March 4, 2021

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The HIAS Controversy (Daled Amos)

Back in 2014, HIAS was in the news as exemplifying a new trend in Jewish organizations.

The organization had moved from New York City to Silver Spring, a step that was seen by The Washington Jewish Week as “just another sign that the Jewish organizational universe is changing“:

Once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the agency has responded to the end of Jewish refugee immigration into the port of New York by refocusing on refugee advocacy Washington, D.C.

In doing so, HIAS is joining an exodus of religion-based immigrant agencies, said Mark Hetfield, HIAS president and CEO.

It was all about a growing trend among organizations that were shedding their old identities once they saw their original missions as having been fulfilled.

The change was more than geographic:

Not only will HIAS join other refugee aid organizations in Washington, it will also compete with other Jewish organizations involved in advocacy and claiming to be the “Jewish voice” on this or that political issue. Each group is fighting to carve out a niche for itself in what some think is an oversaturated market of advocacy groups, none of which seem to close down when its job is done.

Now, just 6 years later, HIAS is again in the news and may be signaling another new trend in American Jewish organizations.

The recent nomination of Dianne Lob as the next chairperson of the Conference of Presidents  created an uproar, and it is more than just because of claims that the organization’s bylaws may have been violated to make the nomination happen.

The larger concern is that Lob was the former chairperson of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — HIAS.

Just how controversial can helping Jewish refugees be?
There are 2 distinct narratives as to what is happening.

Is It All About Trump?

Last week, Ron Kampeas wrote that A Trump-era compromise on the Presidents Conference chairwoman reveals Jewish organizational tensions.

He writes that despite Lob’s statement of unity in strengthening the Jewish community and supporting Israel,

over the past week, right-wingers within and outside the Presidents Conference launched a pressure campaign against the nomination, citing Lob’s involvement with HIAS, which has clashed with the Trump administration over immigration policy. Leading the charge was Morton Klein’s Zionist Organization of America, which has strongly opposed efforts to resettle Muslim refugees from Arab countries in the United States and Europe — something that has topped the HIAS agenda in recent years because of unrest in the Muslim world.

Kampeas writes that this “injection of immigration politics into Presidents Conference deliberations” reflects how the left-right divide in the Jewish community has gone beyond an Israel-centric focus to encompass an issue embroiling the country. The controversy of the Lob’s HIAS background is

the antagonistic relationship between HIAS and the Trump administration. HIAS has clashed repeatedly with the current administration on its immigration policy and has been lead plaintiff in at least two lawsuits against the administration.

Is The Conference of Presidents Leaning Left?

A different view of the controversy is that the issue is not Trump and his immigration policies but rather that HIAS is considered one of the most liberal organizations in the Conference of Presidents. Their recent change in its mission is part of that concern. According to the HIAS website:

We were founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. As we expanded our mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, we realized our name no longer represented the organization. We are now known as HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. [emphasis added]

HIAS CEO, Mark Hetfield, however, gave a different reason for the change, saying that the word “Hebrew” is exclusionary and outdated, much as the word “colored” is to refer to African Americans.

That doesn’t seem to bother the NAACP, which does not shy away from referring to itself by its full name:

The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.

Nor does it shy away from making it clear their mission remains:

the major areas of inequality facing African Americans that are the focus of the NAACP’s work. [emphasis added]

But there is more to this than a change in name.
This change in focus that Hetfield refers to has had real ramifications.

In an article for the Jewish Journal, David Suissa asks Why Did HIAS Move Away from Helping Jews? He quotes from a 2017 article in The Forward, which has some numbers on the steep drop in HIAS assistance to Jewish refugees:

The group assisted 4,188 people last year from 36 different countries; about half were Muslims. The others were Jews and Christians and some Hindus and Buddhists, Hetfield said. The Jews – just 169 out of the total – were mainly from Ukraine and Iran.

As Suissa points out, that’s just 4%.

But Suissa has no problem with helping non-Jewish refugees. Instead, his argument is that HIAS should “grandfather” immigration assistance into its budget for Jews who, though not technically qualifying as refugees, are feeling the pressure of antisemitism in the US or are experiencing other kinds of extreme hardships.

But ZOA’s Mort Klein goes further, taking those numbers and making a case against Lob and claiming that HIAS itself should not be a member in the Conference of Presidents, altogether.

In A letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Klein argues that because of their lack of focus on Jews,

HIAS likely does not even qualify for COP membership. The “Processes and Procedures of the Conference of Presidents” (updated March 2017) limits COP membership “to those national Jewish organizations whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of the American Jewish community and whose activities are consistent with the goals and objectives of the Conference.” It would be inappropriate to select a COP chairperson from an organization that likely does not meet the COP’s membership requirements.

Going further, Klein adds that HIAS also has a history of associating with anti-Israel groups.

