NEW YORK – When Melanie Nezer, HIAS senior vice president of public affairs, learned a gunman killed 11 people gathered for Shabbat services Saturday morning at a Pittsburgh synagogue, she was shocked — but not altogether.
“Given the rise of anti-Semitism here and around the world it’s not surprising. But we at HIAS are shocked and surprised about the shooter’s hatred of HIAS. That’s the part of us that none of us at HIAS would have expected,” Nezer said.
Still, Nezer said, the organization has long been a target for white supremacists.
The last thing Robert Bowers, 46, posted on social media Saturday morning was, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Armed with an AR-15, he allegedly yelled, “All Jews must die” and slaughtered 11 people gathered at the Tree of Life Congregation in the heavily Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.
The “invaders” Bowers referred to are refugees and asylum seekers: Under its motto, “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee,” HIAS is one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies partnering with the United States government as part of the US Refugee Admissions Program.
Founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, it is still guided by Jewish values and history, rescuing those whose lives are in danger for being who they are.
“We started in the 1880s as a Jewish organization. Jewish Americans would go down to the docks in New York City, to Ellis Island, to meet and receive Jewish newcomers with kosher meals, help finding jobs and other support. And it’s really not different from what we are doing now,” Nezer said.
Over the decades the numbers of Jews fleeing religious persecution and violence for a new life in the US decreased and HIAS began thinking about its next chapter, she said.
“Given our empathy for the refugee, for the new immigrant, we thought about what we could do. Our organization is based on Jewish values and Jewish texts, [so] we decided we could provide legal and social services for other asylum seekers,” Nezer said.
In the past few decades HIAS has helped resettle refugees from all across the world including Syria, the former Yugoslavia, and Central and South America.
No hatred is an island
According to the Anti-Defamation League, while the magnitude of the Pittsburgh attack is shocking, it does not come in a vacuum.
Among the harshly anti-Semitic invective Bowers has posted to social media was a post that said, “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist. There is no #maga as long as there is a kike infestation.”
Anti-Semitism in the US is rising, says the ADL, citing a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. These include high-profile incidents such as neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us”; physical assaults; vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions.
As conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote on Sunday, “When American politicians blame Soros for opposition to the administration, or celebrate ‘nationalism,’ or declare the United States is a ‘Christian nation’ (as opposed to a country in which a majority of people are Christian), they are consciously or unconsciously channeling and amplifying anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semitism is being normalized in public life, Nezer said.
Mainstream political candidates and parties are running television commercials that invoke the specter of Jewish conspiracies, she said. For example, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently deleted a tweet that accused George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer – whose father is Jewish – of trying to “buy” the upcoming midterm elections.
“We are all feeling a little edgy. HIAS is feeling edgy. The American Jewish community is feeling edgy. The country is feeling edgy. And we all should be on edge,” Nezer said.
“HIAS will be having conversations about safety and security, but it’s important to remember these were people who went to synagogue on a Saturday morning. They were in their house of worship. They were doing something ordinary,” she said.