Heisting HIAS: The Deracination of a Communal Organization

By Stephen Steinlight on November 11, 2009

In a recent article in the Jewish weekly newspaper Forward, "HIAS Still Aids immigrants, but Most Don't Resemble Sergey Brin," Gal Beckerman describes the metamorphosis in the historical mission of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: "HIAS has moved beyond its narrow focus on Jewish refugees alone and refashioned itself into a defender of immigration rights." (Sergey Brin is the Russian-Jewish immigrant billionaire who co-founded Google and recently contributed a million dollars to HIAS.) With the notable omission of any reference to the intellectual sleight of hand that marks HIAS's "transition" or the writer's unwillingness or inability to deconstruct the political presuppositions upon which the piece rests, that sentence isn't a bad summary, considering it doubles as a thesis statement and an advertisement by a booster.

Even the language carries appropriate connotations. Employing the phrase "narrow focus" to modify working on behalf of "Jewish refugees" conveys the post-national, vaguely leftist universalism that now encapsulates HIAS's ideological outlook. For the sake of clarity, it's only necessary to add that "immigration rights" is code language for supporting illegal immigration, amnesty, and open borders. An insidious little article, at no point does it unpack the components of that tacit definition. The article establishes a conspiratorial relationship between the writer and implied reader of the Forward. Both know what to infer from the rhetorical evasions, sharing the dirty secret about the real meaning of that high-minded, politically loaded phrase, which is communicated through the equivalent of linguistic winks and nods.

For those familiar with the group dynamics of immigration politics, it comes as no surprise that this definition of "immigrant rights" is universal within the American-Jewish Establishment – whether articulated explicitly or understood tacitly. Fewer, however, are aware that HIAS is the Establishment's "point organization" on immigration politics, setting the tone for the rest. Its president and CEO, Gideon Aronoff, recently became chair of the board of the National Immigration Forum, an umbrella organization comprised principally of fiercely post-American ethnic identity organizations, and it is perhaps the most aggressive lobby in America for "comprehensive immigration reform." Consonant with its vitriolic partisanship – years ago I regularly represented the American Jewish Committee at board meetings of the Forum – Aronoff partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the preposterous if vicious slandering of CIS as a white-supremacist organization. He also eschews dialogue or debate with every other nationally recognized organization that opposes "comprehensive immigration reform" because all are "hate groups," a transparently self-serving ploy to avoid facing tough opponents. Aronoff, in his own mind, at least, gets to decide which voices are "legitimate opponents" on immigration policy. To date, he's found none that fall into that category who disagrees with him.

Since the article appears in the Forward, a die-hard proponent of "comprehensive immigration reform," its reporter dutifully undertakes the gymnastics required to argue HIAS's mission change is not only consistent with but also pre-figured by the group's long-held allegiances and values. Gideon Aronoff is quoted making yet another ritual genuflection to Jewish concern for the "stranger." But he's careful to keep his parochial credentials in his vest pocket to trot out when necessary. He argues by staying in the refugee game, regardless of the group it's aiding, it will enable HIAS to ride to the rescue of Jews in the future: Sergey Brin's gift was to help threatened Jews. Brin, the co-founder of Google, is clearly a genius when it comes to technology, communications, and marketing, but in the realm of immigration politics he's naïve. To be blunt, the generous, well-intentioned Brin, a man deeply concerned with protecting endangered Jewish communities, has been had by the smarmy Aronoff to the tune of one million.

Despite his best efforts, Beckerman cannot enhance HIAS's credibility because the organization's equivocations regarding the most fundamental matters are naked for all but the most politically blinkered to see. The principal prevarication is the interchangeable way HIAS uses the terms "immigrant" and "refugee," a sleight of hand unwittingly revealed in the article's title, "HIAS Still Aids Immigrants." The title reflects a widespread, extremely mischievous misconception purveyed by HIAS: that refugee policy and immigration policy are conflated and fungible. It defines its work on some occasions using the term "refugees" and on others "immigrants." Separating refugees and immigrants, which is of course how they're addressed legislatively and legally in the U.S. – they fall into distinct policy areas – is an intellectual and, even more, an emotional precondition for American Jews to be able to think more clearly about immigration – which is, of course, the last thing HIAS would like to see happen. For American Jews to begin thinking straight, they need look no further than their own immigration history.

What has been in effect mislabeled as Jewish "immigration" from the Great Waves to the Campaign for Soviet Jewry was unique because it was essentially refugee experience. If the persecuted Jews that fled a violently anti-Semitic Europe at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century arrived today, they'd be termed refugees, not immigrants. Unlike all other groups, Jewish immigrants from East/Central Europe migrated in one direction only. Returning to a murderously Jew-hating Europe was unthinkable; the exceptions were so few as amount to a statistical nullity. The Soviet Jews who came to the U.S. under the Lautenberg Amendment were admitted as refugees, not immigrants. Though HIAS has the word "immigrant" in its name, the organization in its heyday was dealing with refugees – not immigrants – because, as the name suggests, its work focused on Jews. HIAS's exploitation of the confusion in nomenclature in recent times so it could become a voice in the U.S. immigration debate, which has nothing to do with refugee policy, stems from the fact that the term "immigrant" in its name is so thoroughly modified by the word "Hebrew" that precedes as to be transformed into "refugee." The "Hebrew Immigrants" HIAS was founded to aid were refugees from oppression, not economic immigrants. Different than other immigrants even during the Great Waves, they are utterly unlike today's "immigrants." They in no way resembled the current crop of illegal transnational migrant workers that now number some 12 million in America, the new group to which the new HIAS has chosen to devote itself.

