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America at its best

Hours before Robert Bowers gunned down 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, he wrote, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier, he had reposted this message: “Open you (sic) Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”

It’s unfair to blame President Trump directly for Bowers’ murderous rampage. But it’s no surprise that in the Age of Trump, a shooter would focus on HIAS, originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has been protecting and resettling refugees around the world since 1881.

The organization stands for everything the president is trying to demonize. Trump says to fear the “others,” and HIAS says embrace them. Trump says that foreigners degrade our culture, and HIAS says that they enrich us. Trump wants to slam the door on the world’s most vulnerable castaways, while HIAS is trying desperately to keep the door open.

This week, the president dispatched an additional 5,200 troops to seal the Southern border and threatens to ignore international law and bar asylum-seekers from even applying for sanctuary here. This comes after Trump slashed the number of refugees admitted during the last fiscal year to about 22,000, compared to President Obama’s annual target of 110,000.

This is a profoundly immoral policy that directly contradicts the real refugee story. As the society’s website puts it: “As the oldest resettlement organization in the world, HIAS has seen time and again that when refugees are provided with a welcoming environment and adequate support, they are tremendous assets to their neighborhoods and societies, boosting local economies and excelling at entrepreneurship.”

Steve’s Jewish grandparents fled religious and political persecution in Eastern Europe more than a century ago, exactly the sort of refugees HIAS was founded to help. But as an interfaith family — Cokie is Catholic — our two traditions lead to the same conclusion: HIAS is right, and Trump is wrong.

A search for Bible verses about “welcoming strangers” quickly yields countless examples from both the Old and the New Testament, and here are just two of them.

— Leviticus 19:33-34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

— Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

HIAS originally focused on helping Jewish immigrants, including many thousands from the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As its website notes, “Our work is guided by Jewish values and the Jewish community’s shared historical experience of forced migration.”

Today it operates worldwide and helps refugees of all origins. As Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, told The New York Times: “We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

Lev Golinkin was 9 years old when HIAS helped his family move to New Jersey, and he wrote in the Times: “What does HIAS mean today? To refugees around the world, it’s become an international word for hope, in dozens of tongues and for numerous faiths. To me it symbolizes America — and Judaism — at its best. And it’s easy to see how HIAS stands for everything white supremacists hate: tolerance, understanding and empathy.”

The president insists he bears “no blame” or responsibility for the fevered political climate that helped breed Bowers or Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who mailed pipe bombs to more than a dozen prominent Democrats. But many Jewish leaders know better. Their shared experience and shared values tells them the president is far from innocent.

A group of progressive Jews in Pittsburgh organized a letter to President Trump saying he was not welcome in their city until he denounces white nationalism and stops “targeting” minorities to stir up his political base.

“For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement,” they wrote. “You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.”

They are right. The current climate of violent hostility is clearly related to Trump’s incessant and incendiary verbal warfare. But institutions like HIAS represent “America at its best.” For 137 years, it’s stood for the values Trump is trying to trash. And neither a gunman — nor a president — will stop it now.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at

Cokie & Steve Roberts

Cokie & Steve Roberts

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