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The Sugihara exclusion: Israel bites the hand that fed Jews

Israeli bureaucrats have denied visas for the son of a righteous gentile to attend a Jerusalem ceremony in his father’s honor.

Chiune Sugihara at his desk in Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Chiune Sugihara at his desk in Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Lewin
Nathan Lewin

Recognizing a favor, hakkarat hatov, is a highly treasured virtue in Jewish tradition. Israel purports to practice it in gushing gratitude to righteous gentiles. The few who sacrificed their own lives or livelihoods so as to rescue Jews fleeing Nazi brutality are given special place in Yad Vashem and in post-World War II histories.

Israel’s bureaucratic expertise is managing, however, to arm foes who claim that Israel does not practice what Judaism preaches.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion recently issued hundreds of invitations to a ceremony to be held on Oct. 11 at 4 p.m. to dedicate and name a square in the city after Chiune Sugihara, described in the invitation as a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who saved thousands of Jews by issuing visas that enabled them to leave Lithuania as the German army was advancing. I received an invitation because my mother requested and received the first transit visa to Curaçao via Japan on July 26, 1940. I treasure the original travel document (a “leidimas”) bearing the visa written in hand by Sugihara and photos of me as a 4-year-old with my parents.

I regret that because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m barricaded at home and cannot attend. Tickets that my wife and I had to fly to Israel in mid-August had to be canceled. But the Jerusalem municipality was kind enough to invite Sugihara’s only living immediate family member—his youngest son Nobuki, now 72—to come from his home in Belgium to address the gathering. Nobuki was going to bring along four other family members and friends.

Israeli bureaucrats have now denied visas for Nobuki Sugihara and his group. Nobuki reports that the following response was given on all of three routes by which he applied for a visa: “Examination of your application shows that it does not meet the criteria that allow a permit to arrive in Israel during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. You will be able to re-submit your application for arrival in Israel when the pandemic situation improves and the State of Israel will establish new procedures for entry into the State of Israel.”

Reading this response, one assumes that Nobuki has probably not been vaccinated and that Israel’s border guards have decided that he presents a health danger to Israelis if admitted. But I have been sent a “Vaccination Certificate” with a QR-code certifying that Nobuki Sugihara, born on Jan. 8, 1949, received “2/2” COVID shots as of April 30, 2021. It was submitted with his visa application. The other members of his group also submitted proof of vaccination.

Is there some other flaw in his documentation? Maybe. But one must wonder whether the paperwork of the U.S. senators who recently spent a few days in a highly publicized visit to Israeli Prime Minister Bennett met the application standard that Nobuki and his family members have now failed. Does the hakkarat hatov owed to a handful of pro-Israel senators outweigh the debt owed to the memory of the man who issued 6,000 visas in one month and is responsible for the existence today of probably 200,000 Jews, many of whom live in Israel?

Postscript: At the last minute, after the denial of Nobuki’s visa made the Israeli press and pressure was exerted from many sources, and after this article was sent for publication, responsible high-level Israeli officials reversed the irresponsible bureaucratic decree. The Sugihara group will attend the ceremony and has expressed its gratitude for those, led by Jerusalem resident Altea Steinherz, who mobilized public protest. Its history deserves recounting as a lesson.

Nathan Lewin is a criminal defense attorney with a Supreme Court practice who has taught at Georgetown, Harvard, University of Chicago, George Washington and Columbia law schools.

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