“We Stand with You”: HIAS Responds to Synagogue Massacre with Message of Hope for Refugees

StoryOctober 30, 2018
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Shortly before gunman Robert Bowers opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 worshipers, he attacked a Jewish organization with a history of aiding millions of refugees: HIAS. Bowers wrote on a far-right social media site, ”HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” We speak with Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for public affairs for HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS has provided assistance to refugees for more than 130 years.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with the refugee organization that gunman Robert Bowers repeatedly attacked online before he opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, killing 11 worshipers: HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Just before the shooting rampage, Robert Bowers wrote on a far-right social media site, ”HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Two days later, President Trump attacked the migrants on a Central American caravan, tweeting, quote, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

AMY GOODMAN: HIAS is a humanitarian nonprofit that’s provided assistance to refugees for more than 130 years coming into the United States. When HIAS organized a nationwide Shabbat for refugees earlier this month, alleged synagogue shooter Robert Bowers posted a link to the event’s directory of synagogues, writing he, quote, “appreciated” the list.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs for HIAS.

Melanie Nezer, welcome to Democracy Now! Our condolences on what has taken place. First, respond to what happened, and then this comment he made. He “appreciated” the list of where your HIAS Shabbats, where your refugee Shabbats were taking place, one of them in that building where the Tree of Life synagogue also had their services.

MELANIE NEZER: Yeah. Well, of course, our first reaction, hearing the news of the shooting, was—it’s this, you know, often repeated, but shocked, but not surprised. Many of us were in synagogue when we heard the news. And as we were processing that, I received a text from a colleague with a screenshot of the social media posting from the shooter that cited HIAS. And quite honestly, we’re still processing that and what that means. We’ve been answering a lot of questions over the last couple days, the most common question being “What is HIAS?” and starting to think about, you know, where we go from here.

But I’ll tell you one thing: There’s just been no indication from any of us—and HIAS staff work all over the world, not just the United States. We provide services to refugees in the countries where, actually, 85 percent of refugees reside, which are developing countries. And there’s been no indication by any of the staff that any of us want to stop doing that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the significance of Bowers using the term “invaders” and also echoing, to some degree, President Trump’s references to the immigrant caravan at the—or the refugee caravan from Central America that’s coming up through Mexico right now?

MELANIE NEZER: Yeah. Well, language is important. And “invaders” is an incendiary term, especially for a group of impoverished and scared men, women and children who are thousands of miles, I think, still from our border.

We process asylum seekers at our southern border every single day. Thousands of them get processed in a month. This is not something that the U.S. government can’t handle. We are the strongest, most powerful country in the world, so we can fairly and humanely process a few thousand asylum seekers.

What HIAS has called for, on our U.S. government, is to respect the rule of law and ensure that asylum seekers, when they reach our borders, are processed in accordance with our law and our international treaty obligations, and that they’re treated humanely. And the fact that this kind of basic humanitarian approach has become somehow controversial or has made people angry is a real sad commentary of where the debate is in this country right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Has President Trump called HIAS?

MELANIE NEZER: No, no.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, just last month, your organization actually criticized the president for capping the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year, just 30,000. Could you talk about what the impact of that is, of this continued reduction of the number of refugees officially allowed into the United States?

MELANIE NEZER: Sure. I do want to explain how the refugee resettlement program works. So, this is a program that’s been officially in place for 40 years, and it’s a public-private partnership. So, actually, it’s the U.S. government that decides how many refugees come into the country each year. The president makes that determination every year. And the U.S. government decides who comes in. They do all the security screenings and vettings. Refugees are the most heavily vetted people who come to our country. They do interviews. They do health screenings. Every single refugee is interviewed by a Department of Homeland Security officer abroad.

So, the organizations like HIAS and the eight other agencies that partner with the government to do U.S. refugee resettlement—and we’re talking about five faith-based organizations, most of which are Christian; we’re the only Jewish one, and a number of humanitarian organizations—we don’t resettle refugees. We don’t bring them here. We welcome them when they get here. So, the hatred that’s directed at HIAS, and organizations like ours, is at an organization that, through our partners, like the Jewish Family and Community Service Agency in Pittsburgh—we’re the people who go to the airport and make sure these refugees get home. We fill their fridge with food. We make sure their kids get enrolled in schools. That’s the role that we play in refugee resettlement.

And we do advocate for increased refugee resettlement numbers. In normal years, in the last, you know, five or so years, the average was about 70,000. There were years during the Reagan administration where almost 100,000 refugees were coming in every year. And given the fact that we are experiencing the largest level of displacement in the world in recorded history and the fact that the U.S. has been the world’s humanitarian leader since World War II in resettling refugees and providing humanitarian protection, we think it’s time for the U.S. to step up and share the responsibility with these countries that are struggling to provide services and assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are in their countries.

AMY GOODMAN: And—

MELANIE NEZER: Yeah?

AMY GOODMAN: Melanie, we just have 30 seconds. Do you have a message to refugees this week, with the hate-fueled violence in the United States, people coming into this country who are now afraid to come?

MELANIE NEZER: Well, we don’t see refugees as anyone who’s different than we are. Our relatives—we’re a Jewish organization, and I think this actually is true of nearly all Americans: Our relatives also came in as immigrants and refugees. So, your stories are our stories, and we stand with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Melanie Nezer, we’d like to ask you to stay with us for just 10 minutes for a post-show interview. We’ll post it online under web exclusives at democracynow.org. We want to ask you about the refugee Shabbats and other activities of your group. Melanie Nezer is senior vice president for public affairs, group HIAS. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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