JEWS, AGAIN THE VICTIMS OF ANTI-SEMITISM: HIAS WELCOMES RUSSIAN EMIGRES TO AMERICA
BY: MARILYN SILVERMAN
Fleeing the terrors of persecution and emigrating to a New World, is a harrowing experience, especially when you must make the heart-rending decision to say good-bye to your loved ones before embarking on this lonely journey. Facilitating the transition from a land of religious persecution to a land of religious freedom is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an international migratory agency that has been rescuing, reuniting, and resettling an astronomical four million Jewish and non-Jewish refugees for over a century.
In recent years, HIAS has concentrated its energy on helping Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union so that according to Mark A Seale, associate executive vice president, HIAS, "they have an opportunity to re-create their lives in a more hospitable environment," since their homeland is "one of instability and unpredictability," as communism is metamorphosized into democracy. Fortunately, "due to the strength of the Russian Jewish movement," human rights abuses have abated somewhat, according to Debra Strober, spokesperson, for the National Conference on Soviet Jews (NCSJ), but undeniably "there are intermittent examples of anti- Semitism which are terrifying to Jewish people. The authorities are trying to curb this and we applaud their efforts."
The modus operandi of HIAS: from conducting fact- finding missions in the former Soviet Union to assessing suspected persecution...to counseling Jews who haven't as yet emigrated...to aiding in establishing self-sufficiency, via employment -- a cornerstone of HIAS...to preparing for citizenship status. To assess suspected persecution, HIAS representatives meet with "members of the Jewish community and diplomats and journalists," in the former Soviet Union, according to Seale. When these emigres at long last disembark at JFK Airport, this is the final stage in a process that started two years previously, when a primary relative, which is defined as a parent, sibling, or child, filed an official document, an affidavit of relationship.
OPEN-DOOR POLICY FOR RUSSIAN EMIGRES
The Torah, with its invaluable body of wisdom and law, teaches us that the ultimate test of religion and ethics, is that you treat the ger, the stranger, the outsider, the powerless, who have landed on foreign soil, with compassion. However, today there's a heightened anti-immigrant fervor. Immigrants are being accused of displacement. However, the truth is that they take jobs many native-born workers would refuse; they save money from their meager wages, and most importantly, they become entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the current immigration policy operates with stringent regulations many Americans fail to comprehend. Admitting parents, spouses and children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, strengthens the family. Staffing our businesses with qualified employees strengthens the economy. Protecting international human rights standards strengthens our world image.
The world watched in utter amazement, the collapse of the Communist regime in the former Soviet Union, a regime whose official stance perpetuated anti-Semitism. What's ironic is that in the former Soviet Union, the Jewish emigres were classified from birth to death as Jews. As Seals states, "They come to America and Israel, they're Russian."
Once they arrive in America where they can practice Judaism with no fear -- no restriction -- no uncertainty, how observant do they become? Seale states that "their mode of affiliations are approximately the same as American Jews. There are people who have an expectation that Russian Jews will affiliate 100%. It's an unfair expectation to expect more from people with no background."
EVERY JEW HAS A SUITCASE UNDER THEIR BED
As state policy, anti-Semitism has vanished. Synagogues have opened their doors for the first time in generations. The Fifteen Newly Independent States have formally established diplomatic relations with Israel. Nonetheless, the safety of Jews is still being jeopardized by the now defunct policy due to the dilemma: How does a government legislate public opinion? According to the NCSJ there are numerous manifestations of anti-Semitism;
- proliferation of anti- Semitic newspapers, books, albums, tape recordings,
- desecration of Jewish cemeteries,
- violence against Jews
- anti-Semitic leaflets mailed to leaders of Jewish organizations,
- synagogues bombed
According to Pamela Lewis, congressional liaison officer, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration, "there are applications for emigration that have been approved since 1990. The Russians are not exercising the option of leaving. They don't feel as threatened as when they applied. This is what we hoped for. We're managing the program down." To leave or not to leave is a controversial issue. NCSJ has been pleading with Russian Jews to, in fact, leave and as Seals stated, "People who are a success are not leaving; they're taking a risk." The more successful Russian Jews have elected to stay as the new spirit of entrepreneurship has engulfed the country.
At an English language class at the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a resettlement agency that works with HIAS, and whose office appropriately overlooks the Statue of Liberty, I spoke to Russian emigres about life as a Jew in the former Soviet Union. You want to go to a synagogue? Anna Gorshteyn, a Moscow chemist states that if you tried to do this, the police were stationed there and "you have to sign a document with your name and then the police call your boss and you have no promotion." You want to read a book about your religion? "I know someone arrested on the job only for the book he read about Jewish religion." You want to celebrate the holidays? Igor Prodetskiy, a Kiev electrical engineer states, "It was very difficult to take a free day for Jewish holidays." HIAS' primary funding sources include UJA's Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Greater NY; philanthropic organizations; individual donations; and the U.S. Department of State and Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The United States as a leader in refugee resettlement, is a compassionate defender of global human rights and recognizes the contributions that historically the immigrant population has made to our economy. Therefore, our doors should always be open to people displaced by political upheaval and religious persecution.
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