For some reason, the Washington Jewish Week–the local Jewish newspaper where I live–found me, and decided I needed a subscription. So for the last few months, I’ve been receiving the paper free of charge (yeh, yeh – insert Jewish joke here).
At first, I was pleased, as I thought it would be good to learn more local Jewish news. But as I read more, I became less thrilled. If the WJW’s goal is to make Jews like me feel part of a larger community, it has failed. The paper might be fine for those Jews (a minority in DC) who oppose President Obama at all costs, support Israeli occupation of the West Bank for all eternity, and who generally don’t like Muslims. But for the majority of us, the–dare I say it–liberal Jews, the paper only helps alienate us from the broader community.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading points of view that differ from my own–when they are well-reasoned and based on facts. But that’s not the WJW.
The editorial that has most recently raised my hackles is basically a hit piece against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
As you may know, HIAS was founded in the late 19th century to help Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Over the years, the organization has changed to reflect changing needs. It helped Jewish refugees during and after the two World Wars. Later, it helped thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Soviet Block, Ethiopia, Iran, and other countries. HIAS also helped eliminate the discriminatory immigration quota system in the U.S. that–among other things–blocked many Jews from escaping the Holocaust. HIAS also assisted Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. As the number of Jewish refugees has (thankfully) fallen, HIAS’s mission has evolved. These days, most of its work has little to do with helping Jewish refugees. And that’s where the WJW editorial comes in.
In the editorial, called HIAS in search of a mission, the WJW argues that HIAS has outlived its usefulness. Given that there are “virtually no more Jewish refugees,” the paper asks, “Is there still a need for HIAS?” You can guess the paper’s answer:
[It] takes a certain maturity, and healthy doses of self-confidence and self-awareness for an organization to declare success and move on. Very few organizations are able to do that. Instead, they get caught up in their own stories and start believing their own PR, and view themselves as indispensable societal contributors.
HIAS has had its successes. It served well for close to a century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now its leadership acknowledges that the organization’s original mission is no longer necessary. Rather than search for a new mission in order to justify its continued existence, perhaps it would be better for HIAS to consider an orderly sunset.
So HIAS’s leaders are not mature or self aware? They are caught up in their own PR? How insulting. Oh, and here’s a good one: “HIAS has had its successes.” Talk about minimizing the organization’s accomplishments. Since its inception, HIAS has helped approximately 4.5 million people, in big ways and small. It has saved countless lives.
But I suppose it’s a fair question: Is HIAS still relevant? Here are some facts that were conveniently left out of the WJW editorial: (1) In partnership with Israeli NGOs, HIAS provides trauma counseling and social services to thousands of refugees from Darfur, including many children; (2) From a base in Kenya, HIAS provides resettlement services and social services to hundreds of refugees from East Africa–aside from the UN, HIAS is the only NGO providing these services in the region; (3) It is one of only a few NGOs in Jordan providing assistance to refugees from the Syrian civil war; (4) In the U.S., HIAS provides legal assistance to victims of torture, including those who are detained; (5) It provides resettlement assistance to refugees all across the United States; (6) HIAS works to help pass meaningful immigration reform; (7) HIAS provides an outlet for hundred of young Jews to engage in public service and, in the process, brings them closer to their own Jewish community. And there is much more, as anyone who cares to review HIAS’s programs can easily see. So does WJW think these services are no longer needed, or that HIAS is not the right organization to provide them? Or–as I suspect–did the editors at WJW not know that HIAS provides these services because they didn’t bother to learn what the organization does before they decided to trash it?
Finally, since HIAS’s mission was originally to help Jews, and since Jews are generally not in need of this type of assistance, shouldn’t HIAS just close down? Well, should Catholic Charities only help Catholics? Should Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services only help Lutherans? Should the Tahirih Justice Center only help Baha’is? You get the point. The religious-based NGOs are an expression of their members’ religious convictions. Just as these groups help refugees (and many others) as an an expression of their faith, so too, HIAS helps refugees–all refugees–as an expression of our Jewish faith. In Judaism, it’s called Tikkun HaOlam–repair of the world–and to limit Tikkun to assisting only Jews is mean spirited, short-sighted, and anti-Jewish.
So here’s a message for the good folks at WJW: Maybe its time to exercise some self awareness of your own, and recognize that your paper suffers from a lack of intellectual honesty. It takes maturity and self confidence to look at the world as it is, and to consider points of view other than your own. And if you can’t adapt to the needs of the Jewish community, maybe its time for an orderly sunset. Or–at the very least–please cancel my subscription because I am no longer interested in what you have to say.