World Refugee Day: A case for Jewish engagement

A cultural orientation class for newly arrived refugees at CRRA's office. (courtesy)
A cultural orientation class for newly arrived refugees at CRRA's office. (courtesy)

For millennia of Jewish history, there were very few constants. But one such constant for Jews around the world was being seen as strangers wherever they were. Being strangers often implied persecution, expulsion, being killed.

Today, while there is a worrying rise of antisemitism in many parts of Europe and beyond, most Jews are thankfully no longer in imminent danger of expulsion, and since 1948, there is a Jewish state.

Unfortunately, the risks of persecution and expulsion remain for many people. Currently, over 80 million people are affected by forced displacement — more than ever before. The Corona-pandemic made their situation even worse, with borders closing and leaving many refugees unable to meet their basic needs. As Jews, we can understand their plight better than most; most Jews have relatives and friends with refugee experiences — that is, if they aren’t refugees themselves.

We believe that as Jews, our communities and organizations, have a special responsibility to stand up for refugees. Not necessarily because their experiences are the same as ours — comparing suffering never makes sense – but because we know what happens when the world looks away at times of persecution.

Scripture shares that view. The Torah tells us 36 times to welcome the stranger, far more than it commands us to observe any other law. This is the reason why organizations like HIAS exist — founded to aid Europe’s endangered Jews but tasked today with helping no matter who they are or where they come from.

For that reason, HIAS Europe not only runs humanitarian programs for forcibly displaced persons in 13 countries, it also facilitates European Jewish communities and activists to support refugee integration. New such possibilities have emerged though engagement in “community sponsorship”, which enables us to welcome a refugee family into our local community and support them as they rebuild their lives. In principle, anyone can get involved in community sponsorship – NGOs, synagogues, youth movements, student unions, professional associations or simply a group of friends or neighbours with a common interest. In practice, though, we often see local faith communities taking the lead in these activities. Sponsors may introduce refugees to their friends, families and neighbours, have them join Shabbat dinners, outdoor trips, or volunteering in local associations.

While the imperative for humanitarian engagement with displaced people is clear, some European Jews, are hesitant to engage with refugees within their own communities, fearing rising antisemitism. While it may be true that many refugees come from countries in which they were systematically exposed to antisemitic rhetoric, this should not stop us from supporting people in need and engaging them in our values. Firstly, because our solidarity should not be conditional. You don’t ask a dying person with a gushing wound about their political views before providing assistance. But secondly, and more importantly, showing empathy, when refugees meet actual Jews for the first time in their lives, and facilitating refugees’ local integration, including through participation in community sponsorship programs, is surely the best strategy to overcome antisemitic ideas and mistrust. The examples of Jewish communities, already involved in such programming shows that we can make a real difference in the lives of refugees, also within our own communities.

But in the end, enabling refugees to live lives in safety and dignity is not only one of personal or communal responsibility, but also a political issue to be addressed by governments. Over the last few years, the European Union has built a fortress around Europe. In order to keep asylum seekers and refugees out, it is externalizing responsibility over asylum systems and migration controls, collaborating closely and even paying various authoritarian regimes. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the EU’s only armed agency, is involved in illegal pushbacks, while NGOs assisting asylum seekers are criminalised.

We have reached a point where there are very few legal and even fewer safe ways for refugees to reach Europe. As European Jewish organisations, we call upon European Governments and Institutions to reject the discourse and politics of fear and deterrence. Instead as we observe World Refugee Day on June 20, we encourage all to join us in “welcoming the stranger.”

The above was written by Bini Guttmann, President of the European Union of Jewish Students and Ilan Cohn,  Director of HIAS Europe

About the Author
Ilan Cohn is based in Brussels and is the Director of HIAS Europe. For the past two decades he worked on migration at the international level through a number of intergovernmental organizations, as well as through JDC and the Center for International Migration and Integration in Israel.
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