NEW YORK — Across the United States, Jewish leaders and groups have been calling on elected officials to keep the country’s doors open to refuges fleeing violence and persecution.
“Back in 1881, HIAS [formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] welcomed refugees because they were Jewish. Today, we welcome refugees because we are Jewish,” Mark Hetfield, HIAS President and CEO, said last Sunday at Castle Clinton National Monument, in view of the Statue of Liberty.
But now it is precisely because of their Jewishness that HIAS and other groups are being targeted for their support of refugees.
“Hitler’s Jews are back. Soros/@HIASrefugess and hating Americal [sic] while supporting the Muslim Nazis who want to kill them!”
“Pathetic, SELF-HATING Liberal Jewis (JINOS) oppose a President that would protect them from the new Nazis — MUSLIMS”
“In case you’re wondering, @HIASrefugees is a pro-hamas organization funded by Soros.”
Those are just a few examples of the anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter using the hashtag #jewsforrefugees.
The hashtag was originally created as a way for those participating in National Jewish Day of Action rallies across the country to share photos and statements in support of refugees.
— Amy Mek (@AmyMek) February 12, 2017
The Twitter attacks appear to come from those espousing white supremacist views; some come from those who identify as supporters of President Donald Trump. The attacks range from those who call the Jewish support of refugees a plot to overthrow the United States, to others who see Jews as being duped by Muslim terrorists. Former imperial wizard of the KKK David Duke and head of the controversial American Freedom Defense Initiative Pamela Geller are among those sending the offensive tweets.
According to HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, such hateful attacks encourage Jewish organizations to remain steadfast in their support for refugees.
“The uptick in anti-Semitic attacks is a reaction to the growing strength of the movement. I think this vitriol is heinous anti-Semitism and anti-refugee, but it’s not unique to HIAS. It’s unfortunate, insidious and awful, but we know that tens of thousands are behind us,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, HIAS vice president for community engagement.
Knowing the global refugee crisis is at a record high — according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of the more than 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, 21.3 million are refugees — HIAS embarked on education initiatives more than 18 months ago.
The HIAS Welcome Campaign was launched to start a grassroots Jewish response to the crisis. Nearly 300 synagogues and 2,000 rabbis pledged to take action. They work to educate others about refugees, advocate with elected officials for better policies, raise money to support refugees, and welcome refugees into their own local communities.
So when Trump issued the executive order temporarily halting visas for people from seven Muslim-majority countries on January 27, HIAS had a broad constituency mobilized and ready to respond.
“As the anti-refugee agenda behind the Trump administration becomes more apparent, more will join us. There is a growing segment of the Jewish community standing passionately behind the refugees,” Rosenn said.
Several organizations joined the HIAS-sponsored National Day of Jewish Action rally on February 12, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Avodah, Bend the Ark, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, J Street, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refuges, the Rabbinical Assembly and Uri L’Tzedek.
“As a refugee, as a Syrian, as a Muslim, as a woman, as a person of color, I protest with you any lack of welcome toward refugees. We come to the United States seeking safety and a future, and we are grateful to the Jewish community which continues to stand by our side,” said Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee and activist, during Sunday’s rally.
The recent Bard College graduate hopes to reunite her family, including her father, who was abducted in 2013, his whereabouts currently unknown.
Mustafa’s story is similar to that of many refugees.
All face up to two years of vetting. Eight federal agencies review their information, which includes, among other things five different background checks, three face-to-face interviews and four biometric security checks. Lastly, refugees have no say in where they are sent.
“Refugees are not an abstraction, but real people who simply seek a better life — and for centuries, refugees and immigrants have built our nation. With this campaign, we wanted to put a face on the refugee issue so no one can forget how much refugees, of all faiths, have contributed to our country,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL.
ADL announced the start of the #ThisIsARefugee campaign after Sunday’s rally. It hopes the effort will both highlight how refugees have contributed to make America the country it is today, as well as emphasize how shortsighted and contrary to American values a ban on refugees is.
After the ADL launched the campaign, people such as Pamela Geller, who is Jewish, started sending arguably anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim tweets. Together with Robert Spencer, Geller directs the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as “anti-Muslim.” Geller tweeted messages citing various terror attacks, including last summer’s truck ramming attack in Nice with the same hashtag #ThisIsARefugee.
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) February 10, 2017
“There’s no doubt extremist anti-Semitism is there and we are monitoring how these anti-Semites and racists are trying to push back,” Greenblatt said, adding, “we believe there is more they [Twitter] need to do about this.”
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said he is aware of the recent spate of anti-Semitic vitriol directed at Jewish groups who support refugees.
“It’s the usual suspects, and when Jews are calling for support of refugees, that is right up their alley. It’s no surprise that there is anti-Semitism among these people. But I think I heard someone in the White House once say ‘When they go low, we go high,’” Moline said.
‘It’s a conflation of refugees and immigrants. None of us would be here if the US didn’t open its doors to us’
For CCAR the refugee issue is a personal, said Rabbi Hara Person, the organization’s director of strategic communication.
“It’s a conflation of refugees and immigrants. None of us would be here if the US didn’t open its doors to us. It feels very recent to us, even if we are second, third, or fourth-generation Americans,” Person said. “We know there is plenty of pushback but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the negative stuff on social media. It can become a rabbit hole you could fall down.”
If there is a bright spot to the backlash, it’s an improvement in Muslim-Jewish relations, Person said.
She said the rising xenophobia together with the refugee issue galvanized CCAR members, whether it was showing up at airports to protest the ban, holding rallies in their communities, or hosting Muslims for Friday afternoon prayers.
All of this comes in the wake of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling to uphold the stay on Trump’s order banning travel from the seven Muslim-majority countries.
It was welcome news to groups such as HIAS, but by no means a signal that the fight to open the US to refugees is over.
As The Washington Post reported, Trump may have issued the initial executive order as a trial balloon, a way to see what it can do in curbing legal immigration and deporting undocumented immigrants who have been in the US for years, if not decades.
“This is not over. We’re in this for the long haul. This is going to be an ongoing battle for the soul of our nation. It is core to who we are as a people,” Rosenn said. “We are going to keep showing up. We are going to be in the streets and we are going to be loud. We will not be silenced and we will not be intimidated.”
Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Robert Spencer as Richard Spencer. This has been corrected.