Israelis Who Drove Campaign to Shelter Asylum Seekers, Anne Frank-style, Now Nobel Contenders

Miklat Israel was spearheaded by Rabbi Susan Silverman and successfully helped block government plans to deport Eritrean and Sudanese men to Uganda; Nobel prize will be announced on Friday

Rabbis Susan Silverman, Tamara Schagas and Nava Hefetz, co-founders of Miklat Israel, with asylum seeker community leader Berhane Negasi at a rally in Tel Aviv earlier this year.
Miklat Israel

An organization spearheaded by Rabbi Susan Silverman that, inspired by Anne Frank, called on Israelis to shelter African asylum seekers in their homes is in contention to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize will be announced in Oslo on Friday and the Miklat Israel group (known outside of Israel as the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement) is one of 331 nominees: 115 are organizations and the other 216 are individuals, according to the Nobel website.

Last winter, as the Israeli government prepared to deport thousands of Africans seeking asylum status in Israel, Miklat Israel launched an emergency effort to try to help the mainly Sudanese and Eritrean men who were threatened with forced deportation.

The group’s call for civil disobedience, together with the protests of other civil society organizations in both Israel and the Jewish world, was credited with helping disrupt the planned deportations, which has still yet to be carried out.

Miklat Israel’s nomination was submitted to the Nobel Prize committee by MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) last January, ahead of the February 1 deadline.

Gilon wrote in his nominating letter: “The movement has been a beacon of light against the actions of the Israeli government, which go against our collective history and current obligations to the 1951 International Convention on Refugees. … What is standing between the deportation order is neither law nor leadership but the civil disobedience of Israeli citizens who have been inspired by the Righteous Among the Nations who hid Jews during the Holocaust.”

Miklat Israel said it signed up over 1,500 households, in addition to dozens of kibbutzim, who all volunteered to take in and protect the asylum seekers. (“Miklat” means refuge or sanctuary in Hebrew.)

The group also trained hundreds of volunteer families on how to proceed if a deportation order was carried out by the state.

African asylum seekers demonstrating against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport them from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.
Oded Balilty / AP

The movement was founded by Silverman and overseen by two other rabbis who, like her, are longtime human rights activists: Nava Hefetz and Tamara Schagas.

Silverman, who immigrated to Israel from Boston over a decade ago and is the older sister of U.S. comedian Sarah Silverman, said her idea was inspired by U.S. sanctuary states and cities. These have been used as tools to fight the deportation of immigrants who entered the United States without authorization.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is set to be announced at 12 P.M. Israel time (5 A.M. EST) on Friday, and Miklat Israel admits its chances of winning are slim. According to Time Magazine, the favorites are Korean presidents Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in; U.S. President Donald Trump; the ACLU; Pope Francis; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Saudi blogger Raif Badawi; and exiled Catalan politician Carlos Puigdemont.

But Miklat Israel hopes its Nobel nomination can again serve to apply pressure to the Israeli government.

“With the Israeli prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and Rwandan President [Paul] Kagame’s UN meeting last week, the nomination serves a new purpose as a warning signal to any African head of state considering cooperating with any new deportation plans: The eyes of the world and the world Jewish community are watching very closely and will spring back into action as needed to oppose illegal, forced and immoral deportations,” the Miklat Israel organizers wrote in a statement to Haaretz.

Israel is still yet to rescind its plan – which was supposed to begin last April – to deport some 40,000 African asylum seekers over the course of two years to either their homelands or another sub-Saharan country.

Documents seen by Haaretz confirmed that the Miklat Israel leadership was instrumental in halting the government’s plan to deport some of the asylum seekers to Uganda. It also played a key role in drafting a UN deal that would have seen about half of the asylum seekers being taken in by other Western countries and the other half remaining in Israel, according to other documents seen by Haaretz.

In a head-spinning turn of events last April, Netanyahu first announced that Israel had signed the UN deal, but just a few hours later, under pressure from other right-wing politicians, he flip-flopped and suspended the agreement.

Miklat Israel referred to these, and other back-channel, efforts in its statement to Haaretz.

“The movement leveraged its excellent relations with American-Jewish leaders and the global media to add additional muscle and played the determining role in having Uganda and Rwanda back out of their deals with Israel to accept the asylum seekers, cutting off the deportations,” it said.

“When the movement launched at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Knesset in early January, it set out the goal of having Israel and the UNHCR sign a deal on the refugees by Passover, whose first draft was written by movement leaders and played an instrumental role in bringing the parties together in that short-lived deal.”

The forced deportations triggered public protests (and counterprotests) in Israel and much criticism of the Israeli government on social media. For some, the idea that a country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust – by a people that experienced centuries of displacement and exile – might kick out those for whom deportation could put their lives at risk, was itself a call for action.

As well as Miklat Israel and other civil society organizations working to halt the deportations, there were protests by El Al pilots, who refused to fly planes that might carry forced deportees; street demonstrations, and protest letters by academics, lawyers and others. Among those who volunteered to host asylum seekers were actual Holocaust survivors.

In concluding his letter to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, Gilon wrote: “The world is witnessing a surge in intolerance for refugees at the very moment when there are more refugees than at any time in history. Instead of giving in to a rising tide of global xenophobia, the families and communities in the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement [Miklat Israel] are offering a hopeful counter-example that appeals to basic and decent human rights and sensibilities.”