Because We Are Jewish

The Torah reiterates, no less than 36 times, the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The Exodus narrative is not just about the suffering and flight of the Jews, but it delivers a universal message about Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection.

With this in mind, I was disappointed to read the July 23 editorial in the Baltimore Jewish Times advocating to close HIAS. The newspaper declared “the era of the Wandering Jew is over” and, with it, the need for HIAS, concluding with the suggestion: “rather than search for a new mission in order to justify its continued existence, perhaps it would be better for HIAS to consider an orderly sunset.”

HIAS is not searching for a new mission. We remain true to the original one of refugee protection. What HIAS has done is moved from the “Exodus” period of our first 120 years, in which HIAS focused on bringing Jews from oppression to freedom, to HIAS’s “Leviticus” period, in which we fulfill Jewish values and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities based on our own Exodus experiences.

The changes to HIAS’s work are not just theologically motivated. They are based on the lessons of history, especially from the Holocaust period when HIAS, the Jewish community and the World failed to protect the six million Jews who perished. The evolution of HIAS is about fulfilling our community’s promise that never again will we permit anything like the Holocaust to happen. What is the most effective strategy for doing this? By acting only when Jewish refugees are in danger or by constantly advocating for the universal protection of all refugees? HIAS has chosen the latter path.

One reason we failed during the Shoah was that, at that time, the world had no internationally recognized right to flee and seek refuge. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol — heavily advocated by the Jewish community, Israel and HIAS — now provide us with the principles to help ensure that never again will refugees be pushed back into the hands of their persecutors.

We cannot protect ourselves by being only for ourselves. We can only protect ourselves by protecting and implementing universal principles of human rights.

In Washington and in meetings convened by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Geneva, HIAS advocates for the U.S. government and the international community to respect the principles of refugee protection that arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. HIAS is already working on five continents to protect refugees of all faiths who have fled ethnic cleansing and other forms of persecution. In addition, we resettle 3,000 refugees each year through our U.S. network, primarily consisting of Jewish Family Service agencies, which, like HIAS, have decided to continue programs welcoming refugees even though most refugees who they now resettle are not Jewish.

HIAS’s mission has not changed. In 1881, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was established to help refugees find welcome, safety and freedom. HIAS has not strayed from that path. Today, HIAS does not help refugees because they are Jewish. HIAS helps refugees because we are Jewish.

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