LA Jewish Journal: Has HIAS Disowned Its Jewishness and Partnered with Anti-Israel Groups?

Jewish-run nonprofit HIAS, which resettles refugees, has come under fire from Jewish groups, especially the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which alleges HIAS is in bed with figures and organizations associated with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The Jewish Journal spoke with HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield and ZOA president Morton Klein about some of the accusations against HIAS.

HIAS was founded in 1881 when the acronym stood for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.” Its original mission was to help destitute Jewish refugees pay for legal aid and travel to the United States and other sanctuary nations.

In recent years, as the number of indigent Jewish refugees decline, HIAS has expanded its mission to aid refugees regardless of their religious or ethnic background. For that reason, and its leadership’s belief that the term “Hebrew” was “exclusionary and outdated, much as the word ‘’colored’’ is to refer to African Americans,” HIAS abandoned its original name for its initials. 

“At HIAS, we used to help refugees because they were Jewish; today, we help refugees because we are Jewish,” HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield told The Journal. However, in recent weeks, the name change has drawn judgment, with critics claiming that it is symbolic of HIAS disowning its Jewishness and stance against anti-Semitism. 

The idea of HIAS becoming a “generic” refugee-assistance group has upset some who valued the organization for its specific aid to Jewish families and individuals.

In 2017, emeritus professor of political science (University of Cincinnati) and senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought Abraham H. Miller wrote, “The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of your grandmother’s day no longer exists. It has dropped the ‘Hebrew’ and has become simply ‘HIAS,’ avoiding the word ‘Hebrew’ because its clients are no longer Jewish, although the last fundraising letter I received flaunted painful scenes of Jews trying to escape Europe on the eve of World War II.”

HIAS’ 2018 annual report does report assisting Jewish refugees; however, the majority of it talks about HIAS’ general assistance efforts around the world to those of all faiths.

According to ZOA, “In 2016, a total of 239 Jewish refugees entered the United States, and HIAS resettled 169 Jewish refugees (70.7% of the total). In 2019, only 38 Jewish refugees entered the United States. If HIAS resettled the same percentage (70.7%) as in 2016, then it would have resettled only 27 Jewish refugees last year.

Is HIAS anti-Israel?

“HIAS is steadfastly pro-Israel, as we recognize that a strong Israel fulfills HIAS’ founding mission — to ensure that Jewish refugees finally have a homeland to go to,” Hetfield said on behalf of the organization. “HIAS has stood with the Conference [of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations] in its public positions against BDS and against U.N. bias against Israel.” According to him, HIAS does not affiliate with organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

HIAS supports Israel’s immigration policy of aliyah, runs scholarship programs for olim, Jews who invoke their right to return. For the past three decades, HIAS has given higher-education scholarships to olim. HIAS, however, has challenged Israeli policies, including penning a joint letter with the Anti-Defamation League in 2018 to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him not to deport African asylum seekers.

Does HIAS partner with anti-Israel or anti-Jewish organizations?

The major complaint from detractors is that HIAS affiliates with anti-Zionist groups, which undermines the nonprofit’s pro-Israel stance. A recent column in the Jewish publication Israel Hayom alleged that “HIAS collaborates with Islamic groups that allegedly have links to Hamas and terrorist activities. It also works with other post-Jewish, pro-BDS groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace.” While HIAS has signed petitions that these groups have also have signed, the groups have never partnered for a program.

“Allegations that HIAS ‘partners’ with organizations like IfNotNow, MPAC and CAIR are not true,” Hetfield said. He also noted that HIAS partners with AIPAC. 

However, ZOA has pointed out that on the HIAS website, it states, “HIAS is partnering with the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Children’s Services in another pilot program to support successful Syrian refugee resettlement through a range of activities including resource development, bridging cultural differences, and educating the community about their potential contributions to the community. The program also works closely with the Council on [American-] Islamic Relations [CAIR] and other faith-based organizations.”

ZOA added, “HIAS’s website also speaks about this program in the present tense, saying that it ‘is partnering’ and that the program ‘works closely with’ CAIR. HIAS’s website does NOT say that this is a past program that occurred long ago.” 

CAIR, the leading American Muslim civil rights organization, has connections to the terrorist group Hamas. It does not formally endorse the BDS movement, but several CAIR leaders have publicly supported it.

Hetfield maintains HIAS does not affiliate with CAIR. “All ZOA points to is a single episode of cooperation by one of our local refugee resettlement partners in Florida, an agency which is completely legally independent of HIAS,” the CEO said. 

HIAS does not dispute ZOA’s claim that it works with Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA), which Hetfield frames as “a completely apolitical humanitarian organization with no position on BDS.”

ZOA asserts that IRUSA is a terrorist-affiliated organization, citing how its parent company, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), was banned in 2014 from operating in Israel for allegedly funding Hamas. IRW denied connections to the group, reporting that an audit by an unnamed “leading global audit firm” cleared its name and challenged the decision in Israeli courts. Additionally, the United Arab Emirates and Germany have ruled that IRW was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Bangladesh banned the organization from working on behalf of the Rohingya people, alleging that it funds militants.

Islamic Relief denies all these terrorist affiliations, as does HIAS.

“Allegations against Islamic Relief Worldwide, also an apolitical humanitarian organization, remain unsubstantiated,” Hetfield said.

