Embracing the Jewish Community’s Refugee Roots

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By Mark Hetfield

HIAS was established 135 years ago to protect Jewish refugees who were fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Today, we remain true to our original mission of refugee protection. We are helping people who have fled their countries because their lives were in jeopardy due to who they are or what they believe.

When there are refugees who are Jewish, HIAS is still there to make sure they receive help. In the past year, HIAS brought Jews from Iran, the Middle East, Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union to safety and freedom in the United States.

Yet, some in our community continue to ask, why are we helping refugees fleeing genocide, even when they are not Jewish? Thankfully, the Torah provides us with a clear answer.

Our most sacred text delivers a universal message about Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection. We read 36 times about the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we know the heart of a stranger, as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Assisting refugees of all faiths and ethnicities is not just a fulfillment of the values imbued by our holiest scripture, it’s a recognition of our people’s own Exodus experiences. The American Jewish community’s very existence is rooted in the windows of time when the United States opened its doors to refugees. Remaining silent while others seek the same opportunity to live in safety would be morally reprehensible.

With the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in recorded history, our mission is as relevant as ever — because of our roots. That is the only reason HIAS does what it does. Not for profit, but out of love and a commitment to our Jewish-American values.

Yes, HIAS (along with eight other mostly faith-based agencies) does receive government funding to subsidize these efforts, but we do not make a profit. HIAS’ local resettlement sites receive $2,075 per refugee with which we must pay our staff and overhead while providing the refugee with transportation, a fully furnished apartment for three months, a kitchen stocked with food, English lessons and cultural orientation, a cash allowance, assistance with school enrollment and job placement services. There is no profit; we rely heavily on local volunteers and private donations.

An America that does not welcome refugees is not an America that most American Jews recognize. Just ask the hundreds of congregations, nearly 2,000 rabbis, or thousands of supporters who attended our National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.

We will not stand on the sidelines as Muslim refugees are turned away just for being Muslim, just as we could not stand idly by when the United States turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the 1930s and ’40s. When we say, “Never again,” we mean never again for everyone.

We cannot protect ourselves by being only for ourselves. We can only protect ourselves by protecting and implementing universal principles of human rights. If we acted only when Jewish refugees were in danger, as opposed to constantly advocating for the protection of all refugees, it wouldn’t only be wrong, it would be a rejection of our refugee roots.

Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

1 COMMENT

  1. HIAS does good work. Immigrants have been, are, and will continue to be a valuable part of the American fabric. However, that is where my agreement with Mark Hetfield ends.

    There are many ways to “love the stranger as ourselves.” While America can accept refugees into our country, we could alternatively provide safe-zones within a refugee’s home country or neighboring country. Another option for America is to help end the conditions that lead to the flow of refugees (e.g., war, famine, disease, etc.).

    While Judaism calls for us to embrace the stranger, it does not require us to embrace the stranger who wants to kill us. For example, God did not insist that our ancestors embrace the Amalekites. And no one would have expected the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to embrace the invading German Nazis.

    Suggesting that today’s Muslim refugees are morally equivalent to the Jewish refugees of the 1930s and 1940s is offensive. Jews never attacked the USA in the name of Judaism nor did they ever promise to infiltrate the refugee system in order to invade and attack the USA. However, various groups of Muslims have done just that. I’m not suggesting that we should close our borders to all Muslims — the majority are no doubt good people; interestingly, no one in government is suggesting that we should end all Muslim immigration. However, we need to carefully vet all refugees, erring on the side of safety for Americans.

    Finally, I find it curious that Hetfield felt it necessary to point out four times that HIAS is a nonprofit organization. I assume he did this primarily to demonstrate how righteous he is and what a good Jew he is rather than being someone who is biased and motivated, at least in part, by personal gain. He writes, “That is the only reason HIAS does what it does. Not for profit, but out of love and a commitment to our Jewish-American values.”

    Despite Hetfield’s implied claim of righteous motivation, he’s certainly not sacrificing economically. Hetfield’s compensation totaled $375,978 in 2015, the most recent year for which tax returns were available on the HIAS website. Clearly, Hetfield has a significant economic interest in promoting HIAS. Furthermore, an additional nine HIAS employees earned between $168,365 and $286,348. Jewish values might inspire Hetfield and his staff. However, a significant economic self-interest is certainly at play as well.

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