Jewish Activism in Times of International Crisis: Responding to Massive Human Rights Violations and Natural Disasters

Posted by Mark Hetfield on Thu, Mar 04, 2010 at 13:51 pm

Haiti is no stranger to tragedy – I lived there while working for the US government in 1994, when a junta ruled the country by terror, after toppling President Aristide. Between the time I left in September 1994 and the earthquake, Haiti suffered through multiple political crises and no fewer than eight natural disasters, leaving thousands dead and billions of dollars of damage in their wake. Yet this history of natural and man-made disasters seems almost trivial after the massive earthquake of January 12, with 230,000 dead, 1 million left homeless, and $14 billion dollars in destruction to the poorest country in the hemisphere. Of course, relief efforts should continue to be given the highest priority, but there are major migration considerations as well.

The phenomenon of Haitians risking their lives to flee the island by boat has long had a direct correlation to the human misery index in Haiti. When I was in Haiti during the political crisis, in a single day, the US Coast Guard interdicted 3,247 boat persons who risked their lives trying to flee the island by boat. Just this week, the Coast Guard began to report that it has once again started intercepting and returning Haitian boat people.

HIAS is strenuously advocating for changes to U.S. immigration policy toward Haiti to create a safety valve that would decrease pressure to emigrate illegally and increase remittances to the Island. These remittances will be critical in relief and redevelopment efforts. Immediately after the earthquake, DHS extended temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians, which will ensure that Haitians already in the United States will be able to work legally and avoid deportation while Haiti rebuilds. But TPS will not be nearly enough to meet the immediate migration needs of Haiti in the aftermath of one of the greatest humanitarian disasters to ever hit the Western Hemisphere.

I understand that JCPA may be considering a resolution on Haiti in support of such measures, and I urge you to support it. Specifically, there are more than 50,000 Haitians who were already approved by DHS to join their families in the United States, but for whom it will take months or years for a visa number to become available. The Haitian Emergency Life Protection (HELP) Act of 2010 is the most viable of Haitian migration bills currently under consideration by the Congress, and I urge JCPA and the CRCs to work to further its passage.

And while we all agree that most Haitian migrants are currently fleeing natural disaster and not political persecution, and that dangerous boat departures must be discouraged, our own community’s nightmare of the St. Louis – the boat filled with Jewish refugees which was turned away from Miami and the Caribbean and forced to return to Europe after Kristallnacht – requires that we be sensitive to the protection needs of refugees who flee by boat. Since George H. W. Bush issued the Kennebunkport Order of May 24, 1992, the United States government has maintained that refugees intercepted at sea are not protected by the Refugee Convention and may be summarily returned. The US Coast Guard – being only slightly more generous than the Kennebunkport Order requires – questions Cubans and Chinese boat people to accord them protection from return if they express a fear, but not Haitians, who are given a screening if and only if they physically or verbally resist return to the Island. HIAS urges that JCPA join us in deploring this so-called “Shout Test” and returns only those Haitians who have been given access to a meaningful opportunity to request asylum.

I’d like to move from the subject of Haiti to how other Jewish communities around the world are addressing migration and refugee issues in their own countries. I’ve just returned from a Conference of Presidents mission to South Africa and to Israel, so I would like to speak of how the Jewish communities in those two countries have responded to refugee flows stemming from massive human rights violations.

In South Africa, we were hosted by the Jewish community which now consists of approximately 75,000 Jews. Most of these are descendants of refugees from the Czarist pogroms at the end of the 19th century – the same massive human rights violations which led to the creation of my own agency, HIAS, on Ellis Island in the United States. The history of the Jewish community and its relationship to the history of apartheid in South Africa is a long and complex one, but suffice it to say that South African Jewish activists were well-represented in the battle against Apartheid, and South African Jews – like nearly all South Africans – are overwhelmingly proud of the relatively successful racial reconciliation which has marked the transition out of Apartheid. The South African Jewish community even has a major NGO – established by the late Chief Rabbi of South Africa with Nelson Mandela remaining as the organization’s “Patron in Chief” – called Ma Afrika Tikkun. Its mission is to empower previously disadvantaged South African communities by focusing on vulnerable children and youth, their families and environment, by investing in and delivering excellent education, health care, and social services which are based in local community centers.

What many do not know is that South Africa today hosts the largest number of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who have fled political strife – more than 4 million from Zimbabwe alone, plus tens of thousands of others from Somalia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and other sub-Saharan African countries. For these groups, South Africa – with the strongest economy in Africa and no refugee camps – is the most attractive destination on the continent.

South Africa’s pride for its efforts to combat racism suffered a major blow with the xenophobic violence that broke out in May of 2008. The violence, a nationwide pogrom directed against foreigners perceived to be stealing jobs away from South Africans, left 80 dead and tens of thousands displaced, forced to take shelter in makeshift displacement camps and shelters. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and its 152 affiliate organizations responded by setting up a command center, a fleet of trucks and a corps of volunteers who were on the ground around the clock, delivering emergency supplies and food assistance to the displaced, engaging with inter-organizational national task forces, and then turning its attention to monitoring the shelters and conducting skills trainings to relieve boredom and depression and provide the displaced with skills to assist them with moving back toward self-sufficiency. HIAS is now looking for ways to partner with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to further engage with the South African Jewish community to ensure that South Africa’s efforts to overcome xenophobia rival its amazing efforts to overcome racism.

