Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban

Monday, 16 June 2014

My latest piece on finding my mother's diary... a glimpse into what life was like in Israel in the 1950s

Unlocking the Past

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)
We did not expect to find the diary. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, as I turned the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I felt grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
Written in English in the mid-1950s, when a postgraduate traveling scholarship had taken her back from Melbourne, Australia, to her birthplace of Israel for two years, the diary provides a glimpse of what life was like then for a single, 20-something woman. Attractive and bright, she was courted by a host of mostly unsuitable admirers, although occasionally, one would become the focus of her hopes and dreams. After all, as she notes, her mother had advised her to “secure a future” for herself, urging her to work hard to accomplish her purpose: in other words, “get married”.
Part-travelogue and part-social commentary, the diary reads like a film script, the vividly portrayed characters flitting in and out of various settings. One moment my mother is at a party or concert, describing the dating scene: “Noticed some very good looking men in the audience. Wonder where they usually hide.” The next, she is on a crowded bus, discussing the four young Yemenite girls seated behind her: “probably recent arrivals to the country. Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in high pitched voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus.”
A picture builds of what life was like in what was then the recently established State of Israel. Many of those she meets are keen to move elsewhere, believing there is more opportunity overseas. A certain unease lurks behind the pages too, and on one occasion, she even has to identify a suspect at the police station after an elderly woman is raped across the street from her home. More often, however, she is scared to walk alone in isolated areas, having heard about “some unpleasant and unfortunate encounters with Arab infiltrators”.
The term, “infiltrator”, with its connotations of menace, danger and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when there were several attacks on Israeli settlements, resulting in around 100 casualties and culminating in the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” of 1954, which defined those citizens of surrounding Arab states, as well as Palestinians, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators”, punishable by law, especially if they were armed or had committed crimes against people or property.
Emotions certainly ran high within Israel itself too. On a morning walk through the Carmel market near the family home in south Tel Aviv, my mother describes police arresting an “old Arab who was selling baskets… He was yelling his protests. Bystanders said he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the market.
“Further on I heard terrible cries, saw a young fellow who had slashed his own throat in protest at having had his cart full of vegetables taken to the police station. Apparently, he too had no permit to trade in the market.”
I had long known that after leaving Israel, my mother had undertaken an epic sea voyage to Italy, also visiting Paris and working in London before deciding to make her way to Montreal, where she would ultimately meet her future husband and my father. Until now, however, I had thought that those often-recounted stories had been buried with her. So imagine my delight to discover that the diary also contains a record of the first part of the journey she undertook by ship from the northern Israeli port of Haifa to Venice via Greece and then on to Milan by train.
Penniless, she could only gaze longingly at the elegant Italian shop window displays, but could “afford nothing no matter how cheap the prices were”. Arriving in Milan and not wanting to stay on her own, she was on the verge of boarding the night train to Paris with nothing to eat bar a box of biscuits, when she finally managed to contact the aunt and uncle of one of her best friends in Tel Aviv, who invited her to stay with them. Successful furriers, my mother writes, they had “made a name for themselves”, their shop frequented by “a good class of clientele”, including members of the aristocracy and movie stars.
Although most of the numerous names that appear in the diary remain unfamiliar to me, the family name of my mother’s good friend stood out. Hadn’t I gone to school with a boy of the same name?
It so happens I had been reminded of that particular family at the beginning of this year – before we discovered the diary — while on holiday in Israel, when I had learned that Michael, my old school friend, was staying in the same hotel. We spent some time catching up and also exchanged contact details.
Now, as I turned the pages of the diary, I realized that the characters so vividly depicted by my mother included various members of Michael’s extended family. My mother’s friend was Michael’s aunt, meaning the Milan furriers must have been his great aunt and uncle. I sent an email to Michael, who immediately put me in touch with the Italian branch of his family and all was confirmed. Even better, his elderly and frail aunt in Tel Aviv could still remember my mother and recalled the deep friendship between various generations of our families.
As it transpires, our familial ties date back at least a century to Poland via Tel Aviv and on to Australia: A tale of friendship and support, harking back to the days of our great grandparents, with the diary key to piecing together the puzzle of just how we are connected.
The ravages of Alzheimer’s disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young, passionate woman searching for intelligent companionship and the man of her dreams. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at:, as well as and

Monday, 9 June 2014

My speech comparing the sad situation of asylum seekers in Australia and Israel

On the eve of Shavuot, I gave a speech at my synagogue, at the request of my rabbi. Here is the transcript:

Where has our humanity gone?

Shira Sebban

“Were you not refugees all over the world? … I live here like a dog. Without any rights… And no one treats me like a human being.”  (From “Reflections of a Refugee” by Yardena Schwartz,

“How long am I going to stay in here? Five years, six years … no one knows. Honestly, my life is like a hell in here… it’s a torture for children … We are looking for freedom … honesty, justice and safety. We are not criminals. We are same people like you.” (From “Interview from the Inside” by GetUp and ChillOut, “Out of Sight In Our Minds”,

Two brave voices speak out – the first, an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel, the other, a young asylum seeker detained by the Australian government on Manus Island.

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 what I really believe is 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. It marked the beginning of a three-day national strike – the largest such demonstration ever held in Israel (you may have seen it in the media at the time) – and was really the first time that the plight of African asylum seekers was brought to national attention in Israel.

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 under an amendment to what is known as the Infiltration Prevention Law 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. Detainees have to present for roll call three times a day and are not allowed out at night.

Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, with hapless boat people detained in harsh conditions on the now infamous Manus Island or Nauru, with no hope of ever being settled here. In the past few weeks, the first asylum seekers to be granted refugee status on Nauru have been released into the community there and given five year visas, after which they are to be permanently resettled in a third country, which could end up being a country like Cambodia – among the poorest in Asia – if a resettlement deal between Australia and Cambodia is signed as expected.

All officialdom seems to agree that such treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia, and I quote, “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, and I quote, “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, and I quote, “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 recently around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognised as refugees in Australia. In another cruel move, the government has decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a permanent 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.

While Israel’s principle of non-return prevents sending individuals back to a country where their lives or freedom are at risk, the Israeli Government has begun using cash inducements to fly asylum seekers – ostensibly “voluntarily” although with the threat of indefinite detention hanging over their heads – home or to third countries, notably Uganda and Rwanda, where there are no clear guarantees that their security and freedom will be preserved.

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.

Indeed, a recently released report by the Israeli State Comptroller calls on the Netanyahu Government to, and I quote, “guarantee adequate treatment of foreigners and especially the needy and weakest among them”. The report continues: “This action is also necessary considering the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the Jewish heritage of treating the underprivileged including the foreigner among us, and the international law of immigration, refugees and human rights.”

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, particularly on Shavuot, when we read the Book of Ruth with its central theme of chesed or loving kindness, 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?