violent criminals on 501 visas at Australian immigration detention centres (image screenshot YouTube)

Among them is Afghani Hazara asylum seeker, Sayed Akbar Jaffarie, who alleges that he was assaulted on the evening of 12 March 2017 by members of the Hells Angels bikie gang, at least one of whom was armed with a knife. Detained in Villawood since 2013, Mr Jaffarie had recently been moved, due to construction work, to the high security Blaxland compound, where the alleged assault took place. He has since been relocated to another compound, but only after a second altercation with gang members, this time involving a friend who was visiting him. Meanwhile, a fellow asylum seeker, who was a witness to the original assault, remains in the high security compound, with Mr Jaffarie concerned for his safety.

Forced down from his top bunk while trying to sleep, Mr Jaffarie said the bikies

“… put their feet on my left hand, fracturing my ring finger. I was shouting for an officer, but no one came. They started smashing my thigh and hit me in the stomach. They told me I had to give them $200 a week and that I had to give up my points and buy them whatever they wanted.”

Detainees earn points through the “individual allowance program”, supplemented by participating in authorised activities, allowing them to buy personal and recreational items, including newspapers and snacks, from outlets within the facility.

Serco officers, responsible for the management of Australian immigration detention centres, subsequently interviewed Mr Jaffarie, who identified the alleged perpetrators. After making a police statement, he was taken to hospital overnight. Serco ‘provides tailored services to detainees that support their wellbeing and personal security’, according to DIBP’s latest annual report (2015-16).

In 2015-16, an Australian Border Force report stated

‘… efforts ensured that more than 100 non-citizen motorcycle gang members, associates or organised crime identities had their visas cancelled or refused on character grounds or under the Migration Act 1958.’

Section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act allows for the deportation of non-citizens who fail the “character test”, the threshold for which includes any prison sentence longer than 12 months. Whereas in June 2015, 23 per cent of those in immigration detention had their visa cancelled on character grounds, the number had increased to 31 percent by June 2016. In contrast, the percentage of “illegal maritime arrivals” had decreased over the same period, from 61 per cent in June 2015 to 32 per cent a year later.

Introducing hardened and violent criminals into detention centres, without separating them from asylum seekers, is criminal in itself,” said longtime visitor to Villawood detainees, Dr Graeme Swincer OAM, a member of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group.

Repeated calls for a change in these arrangements have fallen on deaf ears. The underlying trauma of sustained and punitive detention should not be exacerbated by having to live in constant fear,” he continued.

Mr Jaffarie has been in Villawood since 19 June 2013, when his Spousal Visa was cancelled, based on an allegation that he was involved in people smuggling. He has not been charged, let alone convicted, of that offence, but is currently fighting attempts to deport him to Afghanistan, which he left with his family as a young child, escaping to Quetta, Pakistan. He came to Australia by plane after his marriage to an Australian in 2006, but eventually offered his wife release from the marriage due to his uncertain future.

https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/assaulted-by-hells-angels-in-villawood-asylum-seeker-speaks-out,10164

 

Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance

EXCLUSIVE: Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance
Shira Sebban 16 March 2017, 3:30pm

Vietnamese asylum seeker children in Indonesia2

‘What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code.’ (Image supplied)

I HAD BEGGED THEM never to try to reach Australia by boat from Vietnam again. Through an interpreter, I had warned them about our country’s tough border protection policies and we had made it clear that any money raised was to be used to feed, clothe and educate their children in Vietnam.

They had agreed, sending messages of gratitude, or photos of their children with their new school supplies, each time we transferred a few hundred dollars from the online crowd funds launched last year.

So when they embarked on their second attempt to seek asylum in Australia, they did not tell us.

All we knew was that they had disappeared from Facebook and were no longer answering their phones. Concerned, we asked their lawyer, Don An Vo, to find out what happened.

Imagine our shock to read his announcement that three failed asylum seeker families, including 12 children, had fled Vietnam again and were heading for Australia.

As it turns out, they never made it here. Ten days into their journey, the engine failed, their boat hitting rocks and beginning to sink. Rescued off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities, they have since been interviewed by the UNHCR and are applying for refugee status in Indonesia.

Tran Thi Thanh Loan and her four children made headlines last year when she lost her appeal against a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat in March 2015. Her children, aged 4-16, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage, their father, Ho Trung Loi, having already received a two-year sentence. He is not due for release until April 2017, although that now appears out of the question.

The Vietnamese authorities have said “he will never be released unless we return,” Loan said from the Indonesian motel where she and her children are staying.
Loan continued:

“At first they told him we died at sea because the boat sank. He nearly went crazy with grief. Then they put him in solitary confinement, refusing to let my sister visit or send him food or medicine. She had to bribe them to see him and only managed to say we are safe before the police took him away. They told the family he will be punished for ‘my mistake’ and so we believe he may be beaten.”
Loi has since been moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, where he is forced to do hard labour and is not given enough to eat, Loan alleged.

She accused the Vietnamese police of “terrorising” her extended family, preventing them from operating their fruit stall:

“I’m worried the police will destroy their only source of income as pay-back and to ensure they have no money to help me and provide for my husband.”
Pressure had been mounting on Loan in the weeks leading up to her decision to flee. Also among the group of 18 asylum seekers is mother-of-three, Tran Thi Lua, who last year too lost her appeal against a 30-month jail sentence for helping organise another “illegal” departure to Australia in July 2015.

While the two women had been granted a temporary reprieve, they were both facing imminent, lengthy sentences.

“They asked what would happen if they went back to Australia,” Doan Viet Trung, president of Vietnamese human rights organisation, VOICE Australia, said.

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The children in Indonesia (Image supplied)

He added:

“I told them they’d be sent back or detained indefinitely. Lately they expressed fears that when in jail they’ll be beaten badly for speaking out, officials have threatened them so. I told them they should record the threats to show their fears are grounded. Lua told me she had recorded something.”
Both women had also told their lawyer Vo they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam. Lua had already spent ten weeks in prison in 2015, before being charged, which had traumatised her, describing being beaten and sworn at by female guards, who forced prisoners to drink, wash and cook with filthy water.

The Vietnamese court has now revoked its deferral of the two women’s jail terms, so if they are returned, they will go straight to prison.

Since mid-2016, I have been in regular contact with both women, having started online crowd funds to help their families, who were among 113 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in three incidents by the Australian Navy over the past two years. Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian Government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the three groups have since been incarcerated.

Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s Public Security Minister Colonel General To Lam to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.

What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code. At best, they could be detained in legal limbo in Indonesia, unable to work or study.

An apparently hopeless choice made by increasingly desperate parents in the face of Australian intransigence, with fewer options now available to asylum seekers in what certainly seems to be a harsher world.

https://independentaustralia.net/australia/australia-display/exclusive-fate-of-vietnamese-asylum-seeker-children-hangs-in-the-balance,10117

You can read more by Shira Sebban at shirasebban.wordpress.com.