He quotes from the HIAS website, which boasts that

HIAS and IRUSA [Islamic Relief USA] have been collaborating to advance refugee rights for several years. In June 2017, IRUSA honored HIAS with its Courage Award. Upon accepting the award in Washington, D.C., Hetfield noted, “All the Abrahamic faiths are united by the value of hospitality and welcoming the stranger as ourselves, for we were all once strangers in a strange land.” [emphasis added]

Klein notes ties between Islamic Relief Worldwide and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, a connection that is documented also by NGO Monitor, which notes that Israel banned the group in 2014.

Elsewhere on its site, HIAS reports that it 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 Islamic Relations [sic] and other faith based organizations. [emphasis added]

CAIR was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial — which among the offenses cited was the funneling of money to Hamas.

A further issue is a letter Hetfield signed as a representative of HIAS when Democratic Jewish state Assemblyman Dov Hikind spoke out against Linda Sarsour speaking at the CUNY commencement because it would be “giving a podium to promoters of violence. The letter was in defense of Linda Sarsour, signed by multiple leaders of left-wing groups such as J Street, If Not Now, New Israel Fund and T’ruah. The letter proclaims that while not agreeing with everything she says, “with Sarsour and others, we work as allies on issues of shared concern and respectfully disagree when our views diverge” — apparently ignoring such disrespectful things as
Sarsour’s tweet that “there is nothing creepier than Zionism”
o  Her praising the Palestinian Authority tactic of deploying children to hurl rocks at Israelis as the “definition of courage”
o  Her embracing (literally) Rasmeah Odeh, the Palestinian terrorist who was convicted of murdering 2 Israelis. Sarsour said she was “honored” to be on the same stage with Odeh.

Last month, in response to these and other charges by Klein, Hetfield proclaimed that HIAS has maintained its connection to Israel
“As a Jewish refugee organization, we have an important connection to Israel because the reason we can advocate for refugees who are not Jewish today is because the Jewish refugee problem has essentially been solved by the State of Israel. That’s the thing — Israel is central to our mission, in that sense.”

‘In that sense’?
Even Hetfield doesn’t sound convinced.

More problematic is that according to the same article

Hetfield also noted that as a matter of policy, HIAS won’t partner with organizations that promote the BDS movement. [emphasis added]

It’s not clear how that is supposed to jive with HIAS partnering with Islamic Relief and CAIR.

The Radical Left Insurgency

Caroline Glick sees in all this the continuation of a trend, what she sees as American Jewry’s organizational crackup.

According to Glick, while American Jewry as a whole is not being radicalized, Lob’s nomination reflects the efforts of radical leftists within the American Jewish organizations, Jews who are pro-BDS and anti-Zionist. And in furtherance of their views, they are trying to either gain control or to neutralize American Jewish organizations — all this while many of the leaders of the large Jewish organizations are retiring or close to it, and in some cases have failed to cultivate successors.

She warns that
At the rate that the radical left is taking over major Jewish organizations, we can assume that within five years, there will be a steep rise in the number of American Jewish groups that advocate on behalf of BDS. Our notion of a “friendly organization” will change from an organization that advances Jewish interests and supports Israel to an organization that doesn’t work against Jewish interests and opposes Israel.

An Expiration Date?

Jonathan Tobin offers a different perspective in his column for JNS, where he focuses on the overall implications of the growing split within the groups and asks Do the Jews really need a Conference of Presidents?

Tobin notes that the history of the Conference of Presidents goes back to 1956, when Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles gave an ultimatum to the Jewish groups advocating on behalf of Israel following Israel’s campaign with England and France against Egypt. Tired of dealing with individual groups, he threatened that if the various groups did not unite to form a single group he could deal with more easily, he would not listen to any of them.

And so the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was born.

But now, in light of the current rift in the organization in reaction to Lob’s nomination, Tobin suggests that the group may have reached its “expiration date”:

But what this dispute could demonstrate is that the Jewish right and left are now so divided that the entire concept of an umbrella group like the Conference is no longer viable.

Rather than as an insurgency by the radical left, Tobin sees the current controversy as a sign that the Conference of Presidents has reached the point where differences can no longer be transcended by a common love for Israel.

And if that is true of the Conference of Presidents, what does that say of the American Jewish community as a whole?

A Tempest in a Kum-Kum

But some see all this as an over-reaction.
Mitchell Bard, Executive Director of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and director of the Jewish Virtual Library notes that taking into account the influence and familiarity that William Daroff has as the successor to Hoenlein as head of the Conference of Presidents, Lob will, in fact, have minimal influence within the organization, and as such it does not pay to get all worked up over the current controversy surrounding Lob.
After all, can anyone even name the person currently serving in the position Lob will be assuming?

Between Israel, the US and now the Conference of Presidents — elections seem to have an increased sense of drama to them.

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