Tuesday, 8 April 2014

My article comparing the sad situation of asylum seekers in Australia and Israel now on J-Wire


Where has our humanity gone?…asks Shira Sebban

April 9, 2014 by Shira Sebban
Read on for article
As an Australian Jew, I am ashamed by the treatment of asylum seekers in both Australia and Israel.
Shira Sebban
Shira Sebban
I watch bewildered as the two countries I love descend further in a harsh morass of immorality. Where has our humanity gone? Weren’t many of us, or our families, refugees once too?
On a trip to Israel in January, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest march in Tel Aviv, involving thousands of African asylum seekers. Sadly, as an Australian, their treatment is only too familiar to me, being reminiscent of what has been happening to asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat here – with one difference: Australia tends to lock up its boat people, who are not free to protest on the streets.
True, the Israeli government is now authorised to detain asylum seekers for up to a year without trial – it used to be three years until the Supreme Court intervened – in the remote Holot “Open” Detention Centre in the Negev. They can then be placed in indefinite detention until the State decides it’s safe to deport them.
Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, with hapless boat people detained seemingly indefinitely in harsh conditions on the now infamous Manus Island or Nauru, with no hope of ever being settled here.
All officialdom seems to agree that such harsh treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia “when it is safe to do so”.  As a result, our government proudly proclaims that it is well on the way to achieving its popular promise to “stop the boats” all together, with the added advantage, it boasts, of having slashed the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia too.
Yet, as pointed out by Indonesian presidential advisor and former long-time foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, “who can guarantee that next year they will not try again because the root causes, like conflicts, war, poverty, push people to migrate”?
Isn’t that why our families chose to leave their birthplace too? What about our grandparents or parents, who left Eastern Europe or North Africa, in quest of a better life elsewhere?
While Australia has now seemingly succeeded in blocking the arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers, the Netanyahu Government’s erection of the US$400 million fence on the Egyptian border in 2012 has practically ended the entry of African asylum seekers who, since 2006, had been making the often harrowing trek from war-torn, dictatorial, famine-ridden Eritrea and Sudan.
Everyone knows that Israel was founded by and for refugees and that Australia too has benefited tremendously from their contribution. True, by world standards, numbers of asylum seekers to both countries are now low: Israel is contending with about 55,000 African asylum seekers – less than one percent of Israel’s population – while in 2012-13, just over 24,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.
Contrast this with the more than 45 million people worldwide – an 18-year high – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights abuses, including more than 15 million internationally displaced refugees and close to a million asylum seekers.
Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all, it can seem easier to bury our heads in the sand. But haven’t we been taught that to save a single life is as if we had saved the entire world?
The Australian government claims to be acting out of kindness: unseaworthy boats have to be stopped to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from taking advantage of the desperate, luring them to their deaths. After all, the statistics are stark: more than 1000 people have perished at sea, while the lives of more than 6000 children have been put at risk.
Moreover, what about the 13,750 protection visas – down from 20,000 last year — on offer to those whose places under Australia’s humanitarian programs have been “usurped” by “self-selecting asylum seekers”, those so-called “queue jumpers”, who, or so the argument goes, are really “economic migrants” with enough money to buy a place via people smugglers?
The Australian government’s military “Operation Sovereign Borders” brands such “maritime arrivals” as “illegal”, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses African asylum seekers of being “illegal infiltrators looking for work” – despite the fact that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia and Israel are both signatories, clearly recognises the right to seek asylum from persecution no matter how you arrive (article 31).
Denied legal status, neither country allows those asylum seekers still able to live in the community, albeit provisionally, basic civil rights, such as the official right to work. Issued with only temporary visas and denied any chance of family reunion, a poverty-stricken underclass is being created under our eyes.
And yet, until now around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognised as refugees in Australia. In its latest cruel move, the government has now decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a visa. Meanwhile, in Israel, only 0.2 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, despite the fact that many more of their countrymen have been recognised as such elsewhere.
Being cruel to be kind? Or rather, out of sight, out of mind?
Of course we cannot expect every asylum seeker to end up in Israel, Australia, or another first world country. Moreover, one day, circumstances may even improve so they can return home. Meanwhile, however, there must be another option to indefinite prison or ultimate deportation for those requiring protection. Surely the ends never justify the means.
As Jews, we are constantly reminded not to mistreat strangers because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt … and Poland … and Algeria … So why not work towards a humane resolution of this global crisis, which respects the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings and treats others as we would like to be treated ourselves?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Where Has Our Humanity Gone?


