What is HIAS, and why did the Pittsburgh shooter hate it?

For more than 130 years, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has worked to rescue refugees around the globe.

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October 28, 2018 15:36
3 minute read.
What is HIAS, and why did the Pittsburgh shooter hate it?

HIAS SUPPORTERS take part in a pro-immigration rally in Washington last year.. (photo credit: TED EYTAN)

 
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In 1881, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was founded to assist Jews fleeing pogroms and violence in Eastern Europe.

In 2018, a murderer killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, citing his hatred of HIAS as justification for his heinous crime.
What has HIAS done in its 137 years of operation, and why did it motivate such horrific violence?

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The organization has its roots on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that served as a hub and home for Jewish immigration for many decades. HIAS worked to facilitate the legal, financial and physical needs of Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States.
The organization offered language services, resettlement aid, hot meals, legal representation, job training and much more for new Jewish arrivals in the United States.

In 1905, according to The New York Times, HIAS offered aid to a Jewish family arriving from Poland that was told their 10-year-old son was not fit to enter the country. In 1923, according to JTA, HIAS organized a mass protest against then-president Calvin Coolidge against the detention of 3,000 Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island who surpassed the immigration quota. After World War II ended, HIAS set about aiding and resettling the tens of thousands of displaced persons and refugees in Europe. In 1967, HIAS aided thousands of Jews fleeing riots that broke out in Libya after the Six Day War. 

For more than 100 years, HIAS has operated around the globe to bring Jewish refugees to safety. The organization estimates that it has aided “more than 4.5 million people escape persecution” since it was established. While HIAS’s operations have often centered on Eastern European Jews, it has also worked to help and rescue Jews in Egypt, Cuba, Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and more.

The group has also faced criticism over the years, including charges that it did not do enough to aid Soviet Jewish refugees seeking to relocate to the United States, and instead attempted to persuade many to immigrate to Israel.

Over the years, HIAS consulted with other groups and with the US government to aid in the resettlement on non-Jewish refugees. And beginning in the early 21st century, with the needs of global Jewish refugees waning, “HIAS expanded our resettlement work to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees,” the organization said. That decision also drew criticism from some sectors of the Jewish community.

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Robert Bowers,the man who walked into a synagogue on a Saturday morning and opened fire, was a virulent antisemite with an online history of incitement against Jews. And he also hated HIAS and everything it stood for, in particular its stated goals of aiding and resettling refugees from around the globe. Last weekend, HIAS organized “National Refugee Shabbat,” with events hosted at hundreds of synagogues around the country. One such community was Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh, which holds its services inside the Tree of Life Synagogue.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” wrote Bowers the morning of the shooting. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

And then he murdered 11 people in cold blood for the crime of attending prayer services on a Saturday morning.

“There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning,” HIAS said in a statement on Saturday. “This loss is our loss, and our thoughts are with Tree of Life Congregation, our local partner Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing.”

The statement noted that HIAS “rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are.”

The founders of HIAS probably never imagined that would include Jews in Pittsburgh in 2018.

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