On ‘Refujews’ and refugees in America

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor
In the wake of the deadly attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, a myriad of questions haunt Jews all over the world, and American Jews in particular. I will attempt to answer a couple of them in this short space as well as formulate others. How could the generosity of Jewish Americans toward non-Jewish refugees today be turned against them to reach the climax attained in the visceral cry “All Jews must die,” followed by a bloody massacre? How is this hatred of Jews, expressed at the same time by white supremacists, people from the alt-right movement and neo-Nazis, articulated with xenophobic attitudes toward refugees in America?
A few examples drawn from history help us understand how old anti-Jewish prejudice combined with xenophobic attitudes are articulated in a recurrent way when their expression has become legitimate. As has been noted, the two years of the Trump presidency have unleashed unacceptable speech in the various arenas of the public sphere and notably on the Internet. It is ironic that the antisemite Robert Bowers, who killed in cold blood 11 Jews gathered in a synagogue, viewed the refugees welcomed by HIAS – a Jewish immigrant aid society – as potential killers of the American people. On the net, the killer voiced the fact that refugees were intent to “slaughter” his own people. Did he not consider Jews as part of the American people? Were they still dehumanized as “Christ killers” to him? This perception was spread in America throughout the ages, from Peter Stuyvesant in 1654 to Mel Gibson’s controversial Jesus movie, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004). Hostile attitudes toward Jews were to be later transformed into a modern version of hatred of the Jews, linking basic anti-Jewish feelings to the demonization and delegitimatization of the State of Israel – that of Israeli soldiers killing Palestinian children.
Before becoming the object of hate of the white supremacist killer because it welcomes (non-Jewish) refugees today, HIAS was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Since its inception, it had been a Jewish American nonprofit organization that gave assistance mostly to Jewish refugees. It formed HICEM (dissolved in 1945), whose quarters were in France and which dealt with European operations. In the 50s, HIAS merged with what became known as the United Service for New Americans (USNA) which helped Jewish displaced persons who were to be transformed into “New Americans” as soon as possible so as not to foster anti-Jewish feelings among Americans. In the late 40s, the resettlement of some 400,000 postwar refugees – made possible by the 1948 DP Act represented a type of planned immigration so far unprecedented. It was then that HIAS facilitated the immigration of Jewish DPs. Antipathy against Jews voiced in the Republican Congress and in the State Department was also expressed in the polls. Yet, the proportion of Americans agreeing that Jews were “a threat to America” fell from 24 percent in 1944 to 5 percent in 1950.
Jews have long been outsiders in a Christian society. At the core of this hatred of the Jew stems the eternal plight of the wandering Diaspora Jew. In the mind of xenophobes, Jews are the paragon of the refugee, the “tempest tossed” to borrow Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. In the late 40s and 50s, Jewish displaced persons resettled in America were called “Refujews” by prejudiced Americans, as they sadly reminisced in the interviews I conducted four decades later. At the same time, the Jews’ own history as “strangers in the land of Egypt,” almost inscribed in their genes, and the values they nurture to be “a mensch” urge them to welcome refugees around the world. How much of this was perceived by the Pittsburgh killer and other white supremacists, Alt-right members and neo-Nazis is difficult to fathom. But Jews are reproached with being in favor of multiculturalism on the ground that their difference fits in better in a multiethnic society. Their generosity in opposing the Muslim ban lately, as HIAS did strongly, may therefore be viewed negatively by some. Is not the impact of anti-Jewish attitudes on American society bound to be stronger in times of crisis?
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled
, ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, the United States, and Israel’ (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018), Studies in Antisemitism