Activists launch sanctuary project for African migrants

‘This is about Jewish values, Jewish history and the Jewish future,’ says co-founder Rabbi Susan Silverman.

Children of migrant workers Tel Aviv African refugee 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Children of migrant workers Tel Aviv African refugee 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Less than a week after the Population and Immigration Border Authority issued 20,000 deportation notices to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants seeking asylum in Israel, a group of rabbis announced the formation of a national absorption project.
Rabbi Susan Silverman, co-founder of Miklat Israel (Israel Sanctuary), said thousands of Israeli families, including many living in kibbutzim, are willing to open their homes to asylum-seekers who face the choice of deportation or prison on April 1.
“We had no idea how big it would become so fast,” Silverman said on Thursday. “That was a surprise to all of us.”
According to co-founder Rabbi Tati Schagas, 2,600 families have expressed strong interest in the initiative.
“What we are trying to do is disperse them all over the country so that the pressure presently in south Tel Aviv is no longer an issue, and we’re trying to give them places where they will be able to work and become part of communities that are ready to support them,” Schagas said. “Our plan includes having asylum-seekers and Israelis meet to make a connection, and then finding housing while it is still legal to house them before they are forced to leave.”
Noting that the Interior Ministry plans to deport some 20,000 single men of working age now, and the remaining 18,000 asylum-seekers within three years, Schagas said she hopes Miklat Israel can absorb everyone who wants to stay.
“We are in touch with all the organizations that work with asylum-seekers, and are working on a political level by having meetings at the Knesset to push forward our agenda,” she said, adding that the organization has yet to hold talks with the Interior Ministry.
Silverman, author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, said Miklat Israel will provide a “third option” to deportation and imprisonment.
“We have a reality where thousands of people are about to be sent by our government to places where they are likely to be trafficked or killed, and at the very least, we know will be back on the refugee trail,” she said.
“Lots of people in Israel are saying, ‘Come stay with us.’ And the emails we are getting are from a whole cross-section of Jewish-Israeli society.”
Silverman said this included right-wing Jews from the West Bank who are offering to host asylum-seekers in their settlements.
“We’re so used to being in our own political circles, but we’ve got people from the territories saying ‘Sign us up!’” she continued. “We’re trying to make an interactive map right now to show everybody online all the options.”
While Silverman said there have been high-level discussions about the initiative, she added that it was too early to comment on any meaningful developments during the movement’s nascent stage.
Ultimately, she said, the deportation debate is “a moral issue.”
“I think this is about Jewish values, Jewish history and the Jewish future,” she said. “Who do we want to be? How do we want to celebrate at our 70th [year as a state]? By deporting people?”
Silverman continued: “When countries do things like this, you can’t undo it. You can’t undo the history, and so we have to find out what history we can be proud of.”
In conjunction with Israel Sanctuary, Silverman said she is in the developmental stage of creating Start-Up Nation University for Refugees to educate absorbed asylum-seekers.
“The idea is that we create a hi-tech university that teaches Israeli technologies in agriculture and water and [electric] power, and it has gained all sorts of traction behind the scenes from basically every party we have spoken to to make it happen,” she said.
“It would basically be a university within Israel where the refugees who are among us would have all these options to learn all these technologies – after which many African nations will roll out the red carpet for them to stay and work.
“For example,” she continued, “when it is safe to return to Eritrea, they would have all these educated returnees to help build up their own Start- Up Nation.
“We could leverage who we are in terms of our values, and in terms of our impressive accomplishments in the world with technology, to at a minimum train thousands of people who are going back to countries that desperately need that expertise.”
Silverman said the millions of shekels used by the government to incarcerate or to pay Africans to leave the country could be used to finance the enterprise.
“We can use all the money we’re using for evil, and turn it into good,” she said. “We have all the components we need, and the people with the expertise we need, to come together to do this, if the government will just get out of its own way.”