Another charge from ZOA is that “HIAS collaborates with anti-Semitic U.N. agencies,” in which it names U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF as anti-Semitic. HIAS does not dispute that it works with these and other U.N. agencies. “These vital partnerships have never prevented HIAS from standing up against U.N. bias against Israel in the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, or anywhere else,” Hetfield said.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution CommitteeAlpha Epsilon Pi,HillelJCCUJA Federation have partnered with at least one of U.N. agencies, as has the ADL, which publicly declared that UNICEF was not anti-Israel in 2008.

When asked if other Jewish organizations should be chastised for working with these U.N. agencies, Klein told the Journal: “I would have to see what they are trying to do with them.” He said that HIAS’ collaboration with these councils is more concerning “because they’ve done such work with such inappropriate groups that are so hostile to the Jewish people.”

He added, “Even after the U.N. Security Council passed vicious anti-Israel Resolution 2334 in December 2016, HIAS failed to criticize the U.N. Instead HIAS opposed efforts by Israel’s friends in Congress to penalize the U.N. for passing this anti-Israel resolution.””

Resolution 2334 condemns settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” The resolution said settlements constitute a “flagrant violation” of international law and have “no legal validity.” It passed 14-0 with the United States abstaining.  

Does HIAS partner with BDS activist Linda Sarsour?

Many in the Jewish world see anti-Zionist American activist Linda Sarsour as radioactive. The former Women’s March leader repeatedly has been condemned by left-wingright-wing and big tent Jewish groups for her connections to the Nation of Islam group and rhetoric about Jews and Israel. 

ZOA said that Sarsour fundraises on behalf of HIAS, and they have a partnership. Hetfield denies the nonprofit affiliates itself with her. 

On the day of the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, in which the assailant explicitly invoked the Pittsburgh synagogue’s work with HIAS as motivation for his violence, Sarsour started a fundraiser on her personal Facebook page for the organization. 

“This act was neither solicited or coordinated in any way,” Hetfield said.

In a letter to the Conference of Presidents, ZOA writer Klein alleged HIAS signed a letter embracing Sarsour and that “they will work alongside” her.

The letter he is referring to is from 2017, titled “Jewish Leaders Statement Against Attacks on Linda Sarsour.” It condemned often threatening harassment of the activist, explicitly stating that “We will not stand by as Sarsour is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared, as she, her organization, and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation.” However, Hetfield claimed HIAS did not sign the letter as an organization.

“In my personal capacity, I was among over 170 Jewish leaders who signed a statement which explicitly did not endorse her views, but was simply a call for civility urging an end to personal attacks and threats against Sarsour and her family,” Hetfield said. “I do not regret signing the letter at all.”

The letter explicitly states the leaders don’t offer a stamp of approval to all of Sarsour’s messages, but “with Sarsour and others, we work as allies on issues of shared concern and respectfully disagree when our views diverge.”

ZOA counters that by stating an individual cannot sign under the name of his or her organization without invoking the organization’s clout. “HIAS President Hetfield and HIAS Vice President [Jennnie] Rosenn cannot now claim that they signed in their individual capacities, when they listed HIAS together with their names.”

ZOA added, “Further, for top leaders of an organization, there really is no such thing as signing such a letter in one’s personal capacity. When a president and vice president of an organization signs such a letter, it is widely viewed as a statement of the organization. Mark Hetfield and Linda Rosenn are HIAS. Most organizations do not let its leaders sign such letters, and certainly do not allow them to sign together with the organization’s name, unless the organization has approved of their action.”

Although Klein says he personally condemns violence against Sarsour, he feels the letter went beyond that.

“I want to make clear if that letter defending Linda Sarsour simply said ‘there have been physical threats against her and her family, and no matter what we think of her or her views or how hostile threats against her are unacceptable, we deplore them, I would not have said one word,” Klein responded. “But the letter said we condemn people who malign and smear her — meaning criticize her — and look forward to working alongside her.”

Klein also added that by signing with prominent-BDS supporters and even vocal anti-Zionists, Hetfield lent them credibility.

Has HIAS disowned its Jewishness? 

The overarching thesis of all these allegations against HIAS is that it no longer qualifies as a Jewish institution, whether that be from its expansion in mission or policy takes. “HIAS is, by its own definition, not a Jewish organization,” Klein wrote.

“HIAS’ board is 100% Jewish, HIAS’ main partners are Jewish congregations and Jewish family service agencies, we are completely branded as a Jewish agency, we invest over $1 million per year just on engaging Jews and Jewish institutions in our work,” Hetfield said. “Helping those few Jewish refugees who need our assistance are a top priority.”

ZOA asserts that HIAS is not “Jewish enough” to be a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (COP), a nonprofit coalition of 51 national Jewish organizations that bills itself as the voice of organized American Jewry. HIAS is a member of COP.

“Under the COP’s rules, the faith of the members of HIAS’ board is irrelevant. If General Electric had an all-Jewish board, it would not qualify for COP membership,” ZOA countered. “The organization thus must serve the American Jewish community. Thus clientele — the people who HIAS resettles — is what counts here.”

As to Hetfield’s mention of the financial assistance HIAS provides, ZOA said, “$1 million per year is a drop in the bucket compared to HIAS’ $50.9 million annual budget.”

“We welcome the stranger and protect refugees, as the Torah commands us to do 36 times,” Hetfield said. “No act is more Jewish than that.”

This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal.

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