HIAS, the Jewish refugee-aid group targeted by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, explained by its president

On Saturday, 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. According to the Anti-Defamation League, it was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. The shooter targeted the synagogue for its work with HIAS — a Jewish organization that resettles refugees in the United States.

The shooter, in a conspiracy theory that linked Trump-era xenophobia to longstanding anti-Semitic tropes, blamed Jews for the caravan of Central American migrants and asylum-seekers currently working its way slowly though Mexico to the United States — and blamed HIAS, in particular, for fomenting an invasion of Central Americans and other nonwhites to replace white Americans.

The irony of this conspiracy theory is that it correctly identifies an important shift in HIAS’ mission: the organization, founded a century ago specifically to help Jewish immigrants in the US, has recently found itself trying to encourage Americans (Jewish or otherwise) to care about the global refugee crisis and support its victims from Central America to Syria. But of course, to HIAS, this isn’t about demographic replacement but a simple matter of justice.

In 2015, I spoke to the president of HIAS, Mark Hetfield, about how the organization sees itself and its mission in the 21st century. It’s as good an introduction as any to the vision that Saturday’s shooter was, literally, trying to kill.

Dara Lind: What is the work that HIAS does with refugees in the US, and what role do Jewish communities play in that work?

Mark Hetfield: We are one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies [organizations that the government contracts with to help integrate refugees in the United States, and pair up with individual refugees]. We resettle refugees to the United States and receive them in communities, get them set up in new homes, get the kids to school, get them jobs, etc. That’s always been the core work of the agency.

Our resettlement system was established in the late 1970s, to deal with the Soviet Jewry movement, to be the way to think globally and act locally when it came to Soviet Jews. We were able to enlist more than 100 Jewish communities and federations, Jewish Family Services agencies around the country, to welcome Soviet Jews, and welcome them to American society and to the American Jewish community at the local level. That was done through us, and that’s how our system was developed.

We have the same system today, but today we’re bringing in a very different refugee population than the Soviet Jews — and overwhelmingly, they’re not Jewish. And our network is much smaller than it was during the peak of Soviet Jewish immigration. A lot of Jewish communities dropped out as the number of Soviet Jews arriving declined. Today, our network is only of about 20 local agencies.

In Ohio, we have affiliates that were established by two Soviet Jewish women — they were refugees themselves — who worked for the Jewish Family Service. They were heartbroken when the Jewish Family Service Columbus dropped out of refugee resettlement, so they started their own very successful organization, which now resettles primarily Syrians in Toledo, Ohio, and Iraqis and diverse populations in Columbus and Cleveland.

We’re definitely trying to find ways to engage local Jewish communities in this, even if they’ve dropped out. But right now, we’re kind of rethinking and redesigning the way we do refugee resettlement at the local level, because we know we have to update our model from the Soviet Jewry era. Now we welcome refugees not because they’re Jewish, but because we’re Jewish.

Dara Lind: That seems like a pretty significant shift, not just from the 1970s but for decades before that — after all, the international refugee system was set up after the world failed to help European Jews trying to escape Hitler in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Can you talk more about how HIAS evolved from helping Jewish refugees to helping refugees, period?

Mark Hetfield: In the earlier part of our history, we advocated for people because they were Jews, because they were landsmen. And we tried to beg for charity, we tried to beg for the United States, and then when the United States shut its doors, for other countries to take Jews in. But we began to realize that if you want to be successful, you can’t advocate for just Jewish resettlement, you have to advocate for the rights of refugees to be protected. You have to advocate for all human rights. Particularly when you’re the member of a minority, you begin to realize just how important it is to human rights and the human rights angle.

So we focus very much on the Refugee Convention. That’s been our Torah, in a way. And the Jewish history is a history of displacement. There are 36 mentions in the Torah about the need to love the stranger as yourself. I counted them once; I got to 36.

We know the heart of a stranger, because we were strangers once in Egypt. And that’s just been true over and over again. So it’s both part of our ancient teachings and our recent historical experience. And HIAS has been kind of the engine of that for the last 130 years, for the American Jewish community anyway. We feel it’s important to do the same for others, to pay it forward.

Dara Lind: How has HIAS been engaging the bigger Jewish community to help?

