Amer­ica at its very best

Sunday Star - - OPINION -

Hours be­fore Robert Bow­ers gunned down 11 wor­ship­pers at a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue, he wrote, “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.” Ear­lier, he had re­posted this mes­sage: “Open you (sic) Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bring­ing the Filthy EVIL Mus­lims into the Countr y!!”

It’s un­fair to blame Pres­i­dent Trump di­rectly for Bow­ers’ mur­der­ous ram­page. But it’s no sur­prise that in the Age of Trump, a shooter would fo­cus on HIAS, orig­i­nally the He­brew Im­mi­grant Aid So­ci­ety, which has been pro­tect­ing and re­set­tling refugees around the world since 1881.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion stands for ev­ery­thing the pres­i­dent is try­ing to de­mo­nize. Trump says to fear the “oth­ers,” and HIAS says em­brace them. Trump says that for­eign­ers de­grade our cul­ture, and HIAS says that they en­rich us. Trump wants to slam the door on the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble cast­aways, while HIAS is try­ing des­per­ately to keep the door open.

This week, the pres­i­dent dis­patched an ad­di­tional

5,200 troops to seal the South­ern bor­der and threat­ens to ig­nore in­ter­na­tional law and bar asy­lum-seek­ers from even ap­ply­ing for sanc­tu­ary here. This comes af­ter Trump slashed the num­ber of refugees ad­mit­ted dur­ing the last fis­cal year to about

22,000, com­pared to Pres­i­dent Obama’s an­nual tar­get of 110,000.

This is a pro­foundly im­moral pol­icy that di­rectly con­tra­dicts the real refugee story. As the so­ci­ety’s web­site puts it: “As the old­est re­set­tle­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion in the world, HIAS has seen time and again that when refugees are pro­vided with a wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment and ad­e­quate sup­port, they are tremen­dous as­sets to their neigh­bor­hoods and so­ci­eties, boost­ing lo­cal economies and ex­celling at en­trepreneur­ship.”

Steve’s Jewish grand­par­ents fled re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in Eastern Europe more than a cen­tury ago, ex­actly the sort of refugees HIAS was founded to help. But as an in­ter­faith fam­ily — Cokie is Catholic — our two tra­di­tions lead to the same con­clu­sion: HIAS is right, and Trump is wrong.

A search for Bi­ble verses about “wel­com­ing strangers” quickly yields count­less ex­am­ples from both the Old and the New Tes­ta­ment, and here are just two of them.

• Leviti­cus 19:33-34: “You shall treat the stranger who so­journs with you as the na­tive among you, and you shall love him as your­self, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

• Matthew 25:35: “For I was hun­gry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you wel­comed me.”

HIAS orig­i­nally fo­cused on help­ing Jewish im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing many thou­sands from the for­mer Soviet Union af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989. As its web­site notes, “Our work is guided by Jewish val­ues and the Jewish com­mu­nity’s shared his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of forced mi­gra­tion.”

To­day it op­er­ates world­wide and helps refugees of all ori­gins. As Mark Het­field, the pres­i­dent of HIAS, told The New York Times: “We used to wel­come refugees be­cause they were Jewish. To­day HIAS wel­comes refugees be­cause we are Jewish.”

Lev Golinkin was 9 years old when HIAS helped his fam­ily move to New Jersey, and he wrote in the Times: “What does HIAS mean to­day? To refugees around the world, it’s be­come an in­ter­na­tional word for hope, in dozens of tongues and for numer­ous faiths. To me it sym­bol­izes Amer­ica — and Ju­daism — at its best. And it’s easy to see how HIAS stands for ev­ery­thing white su­prem­a­cists hate: tol­er­ance, un­der­stand­ing and em­pa­thy.”

The pres­i­dent in­sists he bears “no blame” or re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fevered po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that helped breed Bow­ers or Ce­sar Sayoc, the Florida man who mailed pipe bombs to more than a dozen prom­i­nent Democrats. But many Jewish lead­ers know bet­ter. Their shared ex­pe­ri­ence and shared val­ues tells them the pres­i­dent is far from in­no­cent.

A group of pro­gres­sive Jews in Pitts­burgh or­ga­nized a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Trump say­ing he was not wel­come in their city un­til he de­nounces white na­tion­al­ism and stops “tar­get­ing” mi­nori­ties to stir up his po­lit­i­cal base.

“For the past three years your words and your poli­cies have em­bold­ened a grow­ing white na­tion­al­ist move­ment,” they wrote. “You your­self called the mur­derer evil, but yes­ter­day’s vi­o­lence is the di­rect cul­mi­na­tion of your in­flu­ence.”

They are right. The cur­rent cli­mate of vi­o­lent hos­til­ity is clearly re­lated to Trump’s in­ces­sant and in­cen­di­ary ver­bal war­fare. But in­sti­tu­tions like HIAS rep­re­sent “Amer­ica at its best.” For 137 years, it’s stood for the val­ues Trump is try­ing to trash. And nei­ther a gun­man — nor a pres­i­dent — will stop it now.

Steve and Cokie Roberts may be con­tacted by email at steve­cokie@gmail.com.

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