Proceedings from the Summit on World Refugees: An American Jewish Conversation

Reference: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

Dear Colleague:

On October 24-25,1999, HIAS Inc., the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, convened a national summit of Jewish leaders, decision makers, theologians, community representatives, and academics in New York City. Its purpose was to explore the Jewish community’s positions on a host of refugee issues as we shape a social agenda for the future. Co-sponsored by CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the summit, “World Refugees: An American Jewish Conversation,” looked at the community’s roles and responsibilities to the world’s refugees.

Day I provided an historical framework, examining Jewish values and tradition in aiding those in peril, especially in view of our own experience as refugees. In addition, the roles of government, and of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations in humanitarian crises were discussed. Day II focused on action and the development of a social agenda reflecting Jewish values for those seeking protection and shelter. Topics covered included immigrants and the American workforce, community resettlement projects with different populations, and the role of world refugee issues in a changing Jewish social arena.

Featured speakers included Bemma Baabo Donkoh for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Ambassador Morton Abramowitz; Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), who received HIAS’s Liberty Award in recognition of his courageous leadership on behalf of immigrants; and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. Other distinguished speakers included Diana Aviv, Frank Sharry, Jonathan Woocher, Brian Strum, Shoshana CArdin, and Leonard Fein. Additionally, key sessions with leading community representatives were held.

The following is a summary of the summit proceedings. It offers a comprehensive perspective of Jewish thought on the mitzvah (good deed) of rescuing a refugee. As with the summit, it is meant to stimulate conversation and to be a resource. Moreover, it is meant to provide a first step to answering some difficult questions facing our community, as we enter a new age and a new century.

Neil Greenbaum                                            Leonard Glickman
HIAS President                                             HIAS Executive Vice President

“If I am not for myself,
who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
what am I?
And if not now, when?”

Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot
(Ethics of the Fathers)

Please note: The following texts are excerpts from each speaker’s original summit presentation. Slight variations from the original text may appear.

Neil Greenbaum, President, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)

The Torah imposes on the Jewish community a manifest concern for the stranger. It tells us that we, the Jewish community, are to reach out beyond our own community to others in need…

The Jewish concept of Chesed,….of generosity, of charity, is a concept which preaches kindness to everyone without discrimination, without segregation…. It represents an act of service–that begins not with our rights but with our obligations, not with our needs but with the needs of others, not with the power to coerce but with the power to love, all without regard to whether there is any reward for us.

Our history tells us we must help ourselves because seldom have others helped us; but that does not mean we should not help others–not just because the Torah tells us to do so, but because it is the right and moral thing to do. As Hillel said, “[I]f I am only for myself, what am I?”…

Judaism teaches us that even one person can make a difference… We must open our minds to change, but we must not let go of our values. Most importantly, we must not be guilty of the sins of callous indifference, iniquitous inaction, and especially silence.

Our version of the Jewish future implores us to work for Tzedek (social justice). Our response to the haters is to establish a community of compassion and love. Rabbi Norman Lamm said, “The real test of a decent, humane community lies in its attitude toward…the outsider. A good society…teaches its members to overcome their natural fear and hatred of the unfamiliar and to befriend the stranger.”….

The primary mission of HIAS is to assist Jews whose lives and freedom are endangered…. As pat of its mission and as a reflection of our Jewish values, we have assisted non-Jews who have been threatened and oppressed. Together, with our partners in the Jewish community, we’ve helped thousands of Bosnian, Indo-Chinese, Bahai, Kurd, and most recently, Kosovar and African refugees find safety on U.S. shores. This is a tremendous success story, and as a community one in which we should feel very proud.

Am I saying HIAS no longer has or should have as its main, overriding mission saving Jews? Absolutely not. That is, should be, and will continue to be, both the HIAS mission and the Jewish community’s mission. Where there is a Jew that needs our help, HIAS and the Jewish community must save him.

But that’s not enough. Today, the Jewish community is at a crossroads… We must decide where we stand in support of refugees, particularly as we reorganize ourselves to meet changing needs…. As Jewish communities plan and prepare budgets for refugee programs and services, the reality is that Jewish refugee numbers are declining… Unfortunately, today and throughout our history, world events show us that wen crises emerge, Jews often suffer. We must be ever vigilant and continuously ready to address these situations…

We at HIAS and in the Jewish community do not live in a vacuum. We can and should do more. Our principles demand that our mission include helping human beings, where and when we can, both Jew and ger (stranger).