One can remain loyal to HIAS's historical mission is by supporting a humane – and security-sensitive – refugee policy. That loyalty to the historical mission would not be compromised if one simultaneously opposed massive increases in immigration or illegal immigration – which have nothing to do with HIAS's historical raison d'être. A principal reason many American Jews can't see the distinction is the Jewish Establishment, with HIAS out in front, has sought to erase it in order to advance its political agenda. Engendering sympathy for refugees is far easier than for illegal economic migrants who are neither escaping oppression nor seeking to assimilate to an idealized America. Conflating the two groups is willful misrepresentation but good politics, especially in a community with a large quotient of incorrigible bleeding-hearts.

Since HIAS is not only devoting its energies to promoting illegal immigration but is also now in the global refugee business, Aronoff might give more serious attention to the refugees he is aiding. If he did – taking the wild leap of faith that American or Jewish interests occasionally cross his mind – he'd surely reconsider the wisdom of bringing more Somali Muslims to the U.S., a group from a hothouse of Islamic extremism that has already spawned numerous domestic jihadists. The specter of an historic Jewish organization furthering the Islamization of America – increasing the presence in the United States of a group that hates Jews above all else – is so counterintuitive and, frankly, weird, it beggars the imagination.

Likewise, HIAS's passion about helping Darfuris from Sudan – while refusing to offer similar assistance to the infinitely more brutalized Southern Sudanese Christians – is sadly in keeping with Jewish Establishment policy. The crimes taking place in Darfur represent a genuine humanitarian crisis, but they pale compared to the enormities committed in Southern Sudan. From 1955-1972, the Muslim regime in Khartoum slaughtered nearly 1.5 million Christian Sudanese. Between 1983-2005 approximately 2 million more met the same fate, while some 100,000- 200,000 were taken into slavery. Seven million were driven out of their homeland, making the Muslim jihad against Sudanese Christians the worst genocide and biggest refugee crisis since WWII. The signal moral failure of the Jewish Establishment also results in a threat to Jewish interests.

I'm intimately acquainted with this shameful history because I was executive director of the American Anti-Slavery Group when Southern Sudan was abandoned in favor of Darfur, an action my organization and I vigorously opposed and protested in a multitude of meetings and forums. We lost the battle to the "Save Darfur Coalition," a group founded, funded, and led by elitist left-liberal Jews who wished to flaunt their universalistic credentials by being nice to Muslims. This was political correctness turned into moral madness. There was, in fact, no need to choose between the victim groups. The focus should have remained on the genocidal regime in Khartoum that represents a danger to both Muslim Darfuris and Sudanese Christians. There's also a bitter irony in the preference given to Darfuris. Most people, whose knowledge of human rights violations in Sudan begin and end with Darfur, are unaware that when the two waves of genocide took place against the Christians of Southern Sudan, the Muslim Darfuris were among the most active perpetrators. These black non-Arab Muslims were given the opportunity to prove their loyalty to the racist regime in Khartoum by taking an outsize role in the mass murder of Southern Christians. This parallels the role the non-Turkish Kurds played during the Armenian Genocide, proving their loyalty to the Ottoman Sultanate by slaughtering Armenian Christians.

The seeds planted by the politically correct moral stupidity of the "Save Darfur Coalition" have blossomed into a significant national security problem for Israel. Because of the influence of politically connected, wealthy liberal American Jews, the government of Israel was persuaded to give permanent refugee status to some 3,500 Darfuri Muslims – or those who claimed to be Darfuri Muslims, in any case. At the same time, Southern Christian refugees from Sudan who managed to arrive in Israel, some 2,500, are currently in legal limbo. My close friend Simon Deng, a former Sudanese Christian slave and human rights activist, has been working with sympathetic Israeli politicians to prevent their return to Sudan, which would mean certain death. Those 3,500 Darfuri Muslims represent a potential fifth column in Israel. According to reports made available to Mr. Deng, during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in Lebanon, fist fights erupted in housing shared by both Sudanese groups when the Darfuris gave powerful expression to their support for Hezbollah. The Sudanese Christians in Israel have also voiced the concern that among the so-called Darfuri Muslim refugees are many Sudanese intelligence officers.

At the end of the Forward's article about the new HIAS, Steven Bayme, an expert on Jewish communal affairs and my former colleague at the American Jewish Committee, reflects on the dialectic between the particular and universal that defines Jewish civilization, rightly arguing both must be borne in mind, including in the agendas of Jewish organizations. However, it does not betray Jewish values to protect Jewish interests. Robert Frost once defined a liberal as a "man who cannot take his own side in an argument." Many politically correct American Jews – HIAS is emblematic of them – cannot stand up for Jews without believing they've surrendered their humanity, a deeply neurotic attitude with potentially dangerous political consequences. We can readily imagine what those consequences might be when we contemplate the threat to America represented by the immigration politics of the Jewish Establishment, a group that also cannot take its own side in an argument.