 March 20, 2014, 2:11 am 0





As an Australian Jew, I am ashamed by the treatment of asylum seekers in both Australia and Israel. I watch bewildered as the two countries I love descend further in a harsh morass of immorality. Where has our humanity gone? Weren’t many of us, or our families, refugees once too?
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On a trip to Israel in January, we found ourselves in the middle of the protest marches in Tel Aviv, involving thousands of African asylum seekers. Sadly, as an Australian, their treatment is only too familiar to me, being reminiscent of what has been happening to asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat to my home country – with one difference: Australia tends to lock up its “boat people”, who are not free to protest on the streets.
True, the Israeli government is now authorized to detain asylum seekers for up to a year without trial – it used to be three years until the Supreme Court intervened – in the remote Holot “Open” Detention Centre in the Negev. They can then be placed in indefinite detention until the State decides it’s safe to deport them.
Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, a hardline change in official policy under the previous government in mid-2013 sending hapless boat people – including Syrians fleeing terror and torture – for “offshore processing” on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or on the Pacific island of Nauru, where they are detained seemingly indefinitely in harsh conditions with no hope of ever being settled in Australia. Just recently, Manus was in the spotlight again as violence flared within the Australian detention center, with an Iranian asylum seeker killed and dozens injured.
Both the Australian government and the opposition seem to agree that such harsh treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia “when it is safe to do so”.  As a result, the Australian government proudly proclaims that it is well on the way to achieving its popular promise to “stop the boats” all together, with the added advantage, it boasts, of having slashed the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia too.
Yet, as pointed out by Indonesian presidential advisor and former long-time foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, “who can guarantee that next year they will not try again because the root causes, like conflicts, war, poverty, push people to migrate”?
Isn’t that why our families chose to leave their birthplace too? What about our grandparents or parents, who left Eastern Europe or North Africa, in quest of a better life elsewhere?
While Australia has now seemingly succeeded in blocking the arrival of boatloads of mostly Afghan, Sri Lankan, Iranian, Pakistani or Iraqi asylum seekers, the Netanyahu Government’s erection of the US$400 million fence on the Egyptian border in 2012 has practically ended the entry of African asylum seekers who, since 2006, had been making the often harrowing trek from war-torn, dictatorial, famine-ridden Eritrea and Sudan.
Everyone knows that Israel was founded by and for refugees and that Australia too has benefited tremendously from their contribution. True, by world standards, numbers of asylum seekers to both countries are now low: Israel is contending with about 55,000 African asylum seekers – less than one percent of Israel’s population – while in 2012-13, just over 24,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.
Contrast this with the more than 45 million people worldwide – an 18-year high – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights abuses, including more than 15 million internationally displaced refugees and close to a million asylum seekers.
Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all, it can seem easier to bury our heads in the sand. But haven’t we been taught that to save a single life is as if we had saved the entire world?
The Australian government claims to be acting out of kindness: unseaworthy boats have to be stopped to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from taking advantage of the desperate, luring them to their deaths. After all, the statistics are stark: more than 1000 people have perished at sea, while the lives of more than 6000 children have been put at risk.
Moreover, what about the 13,750 protection visas – down from 20,000 last year — on offer to those whose places under Australia’s humanitarian programs have been “usurped” by “self-selecting asylum seekers”, those so-called “queue jumpers”, who, or so the argument goes, are really “economic migrants” with enough money to buy a place via people smugglers?
The Australian government’s military “Operation Sovereign Borders” brands such “maritime arrivals” as “illegal”, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses African asylum seekers of being “illegal infiltrators looking for work” – despite the fact that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia and Israel are both signatories, clearly recognizes the right to seek asylum from persecution no matter how you arrive (article 31).
Denied legal status, neither country allows those asylum seekers still able to live in the community, albeit provisionally, basic civil rights, such as the official right to work. Issued with only temporary visas and denied any chance of family reunion, a poverty-stricken underclass is being created under our eyes.
And yet, until now around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognized as refugees in Australia. In its latest cruel move, the Australian government has now decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a visa. Meanwhile, in Israel, only 0.2 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, despite the fact that many more of their countrymen have been recognized as such elsewhere.
Being cruel to be kind? Or rather, out of sight, out of mind?
Of course we cannot expect every asylum seeker to end up in Israel, Australia, or another first world country. Moreover, one day, circumstances may even improve so they can return home. Meanwhile, however, there must be another option to indefinite prison or ultimate deportation for those requiring protection. Surely the ends never justify the means.
As Jews, we are constantly reminded not to mistreat strangers because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt … and Poland … and Algeria … So why not work towards a humane resolution of this global crisis, which respects the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings and treats others as we would like to be treated ourselves?