Are any of use in the Jewish community really safe until we are all safe? No, I think not. Should we only be concerned about Jewish issues and needs, or also about general community issues and human needs? We should be concerned about both. Should we only be concerned with Jewish refugees, or also with refugees who are not Jewish? Hillel was right; we should be concerned with all refugees

The more we do, individually and collectively, the more we become who we want to be. The more we respond to society’s ills with energy, effort, and resources, the more we make the world a better place for generation to come and for all humankind.

Bemma Baabo Donkoh, Deputy Regional Representative for the U.S. and the Carribean, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

This is indeed an historic gathering, as you consider how your community should respond to to the needs of the world’s 14 million refugees

Today’s system of international refugee protection was born out of the Holocaust. At the end of the Second World War, there were millions of refugees and displaced people all over Europe. A major challenge to the newly created United Nations was to find homes for these survivors who were traumatized, packed into crowded camps, unable to return to their former homes. It soon became clear that a massive program of resettlement to new countries of asylum was the only answer… Despite painful personal histories, these resettled refugees created successful new lives. Some of them, or their children, may be in this audience. Their success is an eloquent testimony to the resilience of the human spirit…

One lesson drawn from the Holocaust was that a government that starts out by terrorizing its own citizens will progress to threatening its neighbors. States recognized that human rights were a cornerstone of international peace and security and pledged to promote them. The United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 reinforced refugee protection…and is subscribed to by 137 countries around the globe… It enshrines the principle that no one shall be returned to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened…

Yet looking at the past decade one cannot help but wonder if we, the citizens of the world, have learned from the sufferings of the past… After the killing fields of Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the murder of almost 1 million in Rwanda, I’m afraid that we may not have done enough… Is neutrality morally and practically viable in the face of widespread atrocities?…

It is UNHCR’s view that there can be no true globalization if it’s only economic, if we do not reach out to halt genocidal situations… We need citizens like you who are prepared to look beyond the domestic horizon, and how can spur reluctant politicians into action… We need a strong United Nations human rights machinery to prevent, but also to expose, violations of human rights…

Every traumatized society has to find its own compromise between justice and reconciliation. But what of the victims of war and conflict? If we do not prevent massive human rights abuses, are we at least offering a safe haven to those who are escaping and knocking at our doors?

In looking back, the refugee issues of the 1930s and 1940s only seemed simple. While some desperate Jews were admitted to safety abroad, there were also many more who were stopped in their tracks. In light of the current debate in the United States about the dangers of asylum seekers without proper documents, I must note that those who managed to escape often did so with bribes or by using fraudulent documents issued and accepted by sympathetic officials. But there were also Japanese Council officials in Estonia and in Shanghai who provided visas or resident permits to Jewish refugees. These episodes of personal courage are important reminds that individuals can make a difference…

Now, governments around the world explain, as they did in the 1930s, that unemployment, population pressure, high costs of assimilation of refugees, suspicion or fear of foreigners…these preclude their admitting or granting asylum to refugees… The end of the Cold War has meant that refugees can no longer be explained as fleeing the evil empire, or Communism. Unfortunately, however, the need for asylum has not diminished. The persecutors, the torturers, the bigots, and warmongers have flourished in the state of political and economic flux…

But governments get tired and face budgetary problems, even where there are declared surpluses. They seek to cut back on the international contributions to humanitarian agencies… Over 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children—forced to flee, escaping only with the clothes on their backs .. Too often, in countries of asylum, they are warehoused in camps or incarcerated, jailed, treated as criminals… Their crime is that they loved freedom…

Why, then, do so few people who flee persecution find permanent refuge? Countries fear that persons seeking only better economic conditions will abuse their asylum system. So they seek ways to toughen up their system… It is wishful thinking by some countries in Europe to assume that UNHCR can make repatriation possible if political leaders in Bosnia are allowed to pursue policies of ethnic division. Or if shelter is available this winter in Kosovo… Premature returns of asylum seekers can cause great human suffering, or even destabilize a fragile peace… Asylum or refuge or rescue remains the safest mechanism when all other human rights protections fail…

I now have three pleas: First, while managing immigration is a legitimate concern, do not shut out those who are fleeing for their lives and freedom. I urge opinion leaders such as yourselves to de-dramatize and de-politicize the asylum debate. Do not let racists and xenophobes set the agenda. Asylum issues are manageable, particularly in Western counties. It is neither necessary nor helpful to invoke an atmosphere of crisis in setting refugee policy… I would also ask you to maintain perspective. Many refugees have enriched societies. Einstein was a refugee…

