Celina Shatil spent the winter of 1943 on the run from the Nazis, crossing the borders of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary on foot through the snow at age 17.
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Now, this 92-year-old Holocaust survivor sees her own story reflected in the plight of African asylum seekers in Israel, and when she heard of the government’s plan to deport them, she was outraged. And then she decided it was time to speak out.
“I too have lived through a situation where the whole world was apathetic. I know what it feels like to be alone and feel like no one cares,” she told Haaretz. “It’s shameful we are the ones now doing this. It should not have to come to this so there needs to be public pressure the government must change its policy.”
A group of Holocaust survivors sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday imploring him not to go ahead with his plan to deport African asylum seekers from Israel.
They join a grassroots effort that already includes airline pilots, writers, college professors, doctors, lawyers, university students, social workers, filmmakers and rabbis, attempting to prevent the planned deportation by the Israeli government of nearly 40,000 African asylum seekers over the next two years to either their home countries or other countries in Africa.
“We – who know what it means to be a refugee, to be without a home or a country that would protect and defend us from violence and suffering – cannot understand how a Jewish government can expel refugees and asylum seekers to a journey of pain, suffering and death,” the 36 survivors wrote to Netanyahu.
Reports from asylum seekers, predominately from Sudan and Eritrea who have already made the return journey to Africa from Israel, are harrowing. There are accounts collected by researchers of asylum seekers who left Israel being robbed, sold into human trafficking and even killed.
Diaspora Jews have also been among those pushing Israel to reconsider its policy, citing Jewish values and invoking the Biblical injunction to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21) as well as the Jewish people’s long history with flight from persecution and genocide.
Thousands have signed petitions and hundreds of people turned out for meetings on a rain-soaked Wednesday night in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv organized by a group called Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad) to fight the deportations. Thousands of Israelis called on airline workers not to take part in flights that would take the asylum seekers to Africa in a campaign organized by the group Zazim and a new national organization founded by university students has sprung up called “Stop the Deportation” and is holding protests and setting up information booths across the country.
The backlash and civil society organization is being joined by many people who were not involved in the past, veteran activists say.
The first asylum seekers came to Israel a little over a decade ago. Originally most were from the Darfur region of Sudan, seeking refuge from the savage civil war raging there, but then tens of thousands more joined from elsewhere in Sudan and Eritrea, posing a moral puzzle over how to handle the influx to Israel, a country founded in the shadow of the Holocaust whose Jewish population is largely descended from refugees from Nazi Europe or Middle Eastern countries.
In the last week, some Holocaust survivors have even offered to hide asylum seekers in their own homes and hundreds of other Israelis have offered to do the same.
“Deportation is like a red line for many people. Until now we could just sit at home and say ‘Oh no, this is bad.’ And for the past few years people who care and follow the issue have been outraged, but this is the last straw,” said Ella Navot, a 24-year-old sociology student at Tel Aviv University and one of the founders of “Stop the Expulsion.”
Navot started volunteering with asylum seekers four years ago, teaching basic computer skills at a learning center.
“There are so many aspects to what drew me to this. I could talk about the fact that my grandmother is a Holocaust survivor or about my parents who are left-wing and have always advocated for human rights, but really what brought me to it is when I met the people themselves and started to understand the issue. They became friends and when one hears their stories one cannot ignore them,” she said.
A campaign was launched last week, calling on Israelis to hide asylum seekers if it becomes necessary, was inspired, its organizers say, by the story of Anne Frank. The massive response to the campaign, now called Miklat Yisrael (Israel Refuge) took its organizers, including American-born Rabbi Susan Silverman of Jerusalem who came up with the idea, by surprise.
“We are getting an amazing response,” said Silverman, with hundreds of requests from both individuals and groups, including kibbutzim. And this is before, she notes, they begin doing official outreach. Among the communities volunteering are some located in the West Bank.
“And here we are, a bunch of lefties going, ‘What?’ But it turns out we can find common ground. Stopping people from being sent to their deaths is one of those ways,” she said.
Silverman, whose sister is the American comedian Sarah Silverman, said she is heartened that so many are coming forward to say no to deportation, including, for example, a letter by flight attendants, who announced they would not work on flights that were deporting the asylum seekers.
“Every link in the deportation chain is beginning to be blocked,” she said.
Sivan Carmel, Director of HIAS Israel, which for years has been among the main non-profits working to help the asylum seekers, is heartened by the rush of new activism and resistance among Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
“I welcome it. I think it’s amazing that every day we hear new people speak out,” she said. “As Israelis this is about being connected to our heritage – knowing what our values are about and what kind of society we want to raise our kids in.”
Carmel said that despite the government attempts to paint the asylum seekers as economic migrants and not refugees, calling them dangerous and labeling them as “infiltrators”, Israeli citizens are heeding the call to action. Out of approximately 35,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Israel, only eleven to date have been granted official asylum here.
“People are beginning to understand the facts that many of them are asylum seekers who fled from persecution, but less than half percent have received refugee status even though most of their counterparts from Sudan and Eritrea have been determined to be refugees in other countries," said Carmel.
Michael Sfard, a well-known human rights lawyer was among lawyers across the country who signed a public letter against the deportations.
“I think we lawyers have to cry out and voice our position that this is a reprehensible act even if it is done or portrayed as being done by legal means and going through legal channels because in the most profound way it is illegal,” said Sfard.
Shatil, who made it to present-day Israel’s shores in 1944 after fleeing into a Russian-held part of Romania, continues to mourn her parents and younger brother who were murdered in Auschwitz, but feels lucky to have been able to rebuild her life here. She hopes the African asylum seekers will find refuge here too.
Otherwise, she warns, “We will go down terribly in history.”