Thessaloniki, Greece — What’s a nice Jewish girl doing working with Muslim refugees in an overwhelmingly Christian country? As the North Greece Head of Mission for IsraAID, Liat Rennert has been running the Israeli NGO’s operations out of Thessaloniki for the past three months.
In Greece, secular, faith-based and interfaith groups have set aside their differences and joined forces to meet the basic needs of refugees. But Israelis and Jews, because of their history and ethics, can often add a dimension to their relief work—an acute understanding of the challenges migrants face. Many Jews working in aid organizations feel that centuries of persecution mean they can empathize with the hopeless and the desperate, and can serve as living examples of what can be achieved when the global community comes together to support those in need.
And showing a compassionate face to the world may also help boost Israel’s beleaguered public image in the world community, say international affairs experts.
IsraAID, launched in 2001 and now serving refugees in 39 countries, is itself an interfaith organization, with team members of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Yazidi and Hindu faiths. But the organization’s co-CEO, Yotam Polizer, says Jewish values are a driving force for much of its leadership.
“The work that we’re doing is definitely inspired by Jewish values. For me, it’s something very Jewish to not only work for the stranger, but also to do something for people who would maybe be considered my enemies,” he said, referring to providing aid to Muslim refugees.
While refugees are generally grateful to any group providing assistance, some are surprised when they learn exactly where it’s coming from.
“People will say ‘I would never have thought that I would receive treatment from an Israeli doctor, or share my story with an Israeli who will empathize with what I’ve been through,’” said Tali Shaltiel, a doctor working for IsraAID, in the CBN documentary “Island of Tears.”
Working in four shelters near Thessaloniki, IsraAID responds to the gaps it identifies in services provided by other aid groups. In Greece, that means offering psychosocial support (PSS), often in the form of group therapy sessions. The group’s staff works to empower refugees whose displacement has led to a loss of drive and purpose.
“These people are depressed, discouraged—they’ve been on the road for so long and they don’t know when it’s ending. The uncertainty leads to despair,” said Rennert. “The men especially have lost their role, because they’re traditionally the breadwinners. And they tend to be overlooked by NGOs.”
In addition to providing services to women and children, IsraAID makes a point of hiring male professionals who work to reestablish a routine for men during their uncertain transition to a new country. They conduct “occupational history surveys” to match adults with work that’s both familiar and rewarding for them personally. For example, IsraAID assigned one former shop owner the role of storekeeper in a camp, and set up a former barber with a makeshift barbershop on another camp’s premises.
Rennert says mental health professionals look for creative ways to provide psychosocial support, because some cultural groups aren’t open to traditional therapy sessions. IsraAID recently acquired a number of sewing machines, which they used to start an informal chat amongst a handful of women.
“The women started talking, and we got a PSS session that was masked as something else. That kind of informal gathering is a great way of adapting to current circumstances,” said Rennert.
IsraAID is not the only primarily Jewish group helping refugees. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) also works with diverse refugee groups near Thessaloniki and around the world, though the organization originally served a different purpose. Founded in the 1881, HIAS has long supported Jewish refugees, beginning with those fleeing pogroms in Russia, but expanded its mission to include other religions and nationalities in 1980.
In Greece, HIAS provides free legal aid services such as educating refugees on their rights, helping them seek asylum and even reuniting families.
“The idea of the work we do is not because refugees themselves are Jewish, but because we’re Jewish,” said Rachel Levitan, HIAS’s associate vice president of global programs.
The organization’s work is “based on Jewish values, based on the 36 times it says in the Torah to welcome the stranger,” Levitan said. “Because we were refugees too. Because Jewish values tell us to provide welcome and support to people who are forced to flee their homes because of who they are, because of what they believe.”
Polizer, the co-CEO of IsraAID, said the Jewish history of persecution has primed his organization to make special connections with marginalized groups. In particular, one camp near Thessaloniki is home to a large population of Yazidis, a Kurdish minority group from Iraq that the Islamic State has targeted.
“The Jewish people went through the Holocaust and were able to rebuild their countries afterwards,” Polizer said. “So Yazidis have come to us for mentorship.”
USC public diplomacy professor Nick Cull says Yazidis also acknowledge the unusual bond.
“The Kurds see Israel’s struggle for statehood as somehow anticipating the Kurdish struggle for recognition—so some of this is reflected in the bond between Israelis and Kurds,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Israel has been an early and enthusiastic responder to an international crisis. In fact, the country has established a pattern of doing so: for instance, during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“The aid is clearly branded so that people know it’s Israel helping them, and it’s part of a strategy to show countries around the world that Israel cares, and that Israel is a valuable member of international community,” said Cull.
Cull says that Israel may want to “win friends” for key United Nation votes, or to simply redefine itself as a country.
“When people hear the word Israel, they hear the word crisis—whether they’re an anti-Semite or a passionate Zionist. Anything Israel can do to show that it’s just another state, for instance by providing aid abroad, will improve its image,” he said.
The choice to do so in Thessaloniki is particularly serendipitous given the city’s rich Jewish history. When thousands of Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain in 1492, many settled in Thessaloniki, earning the city a new moniker: the Jerusalem of the Balkans. For centuries, Jews coexisted with Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox citizens in a rare interfaith metropolis.
Today many Jews in Thessaloniki, including volunteers who have come temporarily to help, feel a special connection to the place—but they still must navigate local antisemitism with deep roots.
“If you’re Jewish here, you have to be very careful about revealing your identity,” said Giorgios Antoniou, a historian at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “You don’t see people wearing a kippah or advertising their faith, and they’re very, very discreet.”
In the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 survey, Greece ranks first among European countries in terms of anti-Semitism, with 69 percent of the adult population harboring anti-Semitic attitudes.
These opinions rarely translate into action. But for organizations like IsraAID and HIAS to dive headfirst into the mix, they must see potential gain in the mission.
“We’ve all been exposed to the refugee crisis, and those of us who came to help were so drawn to it we wanted to get involved,” said Rennert of IsraAID. “We’re here to stay.”