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““We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, often says. “Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”
Something in my heavy heart lifted as I read these words Sunday—a quiet expression of decency breaking through the miasma of sorrow and recrimination that now engulfs us.
The organization Mr. Hetfield heads is caught in the crosshairs of the most murderous slaughter of Jews—for no reason other than they were Jews—in our nation’s history. As the world now knows, the perpetrator of this outrage posted a screed against HIAS just hours before he began pulling the trigger. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” wrote Robert Bowers. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
What has HIAS done to earn Mr. Bowers’s death-dealing hatred? It was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Its original mission was to assist Jews fleeing to America from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. As threats to Jewish communities evolved over the following century, its mission broadened. HIAS aided Jews fleeing from the Soviet invasion of Hungary, from Egypt after the Suez crisis, from Castro’s Cuba, from North Africa after the establishment of Israel and again after the Six Day War, from Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, from Ethiopia when the doors of emigration opened, from Iran after the 1979 revolution, and from the Soviet Union as the trickle of refuseniks turned into a flood.
In recent decades, HIAS expanded its mission further to include non-Jews fleeing persecution from civil conflicts and repressive governments around the world. On Oct. 20, it organized a “National Refugee Shabbat”—celebrated in more than 300 Jewish congregations in 33 states—to raise awareness of the 65 million people world-wide who have fled persecution and violence in their homelands. The program also criticized recent reductions in the number of these refugees the U.S. is willing to accept. It was this event, it appears, that pushed Mr. Bowers over the edge.”
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