HIAS chief: If you're not combating hate speech, you're accepting it

Hours before an American invader opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he published a...

Posted: Nov 6, 2018 2:38 AM
Updated: Nov 6, 2018 2:38 AM

Hours before an American invader opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he published a social media post invoking the name of HIAS (once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the organization that I lead.

"HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I'm going in," he wrote.

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As the CEO of a non-profit, I can say this is never how you plan for your organization to be thrust into the national spotlight.

In the days since the tragedy, our staff and supporters have struggled to come to grips with the idea that anyone could be so incited by our work welcoming and protecting refugees that he would invade a sanctuary and take the lives of 11 worshipers.

HIAS is one of the nine national agencies that partner with the United States government to resettle refugees as part of the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Founded in 1881, HIAS is the oldest global refugee agency in the world, and the only Jewish one. Since our founding, we've assisted millions of refugees. Together with our partner in Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, and others across the country, we've directly resettled more than 450,000 refugees in the US since 1980 when the USRAP was established, according to HIAS annual reports.

Like any mission-driven non-profit operating today, we are concerned about the polarization of this country. People are angry and divided on many issues -- immigration chief among them. But anger alone does not explain the increase in social spaces for demonizing and attacking marginalized populations. From the darkest corners of the internet to the highest levels of government, we have allowed fear and hate to manifest as real-world violence.

We cannot afford to let it fester any longer. We cannot wait for hate to rear its head when given the room to do so.

As a nation, we must listen to one another, address concerns with facts and reunite our fractured country so that everyone in every community feels welcome and safe. We can disagree on important issues, but we cannot tolerate intolerance or hate speech, as hateful words often lead to hateful acts. That's as much an obligation for the President of the United States as it is for you at your Thanksgiving table. Silence in the face of hate speech is no longer an option.

In the refugee protection world and beyond, an uptick in extremism and hate has been building for the past three years. Since the Paris attacks in November 2015, when 31 governors announced their intention to ban Syrians from their states, refugees have served as scapegoats for elected officials leveraging fear in exchange for political capital. It is not a coincidence that President Donald Trump's first major action after taking office was an attempt to ban mostly Muslim travelers and refugees from entering the United States.

Public officials in this country have long conflated refugees with the evil they are fleeing in order to meet political ends. In the lead-up to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration into the US, Congressman Albert Johnson published a report from the US consulate in Rotterdam arguing against admitting Polish Jews because they were "filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits." Immigration to the United States was severely restricted for the next 40 years.

Despite shameful pauses and interruptions in the US's immigration history, the American Jewish community exists in large part due to those times when America's doors were open to refugees. And, until relatively recently, Jews comprised a significant percentage of those searching for safety.

In almost every generation, our ancestors confronted a choice: stay at home and risk everything, or risk everything and search for safety elsewhere. Like the nearly 70 million displaced people around the globe today -- the most since World War II -- they chose the latter.

Today, we pay it forward by rescuing people of all faiths whose lives are in danger for being who they are, and our work remains guided by who we are. HIAS endures because the Jewish people have learned the hard way that without welcomers, there will be no welcome. We were living those values just one week before the Pittsburgh tragedy, when nearly 300 congregations in 33 states celebrated HIAS' first-ever National Refugee Shabbat, designed to demonstrate that American Jews welcome refugees, as we were once refugees ourselves.

The terrorist in Pittsburgh explicitly targeted National Refugee Shabbat participants, including Dor Hadash, which shares sacred space with the Tree of Life and New Light congregations. He thought he could stop us from being compassionate to one another. He could not have been more wrong.

Out of his despicable actions, we have witnessed more support than ever for the mission of our organization -- support from Jews, but also from Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths.

It is up to us to stay engaged. When we see hate speech online or hear it in person against any group: Jews, refugees, Muslims, transgender people, Latinos or African Americans, we need to say something. Everyone has a role to play in reducing the spaces for intolerance in our society.

You are either combating hate speech, or you are accepting it. In the words of my good friend and former HIAS client Manny Lindenbaum, who escaped the Holocaust on the Kindertransport 80 years ago, "Don't be a bystander."

The homeland security slogan of "see something, say something" does not go deep enough in protecting our country. If we hear or read something intolerant, we must say something. We must do something. If not caught and addressed, hateful words will ultimately become hateful acts. Again.

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