Read more: Where Has Our Humanity Gone? | Shira Sebban | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/where-has-our-humanity-gone-2/#ixzz2wTlZqMTW
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Monday, 24 February 2014

Our son's recent bar mitzvah experience in Sydney and Jerusalem now on Wonder Women

Making Miracles

‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ becomes a reality for Shira.
Shira SebbanShira Sebban
Two ceremonies, each on a different continent; a family reunion in Jerusalem for 50, spanning four generations from Israel, France and Australia; a Moroccan lunch in Israel and a Friday night dinner in Sydney for family from Melbourne and Brisbane.
My aunt maintains that I make a fuss of my sons’ bar mitzvahs because it’s the only major function organized solely by their parents, which happens once in their lifetime. After all, they may get married more than once (God forbid) and their future wives will also want their say in the proceedings.
More important to me, however, are the spiritual, familial and social action dimensions involved in the coming of age ritual in Judaism. As each of our three sons begins to take responsibility for his actions, my husband and I strive to impress upon him the value of exploring traditions, contributing to community, and appreciating the family ties embracing him from across the globe … Which is how we ended up spending a morning picking 400 kg of beetroot on a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv…
Our children describe themselves as “Ashkefardi”, a term they have invented to sum up their complicated cultural heritage. My side of the family comprises Ashkenazi Jews, with roots stretching back to Poland and Russia via Canada and Israel to Melbourne. In contrast, my husband’s side is Sephardic, tracing their origins from Algeria (and probably Spain prior to the Jewish expulsion of 1492) on to France and Israel, only his immediate family having gone on to make the brave trek to Brisbane.
We regard our local Jewish community like our extended family, and so there was never any question of not celebrating our children’s bar mitzvahs here in Sydney, particularly since some family members are too elderly or unwell to travel far, while others cannot afford to do so.
At the same time, my husband’s French and Israeli family could not make the trip to Australia, and so we decided to take the bar mitzvah to them. “Next year in Jerusalem” – we would make this spiritual hope, so often repeated in Judaism, a reality this year. True, it would mean that our son would have to learn how to chant two different portions of the Torah (five books of Moses), but by holding the Israeli ceremony on a weekday, the second portion would be shorter. And a little more learning never hurt anyone.
Reading from the Torah at Robinson's Arch
Reading from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch, Jerusalem
While the only requirement of a bar mitzvah is to turn 13, it is traditional to be called up to read from the weekly portion to mark entry as a fully-fledged member of the community. He may also discuss philosophical aspects of what he has read and lead prayer services. All of this takes time to learn, especially since there are ritual ways of chanting the Torah in Hebrew. It’s like learning a whole new musical notation system and in a foreign language to boot.
So 15 months ahead of the big day, we set out to find our son a teacher, prepared not only to impart new skills, but to delve into the meaning behind them. I decided to join the class, my own bat mitzvah having consisted of a school pageant, in which I recited a couple of lines and sang and danced along to tunes from Fiddler on the Roof. While I had no intention of using my newly acquired skills in public, at least I would be able to revise the weekly lessons with my son.
Another major issue was how to accommodate the spiritual needs of our extended family, ranging in practice from Ultra Orthodox to Progressive Judaism. We settled on a weekend program: prayers at home for those who wished to attend, followed by a Friday night family dinner; Saturday morning services at our Conservative (Masorti) synagogue, which integrates tradition with modernity, allowing us to sit together as a family; and Sunday lunch where everyone could feel included.
Our children’s Jewish Day School encourages students to participate in a Mitzvah Project. Initiated and coordinated by parents, it involves donating a sum of money, half of which is given to the bar or bat mitzvah, while the other half goes to a charity of their choice. Our son chose to support Leket Israel, the National Food Bank and leading food rescue network, for which we also volunteered during our visit, gleaning beetroot for distribution to the needy.
While in Israel, we also celebrated at Robinson’s Arch (or the Masorti Kotel) within the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Situated at the southern end of the Western Wall, this area has come to be used for egalitarian services.
AVR_5747
Family photo on the Southern Steps, Jerusalem
Standing on a first century street, surrounded by ancient stones ostensibly pulled down by the Romans in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, our son marked his coming of age supported by family and friends.
My Brisbane-based mother-in-law cried tears of joy as she was reunited with her siblings, their spouses, children and grandchildren. A cousin from the southern Israeli city of Ashdod thanked us for giving him the first opportunity in 20 years to see his cousins from Lyons.
As we posed for a family photo on the ancient, uneven Southern Steps, which used to lead to the main entrances of the Temple Mount, it was not hard to picture our robed ancestors, ascending those very steps and pausing to reflect on the solemnity of the occasion – just like us.
Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
As we went our separate ways after our celebratory Moroccan lunch, we promised ourselves another miracle – next year in Jerusalem. After all, it’s only another 23 months until our youngest son’s bar mitzvah …
Shira Sebban – Life Issues
Shira is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. The mother of three sons, she also serves as vice-president on the board of her children’s school. You can read more of her work at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/
Life Balance = Abandoned. The. Search. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