Before concluding, let me stress that American and Jewish leadership remains essential to protecting human rights, to preventing new genocides, and to helping refugees worldwide… Your role is vital… Denounce repression… Counter international passivity and isolationism… Mobilize public opinion. It is indeed a mitzvah, a good deed, to help rescue a refugee and to safeguard the human values that make possible such solidarity with needy people everywhere.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard

We are probably the most affluent and certainly the single most politically powerful Jewish community in the history of the Jewish people. And we are being asked to answer the question: “When you have the money, when you have the power, what will you do with that?”…

Senator Daniel Moynihan said: “It’s funny how in the middle of the Depression, when we had no money, we were able to enact the single greatest set of welfare legislation in the history of the country. Now we’re loaded to the gills and we can’t afford it.”…

There is a Talmudic story, which I think is really an international story. A ship was wrecked and one set of survivors ended up in a lifeboat, hoping to be rescued. People at the front of the boat noticed a man at the back, drilling a hole under his seat. So they charged over to him and said, “What are you doing?” He answered, “What business is it of yours? It’s under my seat.”

When you’re in the same lifeboat, what somebody at the front does has an enormous impact on what happens on the back. The comparison is to the contemporary debate in America over a whole host of issues, all of which have to do with what we’re going to do about vulnerable populations. [In making such choices], we can never lose track of the image that we are still in the same lifeboat. If one part of it starts to sink, the rest of us aren’t going to be able to say, “Well, look, it’s no problem–we got out.” …

The kind of moralism that comes from the Jewish tradition [says that] we live in a web of relationships, inevitably connected to others. And the real decision that we are going to make will be in terms of the community in which we live…

If we cannot allow a world in which vulnerable people are sent away, then we will just have to be more creative… All I’m asking you to consider from a Jewish point of view is doing ten percent better on refugees than you imagined you could. Ten percent more advocacy and resettlement, ten percent more efforts on refugees who are all on the international lifeboat on which we sit.

Let the other ninety percent go for all the fears and anxieties and concerns. But let us not be in a position of later explaining why we were overrun by the desire to hunker down and avoid taking care of people who were in need–why we didn’t feed the hungry, why we didn’t care whether people were getting hacked to pieces.

Would you rather explain away a little bit of fiscal stretch, or would you rather explain away destroyed refugees? From a Jewish point of view, it’s a very simple choice.

Jonathan Woocher, Executive Vice President, Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA)

I want to address…how the issue of world refugees relates to the current agenda of renaissance and renewal in Jewish life by looking at two texts…

The first is from [Tractate] Kedushin in the [Babylonian] Talmud…The question was raised: “Is study greater, or is doing?”… Then they all said, “Study is greater for it leads to doing.”

The second…comes from the [Jerusalem] Talmud in [Tractate] Damai: “In a city where there are both Jews and gentiles, the collectors of charity collect from both Jews and gentiles. They feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both, bury both, comfort the mourners, whether they be Jews or gentiles, and restore the lost good of both, for the sake of peace.”

The debate over study or doing is a classic one in the Jewish tradition. In fact, there are sources that can be cited to support both positions. As I read the tradition, its real message is that we can never separate the two… The ultimate test comes as to whether we do in fact live [Jewish values] and use them to shape our behavior. Talmud Torah (study of Jewish texts) and the life of mitzvot (good deeds) constitute a spiral, one that we can enter at any point and which hopefully carries us higher and higher into a holistic Jewish life…

Today’s Jewish renaissance represents a rediscovery of this fundamental insight… The reality is that Jews are entering the spiral today at many different points… Our challenge, then, is to help them continue to ascend it by providing enticing and exciting opportunities both to learn and live Jewish values.

That leads to a more pointed question: Does active Jewish participation…with today’s world refugee crisis constitute an arch along that spiral? The answer is unequivocally yes… Our visible presence in the world as a force working for justice and compassion, for tzedek and chesed, will undoubtedly help some Jews who might not otherwise enter the spiral of Jewish growth…

But that is hardly the only reason for affirming that the issue of refugees deserves our Jewish attention. At many times in our history, universalism could be seen not just as a luxury, but also as practically unimaginable for Jews. Yet Jewish tradition is absolutely clear that the scope of our ultimate concern as Jews is nothing less than universal…When we have the ability, as we undoubtedly do today, to tend to the deepest needs of both Jews and gentiles, we are commanded to do so…

Our particularity must never be allowed to cancel out our universalism. The solicitiousness of the Torah for the ger (stranger) is rooted in the recognition that ultimately all of us are gerim (strangers). We depend upon others for life itself, for our livelihood. Through the power of commanded memory, we are part of the universal family that is made up of many particular gerim.

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