But South Africa does not have the only Jewish community facing new challenges arising from massive human rights violations on the African Continent. Over the last five years, more than 17,000 African asylum seekers have discovered another “safe haven” accessible on foot – Israel. Unfortunately, escaping to Israel is anything but safe, with 19 Africans killed by Egyptian troops while trying to make the journey last year and 7 killed so far in 2010.

Up until 2008, only a trickle of asylum seekers would find their way into Israel each year, causing Israel to rely primarily on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct its asylum and refugee status determination system. However, when Israel moved from receiving dozens of non-Jewish asylum seekers to thousands, it took steps to develop its own asylum system and create its own refugee status determination unit, which Israel has made great strides in developing in consultation with HIAS, JDC, the UNHCR, and the US Department of Homeland Security. While Israel was one of the first signatories of the Refugee Convention of 1951, has given asylum status to 480 refugees from Darfur and temporary protection from removal for migrants from South Sudan and Eritrea, the creation of its own asylum system has not been without severe problems. Among these problems have been Israel’s efforts to conduct “hot returns” of asylum seekers to Egypt without first giving the migrants access to a hearing or to an interpreter. Another worrisome issue is the draft law currently under consideration in the Knesset which – as currently drafted – could impose 5-7 year criminal sentences on asylum seekers – referred to as “infiltrators” – who enter the state of Israel seeking asylum without proper documents.

What gives us real nachas, however, is how civil society in Israel has responded to this refugee phenomenon. On a visit to Israel in 2001, I had lunch in Jerusalem with every single person in the country who was working on asylum and refugee matters. We sat at a table for four, and each of us worked for agencies headquartered outside of Israel. Today, organizations such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Tel Aviv University Refugee Clinic, the African Refugee Development Center, ASSAF, and Physicians for Human Rights – and many smaller local organizations – have sprung up dedicated to assist asylum seekers and protect their rights. It will not surprise you to know that, while other countries in the region are experiencing far greater influxes of refugees and asylum seekers than is Israel, no country in the neighborhood – and maybe no country anywhere else in the world – has seen civil society and volunteers come together so quickly to assist and advocate on their behalf. I urge the CRCs interested in engaging in this topic to speak with me, and I will be very happy to help with any work on this issue.

Finally, I’d like to speak about the American Jewish community and some of the migration concerns which we face. HIAS is the international migration arm of the American Jewish community. In 2009, we resettled 2,346 refugees to the United States, only 578 of whom were Jews (who hailed from the former Soviet Union, Iran, and Yemen.). The vast majority of refugees we resettle today fled Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Iran, and sub-Saharan Africa. We have operations in 11 countries on 5 continents where we provide legal, psycho-social, resettlement and food and material assistance to refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom are not Jewish. Yet we keep getting asked – by Jews of all denominations as well as by non-Jews – why is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Chad helping Darfuris, in Uganda helping Congolese, or in Venezuela helping Colombians? They are certainly not Hebrews….

What bothers me is that other faith-based refugee agencies are rarely, if ever, asked such questions – the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service is not asked why it helps non-Lutherans, and Episcopal Migration Ministries is certainly not asked why it assists non-Episcopalians. In fact, the slogan of the International Catholic Migration Commission is “we do not help refugees because they are Catholic, we help refugees because we are Catholic.” The same could and should be said about HIAS – we don’t help refugees because they are Jewish, we help refugees because we are Jewish. We need to love the stranger as ourselves, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we were strangers on Ellis Island after fleeing the czarist pogroms, we were strangers in the DP camps in Europe, etc. etc. etc. The mitzvah to be kind to the stranger is repeated in the Torah no less than 36 times – more than any other commandment.

On top of this moral imperative to rescue and assist non-Jewish refugees, the CRCs (Community Relations Councils of the local Jewish Federations) – and my co-panelists (the Israeli Ambassador to the Dominican Republic and the Washington Director of American Jewish World Service) – certainly understand that the Jewish community cannot effectively advocate for itself if it advocates only for itself.

I would like to close with noting that the engagement of the American Jewish community with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is classic example of how to undertake tikkun olam – repairing the world – by thinking globally and acting locally. Back in the early 1990’s when we focused almost exclusively on resettling Jews, HIAS had the largest resettlement network in the United States – resettling nearly 40,000 refugees in a single year through more than 100 local Jewish Family Service agencies. Today, our population is more diverse than ever – we are resettling 29 nationalities, 80% of whom are non-Jewish – but sadly, less than 10 local Jewish agencies are full participants in the program.

HIAS would welcome CRCs encouraging local Jewish community organizations to re-engage – or stay engaged – in refugee resettlement. I can think of no more personal and effective way for local Jewish communities to respond to massive human rights violations than by welcoming refugees and giving them the opportunity for a new life in a free country, an opportunity which we ourselves, our parents, and our grandparents, were all privileged to enjoy.

Presented at the National Plenum of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) in Dallas, TX
February 21, 2010

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