BRUSSELS – When my great-grandfather Louis Echikson fled Russian pogroms and forced enlistment in the Czar’s army more than a century ago, an organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) almost certainly welcomed and helped him on his arrival in New York.
Louis went on to run a small neighborhood grocery store. My grandfather Joseph graduated from Columbia Medical School and became a distinguished doctor and I was fortunate to be born in an America where Jews could achieve most everything that they were capable of desiring.
Today, I am proud to be helping HIAS open its first-ever office in the European Union capital. The new office will provide a much-needed and strong Jewish voice fighting to protect refugees and not just Jewish refugees. HIAS now spends most of its funds and energy supporting non-Jewish, and often Muslim refugees, from Afghanistan to Vietnam.
HIAS’s inspiring agenda fills a void in the Jewish presence in Brussels. Most Jewish organizations dealing with the European Union concentrate on pro-Israeli lobbying. They fight for Europe to back the hardline Trump-Netanyahu agenda towards Iran and the Palestinians. They contest European support for the BDS movement. If they are active in Europe, most of their activities are the fight against anti-Semitism.
Don’t get me wrong – many of these combats are important. But Jews need to show another side of Jewish values. In particular, I mean tikkun olam(repairing the world) and welcoming and protecting the stranger. The tikkun olammessage is crucial at a time of rising populism and intolerance, not just towards Jews, but to refugees and immigrants of all national, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Under Donald Trump, the United States that welcomed my great grandfather has betrayed the world’s poor, hungry and oppressed. President Trump has ended refugee protections, imposed a blanket travel ban on several Muslim countries, and harbored to build an expensive, and ineffective, wall on the country’s southern border. HIAS itself has stood up and opposed Trump’s inhumane policies. It has held “Refugee Shabbats” in dozens of cities across the United States and Canada to raise awareness of the suffering of millions of refugees. When far-right anti-Semite Robert D. Bowers attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he posted social-media rants attacking HIAS and the National Refugee Shabbat.
Support for refugees is precarious in Europe, too. Former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked boats carrying refugees from Italian ports. Hungarian far-right premier Viktor Orban has built a wall on his country’s southern border. Both of these leaders talk about protecting “Christian Europe,” leaving out Jews and Muslims despite the long history on the continent of both other religions.
The European Union has adopted a policy of outsourcing migration controls. It has signed a controversial deal to pay billions of euros to Turkey to keep Syrian and Afghan refugees in its country. It has propped up the Libyan Coast Guard to keep African refugees from crossing the Mediterranean. The EU is even financing refugee resettlement in African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda.
While these programs have proved effective in slowing the flow of the hungry and oppressed into Europe, they are band-aids. They fail to present a long-term response to the root causes of migration – war, famine, economic distress, and political persecution. It is imperative that Europe, with its aging population, opens its doors to at least a steady flow of newcomers.
In many ways, today’s politics resemble the situation at HIAS’s birth in 1881 in New York. Jews fleeing Czarist tyranny in Russia and Eastern Europe arrived in the United States and needed help. After World War II, HIAS was instrumental in evacuating the displaced persons camps in Europe. In two modern waves, the Jews of the former Soviet Union found their way to freedom with the help of HIAS. Over the course of our history, HIAS helped more than 4.5 million refugees start new lives.
Many who HIAS has helped have gone onto make a positive impact. These include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, writer Vladimir Nobokov, artist Marc Chagall and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
In Europe, HIAS is currently active in Greece and Austria. It has provided individualized legal assistance to more than 400 asylum seekers on the island of Lesvos. In Austria, it has helped resettle vulnerable asylum seekers in Israel and religious minorities from Iran. Under the leadership of Dutch-Israeli migration specialist Ilan Cohn, the new Brussels office aims to raise money to support these and other similar initiatives throughout the continent.
HIAS also will support local Jewish communities in Europe who are working to assist immigrants and refugees. The European Union of Progressive Judaism has an exciting program in Amsterdam, working with its largely Muslim neighbors.
My thoughts go back to Louis Echikson. He was lucky to reach the United States and have HIAS’s support. Today, it is time to give back to others fleeing persecution and poverty.
William Echikson is the director of the Brussels office of the European Union for Progressive Judaism.