When Rabbi Susan Silverman pitched a wildcat idea at the Rabbis for Human Rights meeting in Jerusalem in January, that perhaps Israelis could step up to hide asylum seekers threatened with deportation à la Anne Frank, she thought the proposal might, at best, gain some publicity for their plight.
But within three days, hundreds of families had signed up through the hastily organized Miklat Israel/Israel Sanctuary Movement, ready to take asylum seekers into their homes for an unknown period of time.
“They’re all aware of the fact that there is a level of civil disobedience,” said Rabbi Tamara Schagas, one of three female Jerusalem rabbis spearheading the initiative, along with Silverman and Rabbi Nava Hefetz.
The three met as members of the Reform congregation Kol Neshama in Jerusalem and have been active with asylum seeker issues for many years.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. A law approved by the Knesset in December stipulates that the Interior Ministry will deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda starting in April during the Passover holiday.
Currently, more than 1,000 Israeli families have signed up with Miklat Israel to host asylum seekers at risk of deportation. Some families signed along with their entire kibbutz, deeming the whole community a “sanctuary” for refugees.
The organization has placed around 30 asylum seekers with Israeli host families, mostly people from the Holot Detention Center who were released on the condition that they not work or live in seven cities that have high concentrations of asylum seekers.
Miklat Israel is also helping find jobs for the asylum seekers placed with host families.
“The main concern of Miklat Israel is trying to buy time for asylum seekers,” said Schagas. “We believe there will be a change in policy because of the great response of Israeli society and because [deportations] are such a non-Jewish thing to do.”
Families who volunteer to be hosts are required to come to orientation sessions, where Miklat Israel leaders stress that it is illegal to shelter someone who the government is looking for.
“[The host families] are doing this with an open heart, but there are a lot of questions,” said Schagas. “How long will it be for? What will we do? Will they be able to leave the house and walk around? Will [the authorities] come to Israeli homes?”
Kibbutz Sasa, located just a few kilometers south of Lebanon, has offered to take in a number of asylum seekers and their families, though they are working independently of Miklat Israel.
“There is a group of people here on the kibbutz that feel the government decision embarrasses them as Jews, so they turned to the kibbutz and asked to see if we as a kibbutz can help until the country can find a more respectful solution,” said Yoni Tsoran, a lifetime resident and the general-secretary of Sasa. He said in the past the kibbutz has acted as a sanctuary to help people in need.
Sasa expects to absorb a number of African asylum seeker families for the long term. Their children will attend kibbutz school and the parents will work as part of the kibbutz. “This is not philanthropy,” said Tsoran, who added that the asylum seekers will be expected to be full members of the kibbutz’s social life, with local adoptive families helping ease the transition.
“We hope this will give [asylum seekers] a better solution, and we also want to give people an alternative to south Tel Aviv, because that area needs a solution as well,” he said.
Tsoran stressed that Sasa will absorb asylum seekers in a legal manner, meaning those who have not been given a deadline for deportation and can work legally. The Interior Ministry has said that women and children are not currently under threat of deportation.
The Miklat Israel movement, in contrast, is aimed at providing temporary sanctuary for people who have received a deportation notice that gives them a choice between imprisonment and deportation.
Tsoran knows that moving from the city to the quiet life of a rural kibbutz will be a big shock, both to asylum seekers and to the kibbutz. “There are always challenges, but I don’t think a few Eritreans will make a change or create a problem,” he said. “I think it will enrich us.”
Tsoran said while the kibbutz doesn’t usually seek publicity, they decided to be public with this decision in order to encourage other kibbutzim or individuals to help asylum seekers integrate into all parts of Israel in order to ease the burden on south Tel Aviv.
“I look at my father who was a refugee from Lithuania, and he survived the Holocaust and got to where he is because people put their own lives in danger and helped him,” said Tsoran. “If there’s a lesson we need to adopt, it’s about being human. We can come up with a solution that will respect people and also respect the laws of the state of Israel. We need to be first of all human beings, before we’re Jews or Holocaust survivors, first we must be humans and do what’s right.”
Some south Tel Aviv activists who support the deportation charge that these problems have been building up over the past decade, and wonder why all of the activists are only now stepping in to help. Tsoran said the kibbutz, located on the furthest outreaches of Israel’s periphery, generally focuses their charitable work on their own region. Hefetz, Silverman and Schagas have been involved with activism for asylum seekers, including regular visits to Holot Detention Center, for years.
Schagas said that Miklat Israel is one part of a wide response to activists and asylum seekers working to stop the deportations. Some organizations are lobbying Knesset members and organizing protests while others are in charge of educating the public and in charge of media. She hopes that Miklat Israel won’t actually need to start matching thousands of asylum seekers with host families, and that the policies will change before it comes to that stage. Still, they want to be ready, with the proper tools in place so they can roll out the program if it is needed.
This includes two 24/7 hotlines, one for asylum seekers and one for host families, to resolve any issues that might arise from sharing close quarters. There are 40 social workers and psychologists volunteering their time to provide counseling to both groups.
According to the deportation plan, asylum seekers who refused deportation will be sent to Saharonim prison for an undetermined length of time. Schagas said that for some asylum seekers, jail isn’t an option. “Some people have PTSD and depression and they think that jail will kill them,” she said. “These are the people who are most in need of help and support, they should not be in prison for an undetermined period.”
Schagas stressed that Miklat Israel works at every step of the way with asylum seekers. “This is not only complex for Israeli families, but also for them,” she noted. “They want to know who are these people, why are they doing this? Their experience in Israel has shown them they can’t necessarily trust people. It’s a lot of work to be in touch with them and be present. It’s not just about showing up and coming up with a solution we hope they’ll like. It’s building a relationship that’s enabling trust.”
Silverman said she has been surprised by the way families have signed up with Miklat Israel from across the political spectrum. “People who are politically right wing, people who live in the territories, they have all been volunteering their houses and communities,” she said. “We’re working across political lines in a way that I never have before.”
“People are motivated by their own family’s history, and what we want our future to look like,” she said.
Silverman wants the future response to African asylum seekers to look like Israel’s response to technology. Her dream is to turn Holot Detention Center, which closed on March 14, into a start-up university for asylum seekers. Other activists have had similar proposals.
“We can apply the same ingenuity we applied to hi-tech to our moral problems,” Silverman said. Rather than forcing asylum seekers to cobble together minimum-wage jobs, she envisions training programs in green energy, agriculture, water technology, and medical technology.
“If the government could get out of its own way, people could work building a solar field during the day and study during the afternoon,” she said. “They can contribute to Israel by working.”
Silverman’s husband, Yossi Abromowitz, is the co-founder of the Arava Power Company and the president and CEO of Energiya Global Capital. Energiya Global which brings Israeli solar technology to international solar fields in places like Rwanda, so the couple is uniquely positioned to offer solar technology training.
Silverman said she is in touch with a number of institutions, and even some government agencies, to pursue a type of employment training and empowerment program.
She noted that training asylum seekers in technology and green energy would make countries in Africa more likely to recruit them as professionals, rather than be forced to accept them as refugees. These professionals would also be much better ambassadors for Israel at a time when Netanyahu is trying to strengthen ties with Africa.“We could leverage this for such immense light,” she said. “But instead we’re just digging deeper into a world of darkness.”