The shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — perpetrated by a suspect whose broad and deep digital footprint and verbal epithets directed anger toward HIAS, the Jewish agency dedicated to refugee protection — represents a confluence of anti-Semitism and xenophobia conjoined with a gun and nourished by the age-old canards of bigotry, hatred and tribal insularity that have escalated within certain quarters to an unreasoning, dehumanizing and pitiless ideology that demonizes Jews.
But the Jewish community and, more broadly, the nation as a whole must now parse through the meaning and origins of Robert Bowers’ actions, await the new malevolencies that outrageous actions such as his own inevitably spawn and wonder whether this shooting presages a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
It is not surprising that HIAS is so prominent in Bowers’ worldview. HIAS was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It is this nation’s oldest refugee rights organization, initially created to rescue Russian Jews from the pogroms that developed in the aftermath of the assassination of Czar Alexander II. For 120 years, HIAS rescued and saved Jews facing persecution in their home countries, from the Russian pogroms through the Nazi genocide, to Jews facing persecution in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Europe and elsewhere.
In total, HIAS has helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution, and, in so doing, it has transformed this nation and the lives of those whom it has served.
But with the diminishment of Jews in need of protection, HIAS evolved from an organization that rescues refugees because they are Jewish to an organization that rescues refugees because we are Jewish.
Inspired by Jewish moral teachings, imbued by the Jewish historical experience and bearing witness to the memory of Jews and others throughout history who have searched for safety, HIAS continues to respond to the cries of refugees. HIAS is the embodiment of a fundamental triumph of the Jewish people. Knowing all too well the travesties of persecution, displacement, flight and relocation, Jews have found a way not only to endure, but to prevail. HIAS bears witness as well as the commitment to kiddush hachayim — the sanctification of life.
HIAS today upholds its commitment in the following areas:
Refugee resettlement: HIAS serves as one of nine national organizations — and the only Jewish organization — administering the U.S. refugee program.
Advocacy: The voice of the Jewish people speaks clearly through HIAS in advancing refugee protection in the United States and, in instances of perceived injustice, in taking forceful and effective court action to secure refugee rights.
Refugee protection, home and abroad: HIAS is dedicated to promoting the right of all refugees and asylum seekers to gain access to their legal rights, whether working on the island of Lesvos in Greece for refugees largely fleeting Syria, in U.N. refugee camps in East Africa, on the southern border of the United States for asylum seekers and families facing persecution, or within our communities.
Global protection: HIAS maintains offices in 12 countries to provide legal protection to refugees who cannot return to their home counties.
The ever-present commitment of HIAS is to transform Jewish values into concrete actions to uphold the 36 instances in the Torah commanding us to welcome the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Robert Bowers is correct that HIAS is a Jewish organization that through its actions has transformed the nation. But what he misses is that HIAS contributes to the rich diversity of voices, ethnicities, religions and creeds — the amalgam of humanity itself — that represents the strength of our nation. HIAS represents a commitment to transcend religious or ethnic identity to make real the transformative power of hope and to give moral meaning and legal protection to those who otherwise have no voice and little hope.
HIAS embodies the observation of James Baldwin, the great African-American author and activist, that “the other is within us — hopelessly and forever.”
Most of all, HIAS continues to respond to the cries of refugees in the words first uttered by Abraham in creating the covenant: “Here I Am.”
Robert D. Aronson is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis, and a member of the board and chair-elect of HIAS.