Why HIAS Became a Target of Hate

The aid agency has transformed itself over the past decade from a group that aids refugees because they are Jewish to a group of Jews that aids refugees.

Gene J. Puskar / AP

Last week, a group known as HIAS held a “National Refugee Shabbat” in dozens of cities across the United States and Canada to raise awareness of the suffering of millions of refugees around the globe. Yesterday, Robert D. Bowers allegedly decided to shoot and kill at least 11 innocent civilians in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In social-media posts before the shooting, Bowers had attacked HIAS and the National Refugee Shabbat.

HIAS, founded in the late-19th century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has in the past decade transformed itself, becoming an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers regardless of their background. The shooting appears grounded in a hatred that combines anti-Semitism with anti-immigrant xenophobia. Echoing current and past far-right figures, Bowers has accused refugees of menacing the American people and their civilization. And in the current political discourse, which relies heavily on resentment and anger toward strangers, it is not surprising that this hatred has now been directed at a Jewish organization that focuses on helping refugees and immigrants.

Although I am not Jewish, I attended a number of the National Refugee Shabbat programs. I heard the testimony of women such as Ahed Festuk, a Syrian activist from Aleppo seeking asylum in the United States, and the Guatemalan-born Debora Barrios-Vasquez, who is taking sanctuary at St. Paul &  St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York City with her 2-year-old.

Over the course of its history, HIAS has helped resettle more than 4.5 million people. Until the beginning of the 21st century, its main task was to assist Jews in need. In its early years, it helped Jewish immigrants and refugees fleeing the pogroms in czarist Russia as well as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In addition to providing food, shelter, and translation services, HIAS operated a bureau on Ellis Island, where it helped prevent deportations. But when the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration to the United States, HIAS shifted from supporting new arrivals in the U.S. to taking on a more global role.

In 1927, it merged with the Paris-based Jewish Colonization Agency and the Berlin-based Emigdirect and formed HIAS-HICEM. In cooperation with other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, but also with non-Jewish organizations, HIAS-HICEM helped tens of thousands of Jews escape Europe during the Holocaust. After the end of World War II, HIAS helped an even larger number of displaced persons leave former war zones and find new homes in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world.

During the Cold War, HIAS continued its work as the representative of American Jewry in the field of migration and resettlement. It still focused mostly on helping Jews in danger, such as Egypt’s Jewish community after its expulsion following the 1956 Suez Crisis. In addition to aiding rescue operations for Jews from Ethiopia, Iran, and Syria, HIAS played an important role in the exodus of Soviet Jewry. HIAS was also an advocate for immigration reform and was instrumental in passing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Although HIAS supported non-Jewish refugees—for example, it aided in rescue and resettlement efforts after the fall of Saigon in 1975—it remained a Jewish organization, dedicated above all to helping Jews in need. The resettlement of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union remained its central task well into the 1990s. But 2006 marked the last year when most of the refugees HIAS resettled were Jewish.

In 2007, under the leadership of Gideon Aronoff and in response to a declining caseload, HIAS adopted a new strategic plan. The plan paved the way for HIAS’s transformation from an organization designed to help Jews into one providing nonsectarian humanitarian aid. HIAS took inspiration from the 2,000-year-old teaching of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” While the mission of tikkun olam was one driving force behind this transformation, of equal importance was the idea of al hamishmar, of being “on guard.” The group’s leadership decided that the best way to maintain an infrastructure ready to help Jews was to build an organization that supports refugees of other ethnicities and faiths.

In consequence, HIAS has evolved over the past five years under its current president and CEO, Mark Hetfield, into a refugee agency that no longer helps refugees because “they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.” This explicit focus on the fate of non-Jewish refugees and asylum seekers has significantly broadened HIAS’s mission and turned the organization into a key advocate for refugees.

HIAS’s advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers has also caused significant tension with Donald Trump’s administration, which relies heavily on anti-immigrant sentiment to mobilize its base. As one of nine voluntary agencies in charge of reception and placement services for refugees arriving in the United States, HIAS has been an active and respected partner of past administrations. However, its relationship with the Trump administration has grown contentious. HIAS was a partner in the federal suits over the travel ban on Muslim refugees.

When HIAS decided to adopt the strategy of al hamishmar—of being “on guard”—its leadership had the vulnerable Jewish communities of the Middle East, Latin America, South Africa, Europe, and the former Soviet Union in mind. On Saturday, though, the hatred it seeks to combat every day struck closer to home.