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‘America Has Always Been at Its Greatest When We Have Welcomed Refugees’

A response to a Tablet article that cites an ADL study asserting that a majority of people in the Middle East harbor anti-Semitic views

Mark Hetfield
December 07, 2016
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
During a sandstorm, Syrian children walk around a temporary refugee camp in the village of Ain Issa in Syria, November 10, 2016. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
During a sandstorm, Syrian children walk around a temporary refugee camp in the village of Ain Issa in Syria, November 10, 2016. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent Tablet article, author Jonathan Bronitsky asserts that a predominance of refugees from Syria hold anti-Semitic views, and he attacks agencies like HIAS which, since 2014, has resettled nearly 1,000 of these alleged “anti-Semites” to America.

Bronitsky relies on surveys that have been done by ADL and others on the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Middle East region (as recent data on Syrian attitudes is, of course, scarce).

HIAS used to help refugees because they were Jewish; today we help refugees because we are Jewish. We help refugees who, by definition, are people who have fled for their lives because of who they are or what they believe. People who fled hatred and want nothing more than to have a normal life again. At HIAS, we do not assume that a person hates us simply because of where he or she comes from or what religion he or she belongs to. Instead, we help them if they need help, until they are in a position to help themselves.

Those we support include people like Mohamed, a Syrian refugee I met last month, resettled by HIAS through the Jewish Family Service of Buffalo. Mohamed is battling cancer, and his wife suffered a stroke during their escape from Syria. They are now safely living in Buffalo with their 24-year-old son. In 2013, their pregnant daughter Mona (24 at the time) was shot dead – in the head and the abdomen – by a sniper in al-Hota, near the family’s home. Finally the family fled to Lebanon and were brought to Buffalo by HIAS and JFS this past August.

It was very powerful to hear this Syrian refugee family speak about how the “Jewish family” helped them. Mohamed made a painting and showed it to me and to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to express his gratitude to a Jewish organization and to the United States. Ambassador Power said, “We don’t often enough see a Jewish star embedded in Arabic letters saying ‘thank you.’ This is very meaningful.” He responded, “Religion is how we treat one another. No matter what religions we are, if you treat me well, I will respect you.”

Back to Bronitsky’s assertion of the surveys that indicate that persons from the Middle East have a higher tendency to hold anti-Semitic views: While visiting Syrian refugees resettled by the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, I asked one of them what he had been taught about Jews, and how he felt about being assisted by the “Jewish Family Service.” His response was that yes, in Syria, he had been taught that “Jews are bad people who do bad things. Now I know those were all lies. My ‘Jewish family’ caseworker has done more to help me and my family than anyone else has ever done.”

America has always been at its greatest when we have welcomed refugees to our shores and at its weakest when we have shut our doors out of fear. American Jews and HIAS know this better than anyone. For over 100 years, HIAS has been trying to fight darkness with light, and fear with welcome. We welcome the stranger. We judge each person on his or her own merits, not on his or her demographics. Those are our values, and yes, we will continue to defend them.

Mark Hetfield is the President and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

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