Independence Day & The Jewish Case For Helping Refugees

Independence Day is more than a day at the beach and watching fireworks explode. The idea of independence is one that people came to this country for – and continue to try to come to this country for. Mostly, they’re trying to leave the country they’re in for a reason.

It’s what my second cousin did for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society more than 70 years ago. Manny Kraicer, who was originally from Eastern Europe, helped Jews leave Europe and relocate to Israel. HIAS started relocating Jews and helping refugees since in 1881, and has continued – despite the fact that the agency handles significantly fewer Jewish refugee cases than other religions.

“We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” said Mark Hetfield, the executive director of HIAS. “Today we do it because we’re Jewish.”

Hetfield visited the Twin Cities last month, where he spoke at Mount Zion Temple and Adath Jeshurun, gave the keynote address at the Advocates for Human Rights dinner, met with several rabbis and members of the Somali community. Minnesota immigration attorney Robert Aronson is on the board and was ushering Hetfield around in his visit.

“There’s a role for us in the Twin Cities,” said Aronson. “You read about the boat people coming to the Isle of Lesbos; we have lawyers in Lesbos. We do work as an organization on refugee protection work on five continents and 12 countries. We have offices in Israel, Kenya, Chad, Uganda, Panama, and Ecuador. It’s interesting to have a Jewish presence, and Mark’s at the epicenter of it all.”

The Twin Cities had been a significant location for resettlement, but no longer is. Hetfield said that HIAS has worked with the many Jewish Family and Children Service agencies around the country, but many have dropped out of the refugee program. ”

“In 2006, it was the first time when the majority of refugees we resettled weren’t Jewish,” Hetfield said. “Today, maybe 4 percent are Jewish. Mainly Ukrainian and Iranian. With a handful of Yemenite and Iraqi. We’re a humanitarian agency. We represent asylum seekers.”

HIAS is one of nine such agencies that do this type of relocation work, and the only Jewish one. Five of the other eight are faith-based organizations. Hetfield says that Jews should continue to work in this space because of our experiences as refugees over thousands of years.

“Thirty-six times in the Torah it emphasizes love the stranger as yourself because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” he said. “It’s interesting that the line comes from the experience in Egypt. That experience has repeated it so many times over the centuries that we have even more authority as refugee experts and as people who can relate to refugees more than any other community in the world.”

Being able to focus on helping refugees from other faiths is something that they couldn’t do until now. HIAS also put itself in the line of fire, is one of the plaintiffs that sued in the Fourth District Court of Appeals to block the president’s “travel ban.”

“There was such a massive Jewish migration issue that we really couldn’t focus on anything else. We were the largest resettlement organization in the country in the late 80s early 90s because of the Soviet Jews finally being allowed to leave. It would have been irresponsible for us to go after and help others then,” Hetfield said. “Now we’re in a good position to help people out of our values. We also put more emphasis as an agency than we ever have in terms of our Jewish identity. We didn’t have to do it when we resettled all Jews – it was obvious. Now we’re making sure that the thread is clear why we’re helping non-Jews and why it’s important to do so.”

So while many of us enjoyed the day off we did on July 4, it’s important to remember what we – as both a country and a Jewish community – have a lot to offer those are in need of a safe haven. We’ve been at the forefront of it for 136 years.