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In Israel, a rabbinical plan to hide Africans facing deportation

Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration Jan. 17, 2018, outside the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem against the Israeli government’s policy to deport African refugees and asylum-seekers from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda. Hebrew signs read “no for deportation, Rwanda equal to death” and “slaves for sale.” (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM (RNS) – Inspired by sanctuary movements throughout history, a prominent rabbi in Israel has asked her peers to provide a safe haven for nearly 40,000 African sanctuary-seekers who could soon be deported by the government.

Rabbi Susan Silverman, the older sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, is a Jerusalem-based community activist who was once taken into police custody for demanding that women be allowed to read from a Torah — the Hebrew Bible — at the Western Wall.

In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government will deport all African asylum-seekers by the end of March if they do not accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a ticket out of the country. Most come from Eritrea and Sudan and entered Israel illegally via Egypt.

Advocates for the asylum-seekers, whom Netanyahu calls “infiltrators,” say their lives will be in danger if they are forced to leave Israel. Netanyahu has said that Israel, as a sovereign country, has a right and obligation to protect itself against illegal immigration.

Silverman unveiled her as-yet-unratified plan Tuesday (Jan. 16) during a conference organized by the Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights. Called the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement, the plan calls on the organization’s nearly 200 members to house asylum-seekers if the government follows through on its deportation plan.

The family of Frank, the teenage diarist, was sheltered by Christians before being deported to a Nazi concentration camp, where all but Anne’s father died.

Rabbi Susan Silverman at a rally on behalf of Israel’s African asylum-seekers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to deport what he calls “infiltrators” within the next few months. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Susan Silverman

“This isn’t a new idea. It’s something people have done for a long time and that Jews in dangerous places have benefited from. Now it’s our turn,” Silverman told Religion News Service.

“Now we have our own state and we have power and the ability to protect the stranger, as the Torah commands us 36 times.”

Silverman said she and staffers of Rabbis for Human Rights spent Thursday compiling a list of rabbis, congregations, yeshivas, kibbutzim and others who have expressed willingness to provide sanctuary.

The organization’s board is expected to formally approve the plan next week, said Nava Hefetz, its educational director.

Silverman said she feels called to provide asylum “as a rabbi and as a human being.”
“As rabbis we’re called by a vision of the prophets and the very mitzvot (commandments) we claim to live by.”

She said the fact that the Israeli government plans to evict thousands of people “means our society has its priorities upside down. If someone had told me 10 years ago this would happen, I’d have said a Jewish state would never send desperate refugees away to their deaths. It’s our responsibility to prevent it from happening.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent.)

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Michele Chabin

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