This past weekend my Facebook feed was replete with yet another harrowing image of a Syrian child. Like the picture of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore last September, the image of 5-year-old, ash-covered and bloodied-yet-alive Omran Daqneesh serves as a painful reminder of the ongoing horrors of war, the plight of those with nowhere to go and the unprecedented 65.3 million people worldwide that the United Nations’ refugee agency says have been displaced by persecution and conflict.
Several days before the Syrian government or Russian airstrike that injured young Daqneesh in the city of Aleppo, Anshel Pfeffer made an impassioned plea to the Jewish community to do more to respond to the global refugee crisis in an op-ed published here, entitled: “Why Are the Jews Not Preparing a Plan to Help the Refugees?”
Pfeffer argued that the Jewish community has the “funds, the volunteers, the expertise and the political connections” to be “one of the most efficient refugee relief agencies in the world.” After raising several possibilities as to why Jews have not fully embraced this challenge, he ultimately concluded: “The real problem, though, is that we are still incapable of making the mental and historical transition from a persecuted people to a nation that, for the first time in its history, can act as a confident world power.”
I applaud Pfeffer’s piece for calling attention to an important issue and for identifying the paradigm shift necessary to mobilize the Jewish community to leverage its know-how and resources on behalf of refugees worldwide. I myself have called upon the Jewish community – and Israeli society in particular – to move beyond our “scarcity mindset” in order to galvanize our abundant resources toward the world’s most needy. Yet Pfeffer’s passing and somewhat dismissive reference to existing efforts to mobilize the Jewish community in this regard dulls the teeth of his own argument.
Yes, Jewish tradition urges us to love the stranger. Our past makes it easy for us to identify with their suffering, and our current situation – with the majority of Jews worldwide living in relative comfort and security – enables us to do something about it.
And there are numerous organizations already doing this sacred work, not “under the radar,” as Pfeffer suggests, but as proud Jews and/or Israelis. We should strive, as individuals and as a community, to amplify their existing work by intensifying our acts of volunteerism, philanthropy and advocacy.
One such organization is HIAS. Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, it now works in 11 countries on five continents to protect and advocate for vulnerable non-Jewish refugees. Designated by the U.S. federal government to resettle refugees from worldwide conflicts in the United States, HIAS operates on the principle of: “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we are Jewish.”
Another such organization is the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which is coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and comprises 49 different agencies. Over the last year, the JCDR has raised funds to support Syrian refugees throughout Europe and prompted the founding of the MultiFaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, an interfaith movement dedicated to raising awareness about and advocating for Syrian refugees.
Across the ocean, World Jewish Relief, the British Jewish community’s humanitarian aid organization, provides food, shelter and emergency materials to thousands of refugees in Turkey and Greece. WJR also provides job training for Syrians resettled in the U.K. under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.
In an important display of support, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Ephraim Mirvis led a delegation of rabbis to see WJR’s work in a refugee camp on Greece’s northern border late last year. He emerged with a renewed commitment to global social responsibility, saying: “Every human soul is precious and it is central to our Jewish ethos for us to reach out and assist whomever we can.”
Several Israeli nonprofits have also responded to the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere – this, despite the fact that Israel and Syria have been in a state of war since 1948. Bringing together volunteer teams of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, organizations like Natan have provided much-needed medical and psycho-social support in the refugees’ native Arabic. These organizations are in addition to those fighting the uphill battle in support of African refugees within Israel’s borders.
All the organizations mentioned here are members of OLAM, a shared platform promoting Jewish engagement in global service and international development, and are but a few examples of what the Jewish community is currently doing to respond to the refugee crisis. These efforts are not surreptitious or insignificant. They are bold and they save lives.
Should we, as a community, do more? Without a doubt. Yet, the first step to heeding Pfeffer’s appeal to “take this to a totally different level” is to redouble our support for existing Jewish efforts, by rolling up our sleeves and answering the call for volunteers, donating money and signing petitions to promote policy change.
William Easterly, a professor of economics at NYU, divides humanitarian aid efforts into “planners” versus “searchers.” “Planners” devise overarching strategies; “searchers” work on the ground to develop solutions. A Jewish “plan to help refugees” need not be devised in a vacuum. It should build upon the lived experience and track record of the “searchers” already in our midst, organizations that use our own community’s expertise to improve the lives of others.
This op-ed was originally published on Haaretz.com on Aug 25, 2016. Reposted with permission from the author.