Navigate to News section

Israeli Rabbi Launches Anne Frank Institute to Help African Asylum Seekers

A conversation with Rabbi Susan Silverman

Judy Bolton-Fasman
January 19, 2018
Courtesy Rabbi Susan Silverman
Rabbi Susan SilvermanCourtesy Rabbi Susan Silverman
Courtesy Rabbi Susan Silverman
Rabbi Susan SilvermanCourtesy Rabbi Susan Silverman

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement, or as it is known in Israel—L’ Mivakshei Miklat Israel—has been spearheaded by Rabbi Susan Silverman, an activist and writer. Silverman, who immigrated to Israel from Boston in 2006, is also the older sister of comedian Sarah Silverman.

The Anne Frank story, Silverman told Tablet, inspired her plan to hide refugees in people’s homes if their deportation becomes a reality. Up to 40,000 refugees—mainly Eritreans and Sudanese—are at risk of being deported by the Israeli government to torture, sex trafficking or certain death. For Silverman, the situation is dire. She says, “This is our time to rise up and stop this tragedy.”

Why have you used Anne Frank as a symbol of this social justice movement?

We came to it for the obvious reason that Anne Frank was protected by righteous citizens. In Israel, asylum seekers are not at that kind of risk by any stretch that Anne Frank was, but if they are deported they are then subject in other countries to trafficking and death.

The second reason is that there was an Eritrean refugee who, while he was in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, read the “Diary of Anne Frank.” He was so moved, he cried for weeks and eventually translated her diary into Tigrinya. He then left the refugee camp and made his way to Israel, telling himself the whole time that the people of Anne Frank will protect him. In his honor that we use Anne Frank’s name.

If the Israeli government follows through on the deportations, what will happen to these African refugees who are mainly Eritreans and Sudanese?

These refugees often end up in Libya trying to make their way to Europe. Once in Libya, they are literally auctioned as slaves. In Israel ,they have two options: to be deported or to go to jail indefinitely. People in the Holot Detention Center have already received their deportation orders, and if they don’t go, they’ll be jailed indefinitely.

It’s mind-boggling that this is happening in the Jewish state. I’m not in the minds of people making these choices nor can I fathom what they are thinking. But I can tell you that there seems to be a political strategy on Netanyahu’s part to speak to his very right-wing base. He’s advocating for Israel to be a place just for Jews. It’s ironic to me that hatred and bigotry are what seem to pass for patriotism here and in America. Both Netanyahu and Trump have created the illusion of enemies—Trump with Muslims and Netanyahu with these African asylum seekers—to curry support.

There are so many of us outside that extremist demographic. We believe that the purpose of a Jewish state is not to be a ghetto fortress to keep Jews safe, but as a place for Jewish values to come to life. And high among those values is treating the stranger as a citizen among us. The Torah says that 36 times.

What will your coalition of human rights organizations do if the deportations happen?

Although there are multiple organizations working on this, the public response has been such a tidal wave that we’ve had to raise immediate funds to hire a full-time coordinator because these organizations together couldn’t keep up with all of the emails coming in. We’ve had unbelievable support. For example, one person wrote that she lives in a two-room apartment in South Tel Aviv and she said she could take ten people into her home. She’s just one among many. The range of people wanting to help is astronomical. Our deepest prayer is that it doesn’t get to the point where people have to take in these asylum seekers. But if it does, we will not allow people to be deported to their deaths. My hope is that if the government knows that we will do everything to stop the deportations, it will be enough for them to change course.

People from abroad are also inquiring about how to help. One major organizational leader has offered to organize twinning families in the United States with families in Israel to help pay for the cost of hiding the asylum seekers. We have Knesset support. There was an emergency forum on the issue that was packed.

You have been critical of the rhetoric that government officials use when discussing the issue of asylum seekers . Can you point to specific examples?

The similarities are striking between Pharaoh’s language and Netanyahu’s rhetoric. After all, what does Pharaoh do? Pharaoh says to the Egyptian people: There is a people among you growing in number and because they are growing in number they are a threat to us. That is exactly what Netanyahu has said about the asylum seekers. Former interior minister, Eli Yishai, said that asylum seekers are criminals. That’s what Haman said about Jews of Persia—they were people who did not follow the laws of the land. This is who we are becoming if we don’t stop it.

How can Diaspora Jewry participate in the effort to stop the deportations?

If people want to contribute or participate in some way email us at: [email protected]There are also a number of American Jews who have a second apartment or own property here. We’d love to have them offer their apartments and properties to asylum seekers. Israel’s 70th birthday is coming up this spring, It can either be a celebration of our innovation, contributions and values or it can be symbolized by deporting African Asylum Seekers to trafficking and death. We hope that Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States takes a stand and implores Netanyahu not to make Independence Day a celebration marred by and symbolized by deporting refugees to their deaths.

Instead, imagine this: For Israel’s 70th Independence Day we launch Start-Up Nation University to train African refugees in agriculture, water, energy, medical and high tech so that when they can safely return home – whether Eritrea, Sudan or other countries – they can be part of building an innovative democracy at home as well as being ambassadors of light from the Jewish state.

Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and other venues. She is the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.