Inspired by Anne Frank, Rabbis in Israel Plan to Hide African Asylum Seekers Facing Deportation

Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of U.S. comedian Sarah, is behind initiative to support some 40,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants who are facing forced deportation from Israel

Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.
Oded Balilty/AP

A group of Israeli rabbis, including the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, launched Tuesday an Anne Frank-inspired activist program calling on Israelis to hide African asylum seekers facing forced expulsion from Israel in their homes.

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The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement hopes to assist the near 40,000 African asylum seekers predominately from Eritrea and Sudan that the Israeli government intends to deport either to their homelands or another sub-Saharan state beginning in April and over the coming two years.

Anne Frank posing for a photo in 1941.
AP

"Who here would be willing to house people?" Rabbi Susan Silverman asked at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem as she revealed the new campaign by Israeli human rights organization Rabbis for Human Rights. All of the 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands. Silverman said that while she hopes it won't come to this, she believes that even talking about the idea should act as a deterrent to the Israeli government.

Silverman – an activist, writer and rabbi who immigrated to Israel from Boston in 2006 – thought of the idea to physically hide refugees in Israeli homes and presented it to the group. Rabbis for Human Rights will now oversee the protest, starting with the rabbis and educators who attended Tuesday's meeting taking the message to their communities across Israel.

The plan also includes reaching out to kibbutzim, moshavim and synagogue communities around the country.

Silverman said her idea was inspired by U.S. sanctuary states and cities, which have been used as tools to fight the deportation of immigrants who entered the United States without authorization.

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"Anne Frank is the most well-known hidden person, and she was hidden so she would not be sent to her death – and we have documentation that these people are facing possible death," Silverman told Haaretz. She was referring to reports of some asylum seekers facing torture and human trafficking upon taking up the Israeli government's offer of a one-off payment and plane ticket to Rwanda and Uganda.

"People risked their lives to save Jews, and we as a country are now saying we don't want to risk the tiniest demographic shift? We have a prime minister who is quoting Pharaoh when he says [of the asylum seekers] that their numbers will grow. Pharaoh said the Hebrew slaves will grow and overcome us," Silverman noted.

Silverman is an older sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman and she hopes to enlist American Jews' support in the campaign to stop the planned expulsions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a directive to his national security adviser earlier this month to draft a plan for the expulsion of the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally over the last decade. Israel said recently that migrants would be given the choice of receiving a one-time payment of $3,500 to be deported to an African country or be sent to a detention facility for an indefinite period.

Rabbi Susan Silverman, center, at the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers, May 2015.
Rafi Kutz

The government said the policy reinforced its efforts to safeguard the country's borders, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern at the move and called on Israel not to deport asylum seekers to sub-Saharan Africa.

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The asylum seekers who crossed Africa and entered Israel at its southern border were part of the wave of Africans who fled the continent, seeking better lives and in some cases refuge from wars and upheaval. Many of the migrants claim they are seeking refugee status, but of the some 60,000 who have come through Israel, only 10 have ever been recognized by the state as refugees, according to UNHCR data – eight Eritreans and two Sudanese. 

Israel started erecting a barrier on the Egyptian border in 2010, completing it in 2013, which has stopped the flow of migrants. The Israeli Defense Ministry said there were only 11 successful attempts to cross the border in 2016.

Sheltering asylum seekers is just one of the activities Rabbis for Human Rights is considering in its Anne Frank-inspired protest. Another would see activists accompanying asylum seekers on tours to the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem – Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial – in a bid to "help wake up the Jewish world," according to an internal memo outlining the group's plan of action. The Righteous Among the Nations were non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The group is also mulling protests at the offices of airlines that would transport deportees to Africa, and targeting unions of pilots and flight attendants. It is also considering labeling Israel's leaders and ministers as racists, in a large-scale social media campaign that would highlight Jewish values and Israel's history.

Silverman recounted to Haaretz a particular story of an Eritrean asylum seeker who came to Israel and wanted to stay here until it was safe to return to his homeland.

This young man, she said, who has since been successfully resettled in Canada, learned about the Holocaust for the first time when he read Anne Frank's diary at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was so distraught when he reached the end of the diary and learned that Anne died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 that he then decided to translate the diary to Tigrinya – a language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.

Silverman said that later, when making the perilous journey to Israel through Egypt's Sinai desert, he told himself "the people of Anne Frank will understand and protect me." She added that when he reached Israel, he fell before the Israeli soldiers at the border and asked, "Have you ever heard of Anne Frank?"

"He wanted to stay here till it was safe enough to go home," Silverman said, "but we would have none of it."