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The HIAS legacy faces the 21st century

Due to their history, Jews overwhelmingly support the rights of immigrants and refugees. Still, it’s no use pretending that the debate about the issue hasn’t changed.

A HIAS supporter at a pro-immigration rally in 2020. Source: HIAS via Facebook.
A HIAS supporter at a pro-immigration rally in 2020. Source: HIAS via Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

One of the unfortunate sidebars of the fight that broke out during the course of the selection of a new lay leader for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were questions surrounding the status of present-day HIAS, and whether or not it’s still considered a Jewish organization.

HIAS stood for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But in 2014, the group, which traces its origins to the response to the massive wave of Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, stopped calling itself by its full name. In an unfortunate act of political correctness, the group decided that the focus on the “Hebrew” wasn’t inclusive enough for the 21st century and now only goes by the acronym.

The reason for this shift was as much a matter of the changing face of its client base as a nod to the pieties of contemporary liberalism. For the last two decades, almost all of its clients have not been Jewish. The HIAS of today is the source of legal aid and support for other sorts of immigrants, including Syrian refugees and others seeking to escape either the chaos of the Arab and Muslim worlds or the misery of Central America.

For a century, the work of HIAS was to help the masses of largely penniless Jewish immigrants find their way to and in the New World. Few organizations can be said to have played as central or as honorable a role in American Jewish history as HIAS. That’s why the squabble over whether Dianne Lob, a former leader of the group, ought to be the head of a bastion of pro-Israel advocacy, is so sad.

While the focus of HIAS activism is changed, its overwhelmingly Jewish supporters think that their work is the quintessence of Jewish values. The group thinks their slogan—“Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”—isn’t merely an evocation of Jewish history, but embodies the community’s tradition and religious law.

The dispute at the Conference is largely driven by a conviction on the part of some on the right that HIAS is too closely connected to its leftist allies in the anti-Trump “resistance” to produce a leader who could be counted on to work well with both the administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It remains to be seen if that assumption will be vindicated. But the dispute says as much about the changing nature of the debate about immigration, both in the nation at large and in the Jewish community, as it does about the Conference.

That debate heated up this week when President Donald Trump said he was temporarily suspending immigration to the United States. In the end, the actual measure was far less drastic that his original statement indicated and only halted the issuance of new “green cards” to those immigrants seeking the right to legally obtain employment. Given the massive unemployment stemming from the shutting down of the economy and lockdowns that the government has ordered in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is a defensible measure. But pro-immigration groups like HIAS still bitterly oppose it, as they do all of the president’s stands on the issue.

Much of the Jewish community has spent the last three years denouncing Trump’s rhetoric, as well as his policies seeking both to stem the tide of illegal immigration and limit the numbers of those entering the country legally. In that sense, HIAS is entitled to feel that its positions on its core issue have mainstream Jewish support.

But the problem with the debate about immigration issues inside the Jewish community is that many of those taking issue with Trump seem to be talking more about history than the dilemmas facing America today.

It’s easy for the descendants of immigrants to identify with those seeking to come to the United States now. But the America that not only welcomed, but also needed, huge waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe a century or more ago is not the same country as today. It no longer has the industries desperately in need of cheap unskilled labor. And, like it or not, the laws have also changed—meaning that the virtual open borders of 130 years ago are gone, and in their place is a system that acknowledges that America cannot be the solution for everyone currently living in a dysfunctional country. Those who create “sanctuary” states, cities and even synagogues undermine the rule of law and the values of democracy that made the United States such a haven for Jews.

Nor are today’s immigrants—or rather, the massive numbers of illegal immigrants who are the focus of much sympathy and activism from HIAS and its supporters—really the moral equivalent of the Jews who were denied entry to the United States when trying to flee the Holocaust. While life in Central America is hard, emigrants from the region are not all marked for death like Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The same is true for the millions of refugees created by the Syrian civil war. Sympathy for those refugees is understandable, yet so are the administration’s worries about vetting those who come from terrorist hotbeds.

More to the point, the willingness of HIAS leaders, although not Lob, to stand in solidarity with someone like the Palestinian American anti-Trump activist Linda Sarsour, despite her anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic history because they share her beliefs about immigration and opposition to Trump, remains deeply troubling. So is their refusal to at least acknowledge the problems associated with advocacy for a refugee population that is, as is the case with many of those from Syria—often steeped in anti-Semitic and sometimes even anti-American attitudes. Treating all such concerns as racist is a way of silencing discussion rather than encouraging it.

It is both unfair and inaccurate to describe HIAS as no longer a Jewish organization. However, the assumption that the group’s positions are still defending the interests of the Jewish community or acknowledging the changing nature of America’s problems, especially in a pandemic, is equally unfair.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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