The murder of 11 Jewish worshipers at their Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on October 28, directed the spotlight at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the oldest Jewish humanitarian and immigrant aid organization in the world.
Before the suspected murderer, Robert Bowers, a local driver, went into action, armed with his guns, he posted inflammatory and poisonous antisemitic remarks on social media networks. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in." He referred to the controversial efforts by US President Donald Trump to close US borders to immigrants.
HIAS opposes the administration’s policy and together with lawyers, states and other civil liberties groups, is involved in public and legal battles to change it. Commenting on the Pittsburg massacre, HIAS President and CEO Mark Hatfield told me in a recent interview, “It’s not going to affect our mission one iota. If anything, it’s reinforced the need for the Jewish community to be a welcoming community.” Bowers, who faces the death penalty, was active on Gab, a social media website used by far right, antisemitic white nationalists and white supremacists.
Founded in 1881 as the “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” to assist Jews experiencing pogroms and antisemitism in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS has remained throughout the years on the frontlines of the Jewish refugee struggle.
It built a shelter on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, providing dormitory space, a soup kitchen and clothing to any Jew in need. It helped Jewish refugees escape Europe during World War I and – unfortunately to a lesser degree – during World War II. After the war in the 40s, it provided aid to Holocaust survivors in the displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Since the establishment of Israel, Hias worked closely with Israeli authorities, including the Mossad, to help Jews escape persecution in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, and from Arab lands, from Egypt, North Africa, Yemen and, in the last two decades, from Sudan, Ethiopia and Iran. At the same time, Israeli governments were also critical of HIAS for allowing Jews to immigrate to foreign lands and not to Israel.
In the 1970s, the US State Department asked HIAS to use its expertise to bring over some 3,600 Vietnamese refugees as the war there ended. Since then, HIAS has expanded its scope and global operations to help non-Jewish refugees in conflicts all over the world and provide humanitarian aid in natural disasters. HIAS has also worked closely with UN humanitarian missions.
BORN IN 1967 in New Jersey, Mark Hetfield – the president and CEO of HIAS – studied law and diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington DC and joined the organization 28 years ago.
Here is our question and answer exchange:
How did you feel when you heard that the murderer before the attack tweeted against HIAS?
"Shocked. I am still in shock. HIAS is accustomed to being targeted by hate sites, but this tragedy is at an entirely different level. Hateful words lead to hateful acts'.
Do you connect President Donald Trump’s inflammatory and hate speech against immigrants, Muslims and other minorities to the Pittsburgh massacre?
"Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric are a symptom and a severe irritant, but it is not the root cause of the problem of fear of the other, which often leads to hate of the other. We have to come to terms with that as a nation, and as a community of nations, as hate is a global epidemic. However, I do not know how we can address hate effectively as a nation under Trump’s leadership, as he has proven time and time again that he is unwilling and unable to control his harmful words against minority groups".
What do you think of Trump’s immigration policy?
"Trump does not have an immigration policy, he has an anti-immigration policy".
Why is HIAS devoted to immigrants regardless of their race, religion and color?
"We learned that we need to stand up for ourselves, but we can’t effectively stand up for ourselves if we don’t stand up for all humanity. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”.
What do you think of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government’s attitude to non-Jewish immigrants, especially African, including political asylum seekers?
"When I read the statements of Prime Minister Netanyahu and others in his government about the asylum seekers, I replace the word “infiltrators” – the word they use for asylum seekers – and replace it with the word “Jews.” I read that statement to myself. And when I do that, one clearly sees just how shocking and dangerous those statements are. They too are hateful incitements, and we can’t stand for it".
What are Jewish values in your eyes?
"Do not do unto others what would be hateful if done unto yourself.” Those are Jewish values. All the rest is commentary. And – I’d add – don’t stand by silently when you see others doing the same".
How are your relations with the Israeli government?
"We were partners with the Ministry of the Interior as they developed an asylum system. The partnership was good, I was proud of our work and how we approached it, but the results were not good. Israel has the least credible asylum system in the developed world. So now we take another tactic – working with lawyers and civil society to make sure that asylum seekers get justice. And the Israeli legal system is something to be proud of, thanks to the Basic Laws."
What do you tell Israeli authorities and the Jewish Agency, which claim that HIAS is anti-Zionist and acts against Jewish immigration (aliyah) to Israel?
"HIAS is an adamant supporter of the State of Israel as it – more than anything else – has allowed HIAS to accomplish its original mission to find home, safety and freedom for Jewish refugees. Without the state of Israel, HIAS could never have moved from being an organization that helps refugees because they are Jewish to being an organization that helps refugees because we are Jewish. I know that Trump’s legislation has hurt Jews around the globe, especially in Iran, who are seeking asylum status in the US".
Can you elaborate on this?
"While the Trump administration promised it would do more to help religious minorities, including Jews, from Iran and other countries, it has done less. Trump’s extreme vetting is not vetting – it is a ban. While HIAS had helped thousands of Iranian Jews, Christians and Baha’i escape Iran for the United States during the Bush and Obama administrations, we have not been able to help any since February of 2017. One hundred refugees are stuck in Vienna with no status and nowhere to go and many others remain in Iran."