On October 27, 2018, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh became the target of a mass shooter. The killer, motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hatred, was specifically targeting a congregation that he thought to be affiliated with the refugee organization HIAS, which organized a National Refugee Shabbat just a week prior.
IRAP Staff Attorney Julie Kornfeld attended such a Shabbat as a speaker at the Ohev Shalom congregation near Philadelphia. In the spirit of meeting hatred with hope, we are sharing excerpts from her speech.
All views are her own.
Thank you so much for having me. It is an honor to celebrate this special refugee Shabbat with your congregation.
In preparation for this Shabbat, I spoke with IRAP’s Executive Director Becca Heller to ask her for ideas, and in response she sent me an article that gave me the inspiration for my remarks today. It was a New York Times article titled “Infiltration Peril in Refugees Seen”. The lead reads: “Federal officials here and in Washington declared yesterday that all government departments would continue to guard against the admission to this country spurious refugees or refugee groups that might act as a cover for infiltration of enemy agents.” The date of that article? June 3, 1942.
We all know that history repeats itself. Just like in 1942, we are once again witnesses to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Today, over 68 million persons are displaced around the globe. And yet, just like in 1942, as the United States turned its back on Jews fleeing the Holocaust, our country is once again shutting its doors to refugees fleeing persecution and violence. The refugee definition and the responsibility of nations to protect refugees were enshrined in international law at a convention in 1951—right after the Holocaust—to make sure history never repeated itself. The Convention binds the international community to come together and act when other nations fail to protect their people from persecution. However, just like in 1942, this country’s Administration is claiming refugees trying to enter our country have ulterior motives and our country will be safer if we do not let them in. And just like in 1942, they are wrong.
Refugees are fleeing their homeland because they are persecuted by terrorists, militias, or even their own government because of their religion, their political opinion, their race, or their nationality. Nonetheless, our government is once again actively shutting the door on this population. Just last month, President Trump drastically reduced the number of refugees the United States would admit in the upcoming fiscal year. This is the lowest refugee quota the United States has EVER set—30,000, at a time when the need is greater than ever.
It is moments like these in our country’s history that we, as a Jewish people, must give voice to our values and stand up for refugees. Not just because the Torah commands us to “Love Thy Neighbor” but because of our shared history, from the former Soviet Union to the Holocaust to the Torah. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, our story as a Jewish people starts with us leaving our homeland in search of a better home. God commands Abraham to leave his native home and journey to the land of Canaan and God will make him a great nation. Lech Lecha describes the beginning of this experience, of the Jewish people’s wandering in search of that new nation.
Given that this week’s Torah portion starts at the beginning of a long journey, I want to share a little bit about my journey. When I was born, on June 20, World Refugee Day, I became the first granddaughter to Hans Kornfeld, an Austrian Jew who fled Austria right before the Holocaust. My grandfather was able to escape Nazi Austria with the help of HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement agency, that helped him secure legal entry into the United States. It was my family’s history and Jewish values that spurred my interest in learning more about historical and modern day genocides. It was at a rally in Washington, DC to protest the genocide in Darfur that I heard Elie Wiesel speak about the Holocaust and where I first met Rwandan refugees. This experience furthered my interest in people fleeing violence and how to help them. Wanting a specific toolset to assist refugees, I decided to go to law school where I focused on refugee law and became involved with IRAP.
As a refugee lawyer, I get to hear the stories of our clients on a daily basis. What inspires me most about my work is that refugees are survivors. They have been through things we can’t image but they have survived. They have had the courage to escape and now have the strength and the resilience to restart their lives.
It is tragic that refugees have become politicized. Based on his anti-refugee campaign rhetoric, we knew that when President Trump was elected, the very existence of the programs that aid refugees would be threatened. Unfortunately, this became true as soon as President Trump signed the executive order known as the Muslim Ban.
Haider, an Iraqi national and my own client, became one of the first people detained at the airport due to the ban. He had just boarded a flight to be reunited with his wife and son, whom he had been separated from for over three years. Haider was fleeing Iraq because of his family’s work with the U.S. military and the death threats they had received as a result. His brother in law was the tragic victim to a targeted car bomb and lost his life. Yet, despite Haider’s family’s work for the United States and what they had already given up in their efforts to support our country, he was handcuffed and detained upon arrival and threatened with deportation back to Iraq. Thanks to a federal judge, an order was issued that stopped the detentions and deportations, and Haider was released.
When I tell this story on this Shabbat, I can’t help but see the similarities between Haider and Abraham. Both Haider and Abraham left their homeland, which happened to be modern day Iraq, because they felt like they had to. Haider was forced to leave out of fear of death and Abraham was told to leave by God. They both left their homes in search of a safer and better life.
The Jewish people’s story begins by leaving our home. Our people’s history is continually defined by being forced to leave our homes and being allowed to enter new places to start a better life. I think back to 1942 when that New York Times article was published and wonder if my grandfather had not been so lucky to have escaped Austria when he did, maybe my family’s history would have been different. I think back to 1942 and wonder if the United States had not seen refugees as having “spurious motives” and hadn’t turned people away, maybe history would not have repeated itself.
So I urge you to take action on this Refugee Shabbat to stop the U.S. from repeating its mistakes of denying refugees a place of safety. I encourage you to protest, to call your congresspersons, to support organizations like IRAP and HIAS that protect refugees, and most importantly VOTE. Whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor, a store owner, an accountant, a college student—we all have a part to play to ensure that history does not repeat itself and that refugees will be allowed to enter this country. Thank you!