I am now blogging for The Times of Israel

Making Miracles

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Wonderwomen publishes my piece on becoming an adult orphan

Uniting the Generations

On becoming an orphan.
Bertram_Mackennal_-_GriefShira Sebban
Last year, I became an adult orphan. Not only is there now one less person on this earth who loves and cares about me, but yet another link to my childhood and my past has been severed. As the eldest sibling, there is now no one who directly remembers what I was like as a baby or toddler.
Admittedly, in my particular circumstances, such memories vanished quite some time ago. My widowed mother having been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease for the past ten years, I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of our immediate family history.
After losing their second parent, many people report feeling anxious at the realization that they have joined the ranks of the eldest generation, thereby becoming more aware of their own mortality – there is now no one between them and death. In my own family, however, the transfer of the responsibility baton took place while my mother was still alive, as indeed it tends to do in families battling debilitating long-term illness, where adult children take charge of caring for ailing parents.  I had also become accustomed to mourning my mother’s gradual loss, mostly silently within. And so it was quite a relief for my grief to be acknowledged publically when she died.
Grieving for my mother has been quite different to my experience upon losing my father more than a decade ago after a short, albeit brutal illness. Not having been given time even to try to accustom myself to the fact that he was ailing, my grief at the loss of my father was visceral and raw, whereas my mother’s Alzheimer’s tended to offer some protection, often cocooning me, as it did her, from the full brunt of emotion. After all, there had been plenty of time to say goodbye. Nevertheless, on occasion, the pain still manages to pierce my defences.
Judaism recognizes the particular relationship between parent and child by allowing a longer mourning period. While the generally accepted time is 30 days, an adult child is notably expected to honor their parent’s memory by publicly reciting a prayer, known as the Mourners’ Kaddish, for 11 months. While the prayer itself actually has nothing to do with death, I have found this ritual to be cathartic, as it enables me to draw on the support of my community.
It was also a relief when shortly after my mother’s passing, we decided to donate all the paraphernalia associated with her illness – wheelchairs and other medical aids – to the adult day care centre, which she had attended over the past years. As her world had narrowed, the centre had become her only source of companionship apart from that of immediate family and caregivers. It felt wonderful to be able to help others, while simultaneously removing the physical evidence of an illness that had nothing to do with her essence as a person.
When embarking courageously on the process of sorting through their parents’ home and possessions, others might start with the wardrobe or kitchen cupboards. We, on the other hand, have been going through reams of newspaper articles, spanning five decades, which our parents and grandfather marked and preserved to discuss with each other, often providing a springboard for their own ideas. As I turn the yellowed pages, my past comes alive … until I hear my mother’s voice whispering, “Find an interest to sustain you…
At my mother’s funeral, my youngest son recited the ancient, well-known verse: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
On occasion, such times overlap. Indeed, just three months after my mother’s death, I found myself in the throes of preparing for the Bar Mitzvah of my middle son. While joy is somewhat tempered by loss, I recognize how blessed I am as a mother myself to see my child mature and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
For it is not all about me. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, colleague, friend, I exist in relationship to others too and must still consider needs apart from my own. At times, admittedly, compromise is difficult, and yet it is grounding to remember, especially when feeling particularly vulnerable, that I am not alone and can look outwards rather than solely within, turning my focus to strive to contribute to the world.
My parents always put their children first, teaching us to be modest and ethical, to stand up for our principles and to make the most of our opportunities.
It is now my turn to transmit their rich legacy to my own children, providing a strong foundation for their future and uniting the generations. My children may not have had the privilege of growing up in the company of all their grandparents, but at the very least I can try to ensure that they will come to understand and even cherish the values by which their elders lived.
Shira Sebban – Life Issues
Shira is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. The mother of three sons, she also serves as vice-president on the board of her children’s school. You can read more of her work at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/
Life Balance = Abandoned. The. Search. 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

