Susan Silverman is my rabbi.
Not in any pastoral way (we anyway don’t practice the same sort of Judaism), but in a moral one.
I met her years ago while visiting Kibbutz Keturah, where she then lived. When she learned my wife and I were driving north to Tel Aviv, she brought us an envelope of cash to deliver to a friend she had there, a refugee from Darfur. There was no address – he was between places – but she gave us a phone number and said that if we called he would meet us on the street near the old bus station.
I ran into Rabbi Silverman a few months later, in line for a bathroom on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York. She told me about an organization she was raising to help shuls and churches and other communities help their people to adopt kids who needed homes.
A few years after that, my girl started taking the bus one morning a month to take part in Women of the Wall prayer vigils, and often returning with greetings from Silverman who was a leader of the demonstration. This pleased me, because Silverman was by now my Heschel.
Which is why I was bewildered to learn that she (and others) lately started an “Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement” to shelter from deportation refugees from Eritrea and the Sudan.
Like Rabbi Silverman, I oppose forced deportation. Like her, I think that Israel ought to build homes and create jobs across the country for however many of the 40,000 refugees wish to stay. Like her, I think that we, a society built by refugees, should regard people who escaped war, famine and need in Africa with sympathy born of our own experience. And if it comes to that, like her, I think we should open our basements and spare bedrooms to refugees hiding from deportation.
But the analogy to Anne Frank still troubles me. It is true, as Silverman told Haaretz, that "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."
But, beyond this, the analogy fails.
For one thing, being flown with cash to Rwanda is not similar to deportation to a death camp. Misery and danger await those transferred forcibly from Tel Aviv to refugee camps in central Africa. But these camps are not Bergen-Belsen.
And if the refugees are Anne Frank, then who are the Nazis? Israel’s government that voted to expel them, and the police who may soon arrest them? Many of the residents of the exploding Tel Aviv neighborhoods near the bus station where most of the refugees live, that were built for half the population they now hold, and who clamor to deport the refugees?
And who, in this analogy, are the people who oppose deportation and would give up living rooms and studies to shield refugees from it? Are we really Miep Gies, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler and Bep Voskuijl?
One reason why support for the left in Israel has diminished is because many register arrogance in our prescriptions for the country. We are regarded as regarding others as less democratic, humane, empathetic and decent than we are.
Analogizing our government, and many of the people who elected it, to Nazis, and analogizing ourselves to some of the greatest heroes in our national pantheon – righteous Christians who risked everything to save Jews – reinforces the view that our attitudes towards other Israelis is one of condescension. It does not encourage others to listen when we plea to abort the deportation.
Which leads to the most important point. What does the Anne Frank analogy posit about Israel? That ours is a society that has been overrun, in which democracy has ceased to work, persuasion is impossible, and protest is pointless?
The analogy discourages us from doing exactly what is most likely to help the refugees (although its success, too, is far from assured): Organizing, demonstrating and persuading other Israelis, to pressure our politicians to seek alternatives to deportation. The only real chance that the refugees have is for those of us who wish them to stay to find common cause with a great many fellow citizens who now regard the Eritreans and Sudanese with ambivalence. For this to happen we need, as a start, to not liken them to Nazis.
Maybe now, just a few months before forced deportation may start, isn’t the time to object to the strategy of people whom I admire, whose aims I share, and whom I wish only to succeed. It is obvious that the analogy to Anne Frank is a product of concern and worry and a deep wish to help people who are themselves nearly helpless. It is also an effort to put to into practical use what lessons the Holocaust might teach us.
The Anne Frank analogy is a product of moral passion. It is moral passion, and moral wisdom, that makes Rabbi Susan Silverman the visionary leader that she is.
But moral passion can also, sometimes, lead us astray. It can estrange us from those others without whom we cannot achieve the future we want.
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