Mark Hetfield: It’s really important to us that the American Jewish community engage on refugee issues, because it’s really a part of who we are. But we hadn’t made an organized effort to do that. We had paid all of our attention to delivering resources to refugees, to resettling refugees, on advocacy inside the Beltway on behalf of refugees. And of course, we’re doing this as part of the American Jewish community, we’re considered to be part of the American Jewish establishment, but we were kind of doing it without — how do I say this? — we were doing it without much engagement by the community we were representing.

So we decided to create a department that would focus on promoting refugee protection and the importance of refugee protection among American Jews, whether they’re affiliated or not. Develop materials for services, just get out there more and speak as Jews on the importance of refugee protection in general.

We didn’t have any such department, or any people who were focused on that, a year and a half ago. But now we do. We have a small department where this is their focus.

HIAS welcome the stranger

Dara Lind: And how well has that been working? Have you found that American Jews still understand refugees as a “Jewish issue,” even when the refugees themselves aren’t Jewish?

Mark Hetfield I have to say, if you had asked me that question a month ago my answer would have been totally different. Totally, totally different. There was a real transformation over the month of [August 2015, as the Syrian refugee crisis dominated global headlines] in the way the American Jewish community was engaging in refugee issues in general, and refugee issues regarding Syrians in particular.

Frankly, when I would speak to congregations — which I do pretty frequently — the Syrian refugee crisis, even though it’s the largest crisis in the world, did not capture anyone’s interest. I think because they view it as “just another problem in the Middle East,” “just another problem of a community that doesn’t like Israel and doesn’t like Jews.” You’d get comments like, “Why would I bring people here who want to burn down my synagogue?” So I’d have to focus more on Ukraine or on Iranian religious minorities.

Mark Hetfield: Over the month of August, first you had the Sudanese guy who tried to cross the English Channel on foot, and that got some interest. And then people really started to wake up when they discovered the 71 decomposing bodies of refugee men, women, and children in Austria. And then, of course, just days later, when Aylan Kurdi’s body was discovered on the shores of Turkey and photographed — that’s what really humanized the crisis and made American Jews really relate to the refugee plight of the Syrians.

It’s just amazing what a difference that photograph made. I really think it was that single photograph that took the message home and made people realize that this is something we have to do something about. This is something we as a community can really, really relate to.

Because HIAS has just recently become in a position to work with the community, to give them resources, we were able to respond to this need that arose out of this refugee crisis. In other words, we didn’t drive it, but we were there to respond to it.

Dara Lind: Of course, people can be interested in, say, donating to help people in need, but not necessarily interested in doing political advocacy. Are you seeing interest in, for instance, calling members of Congress?

Mark Hetfield: A lot of people are making it clear they don’t just want to write a check —they want to engage on the issue. And that’s what we’ve been calling for.

We have these petitions going. We put out an action alert this week for people to call their members of Congress, which is really very important because the president, while he can make refugee determinations and set the refugee ceiling just by consulting with [the State Department], he needs the funding to be able to do it, to bring refugees here. So that’s a major part of our effort.

Frankly, the refugee ceiling will not get increased without such pressure. It’s not just from our community. I just think that our community, because these are Syrians, have a particularly important voice in the discussion.

What’s also been amazing is that all these congregations are calling, asking us how can they sponsor a refugee, how can they take a Syrian refugee family in. And this hasn’t happened since Kosovo, literally since 1999. And that’s been really moving. And because of the way the US refugee program works, we don’t really have an answer for them right now, because there aren’t that many Syrian refugees arriving in the first place, although we did resettle around a hundred in our network this year — mostly in Toledo, Pittsburgh, and Springfield, Massachusetts. But people really want to do some real work and even bring them into their homes.

So we’re telling them to sit tight, the most important thing you can do right now is to advocate, and ultimately there will be plenty of volunteer opportunities to help the new refugees once they actually start arriving.

What we keep trying to emphasize is that this crisis right now really is a global crisis. This is not about one situation. Right now, the world has more refugees displaced than at any time since World War II. And most are not related to the Syria conflict, though that’s the biggest. In fact, in most places where we work, we work in other places where there’s mass displacement. People who have been refugees for a long time and still have serious integration difficulties and serious protection problems. We always try to put the Syria crisis in the context of the global crisis.

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