Part II: Mark Hetfield Talks History and Vision
HIAS has a long and proud history in the realm of refugee protection and resettlement. What would you say is the biggest feat achieved by HIAS in this realm in the post-World War II period?
Well, there is a lot of history there. However, I would say that our most significant contribution was the mass migration of nearly 500,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The exodus of Soviet Jews was really special for HIAS because the first 120 years of our history began with the mass migration of two million Jews from Russia and ended with the mass migration of two million Jews from the former Soviet Union – 400,000 of whom we brought here to the United States and the rest of whom went elsewhere, including Israel as well as other immigration destinations. So it was a really important end to that part of our history, allowing us to begin a new chapter of helping others and welcoming the stranger.
Thankfully, there are far fewer Jewish refugees in the world than there were just 15 years ago. Can you tell us more about some of HIAS’s major efforts around the world to help other groups of refugees?
It is no secret that the vast majority of people that we help now are not Jewish, I would say 95 percent are not Jewish. We consider this to be a blessing. We have moved from what I like to call our Exodus period into our Leviticus period. The first 120 years of HIAS history was focused on the mass rescue of Jews who were fleeing persecution, and now HIAS has moved into its Leviticus period where we take the lessons that we have learned from our own experiences and the empathy that we gained from our mass displacement and applied it to helping others who are now being displaced.
We are now helping not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.
That has been a very significant transition for HIAS. We are doing the same we work we have always done, but now we are doing it to help refugees who are not members of our community, who are experiencing the same types of trauma that Jews experienced for the first 120 years of HIAS’s history. We are doing this in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East as well as through our resettlement network in the United States. So we are very proud of being able to make that transition.
What are some of the future plans for HIAS?
The first thing we are going to do is launch an international campaign to challenge faith leaders, particularly Jewish leaders, to welcome the stranger and create welcoming communities. This is a fundamental Jewish teaching, as well as a teaching shared by many faiths. So HIAS and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been facilitating an international interfaith working group to challenge faith leaders to create more welcoming environments in their communities for the stranger, for the other.
This is also going to be a vehicle for reintroducing HIAS to the international Jewish community, because many Jews know HIAS for what we did, but do not know HIAS for what we are doing now.
HIAS is proud to be out there representing the American Jewish community in working with refugees to make the lives of refugees better and to help them rebuild new lives wherever they are. This is something HIAS is doing on behalf of the American Jewish community, something which all American Jews should be proud of.
Interviewed with Mark Hetfield of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, New York, New York