My take on what its like to be an adult orphan now published on On Line Opinion


Uniting the generations
By Shira Sebban - posted Friday, 15 November 2013


This year, I became an adult orphan. Not only is there now one less person on this earth who loves and cares about me, but yet another link to my childhood and my past has been severed. As the eldest sibling, there is now no one who directly remembers what I was like as a baby or toddler.

Admittedly, in my particular circumstances, such memories vanished quite some time ago. My widowed mother having been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease for the past ten years, I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of our immediate family history.

After losing their second parent, many people report feeling anxious at the realization that they have joined the ranks of the eldest generation, thereby becoming more aware of their own mortality – there is now no one between them and death. In my own family, however, the transfer of the responsibility baton took place while my mother was still alive, as indeed it tends to do in families battling debilitating long-term illness, where adult children take charge of caring for ailing parents. I had also become accustomed to mourning my mother's gradual loss mostly silently within, and so it was quite a relief for my grief to be acknowledged publically when she died.

Grieving for my mother has been quite different to my experience upon losing my father more than a decade ago after a short albeit brutal illness. Not having been given time even to try to accustom myself to the fact that he was ailing, my grief at the loss of my father was visceral and raw, whereas my mother's Alzheimer's tended to offer some protection, often cocooning me, as it did her, from the full brunt of emotion. After all, there had been plenty of time to say goodbye. Nevertheless, on occasion, the pain still manages to pierce my defenses.

Judaism recognizes the particular relationship between parent and child by allowing a longer mourning period. While the generally accepted time is 30 days, an adult child is notably expected to honor their parent's memory by publicly reciting a prayer, known as the Mourners' Kaddish, for 11 months. While the prayer itself actually has nothing to do with death, I have found this ritual to be cathartic, as it enables me to draw on the support of my community.

It was also a relief when shortly after my mother's passing, we decided to donate all the paraphernalia associated with her illness – wheelchairs and other medical aids – to the adult day care centre, which she had attended over the past years. As her world had narrowed, the centre had become her only source of companionship apart from that of immediate family and caregivers. It felt wonderful to be able to help others, while simultaneously removing the physical evidence of an illness that had nothing to do with her essence as a person.

When embarking courageously on the process of sorting through their parents' home and possessions, others might start with the wardrobe or kitchen cupboards. We, on the other hand, have been going through reams of newspaper articles, spanning five decades, which our parents and grandfather marked and preserved to discuss with each other, often providing a springboard for their own ideas. As I turn the yellowed pages, my past comes alive … until I hear my mother's voice whispering, "Find an interest to sustain you…"

At my mother's funeral, my youngest son recited the ancient, well-known verse: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance…" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)

On occasion such times overlap. Indeed, just three months after my mother's death, I find myself in the throes of preparing for the Bar Mitzvah of my middle son. While joy is somewhat tempered by loss, I recognize how blessed I am as a mother myself to see my child mature and begin to take responsibility for his actions.

For it is not all about me. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, colleague, friend, I exist in relationship to others too and must still consider needs apart from my own. At times, admittedly, compromise is difficult, and yet, it is grounding to remember, especially when feeling particularly vulnerable, that I am not alone and can look outwards rather than solely within, turning my focus to strive to contribute to the world.

My parents always put their children first, teaching us to be modest and ethical, to stand up for our principles and to make the most of our opportunities.

It is now my turn to transmit their rich legacy to my own children, providing a strong foundation for their future and uniting the generations. My children may not have had the privilege of growing up in the company of all their grandparents, but at the very least I can try to ensure that they will come to understand and even cherish the values by which their elders lived.

About the Author
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.