HIAS Israel Scholarship Ceremony, ZOA House, Tel Aviv

Posted by Mark Hetfield on Mon, Feb 06, 2012 at 16:56 pm

Remarks by Mark Hetfield, HIAS Senior Vice-President for Policy and Programs

Israel is an inspiring place, and you are in this room today because each one of you is an inspiring person.

HIAS loves Israel. Prior to 1948, immigration to the United States was the biggest priority for the American Jewish community and for HIAS. Since 1881 HIAS has been the international migration agency of the American Jewish community. It was, and remains, the mission of HIAS to keep the golden door open to Jews and other immigrants. While we succeeded in keeping the Statue of Liberty’s torch lit for the Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia, the torch was extinguished in 1921. The U.S. government closed America’s golden door and sealed it shut, particularly for those who needed to flee genocide and persecution in Europe during the Shoah.

Being a Jewish migration agency during the Holocaust, the darkest years of the 20th century, was a very hard job. When the United States closed its door, other immigration countries like Australia, Canada, and South Africa did the same. HIAS did its best to get Jews from Europe to Latin America, to Shanghai, and of course to Palestine. But the number of Jews who needed asylum in those days was far greater than the number of places for them to go.

In 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel changed that, and made the job of HIAS much, much easier. Today, anyone who is born Jewish, who has a Jewish grandparent, or who is a Jew by choice is able to make aliyah and “come home” to Israel. HIAS no longer has to beg governments to let our people in. The Jewish people finally have a right to be somewhere—to be home in Israel. And HIAS thankfully can turn its attention to helping others.

But exercising that “right” to make aliyah is—let’s face it—not easy. You or your families all made the choice to “ascend” to Israel. One beautiful thing about Israel for Jews is that you enter not as a stranger, but as an Israeli. However, each of you knows firsthand what HIAS knows all too well. Immigration is still very difficult. You have to work at least twice as hard as everyone else to get just as far. But if you work hard enough, you will get there. Along the way, and after you arrive, I hope you will remember to personally welcome those immigrants who come after you, to give compassion to the stranger, and to give refuge to refugees of all faiths and colors.

Each of you has already demonstrated that you have worked very hard. You have already distinguished yourselves. When you made aliyah, you were given certain benefits because you were born Jewish. The HIAS scholarship, however, is not a “birthright.” You earned it.

Woody Allen said “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” This is true, life is full of surprises. We do not know where any of you will end up. What we do know from your applications, however, is that all of you are on a trajectory to make the global Jewish community a better community. Stay the course, and thank you.

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