Syria Refugee Crisis Demands Action From Jewish World

On Refugee Day, Put Problems of U.S. and Israel in Perspective

Asylum Nations: The U.S. and Israel were built by refugees. While protecting the rights of present and future refugees, Jews should not ignore the plight of the victims of Syria’s civil war.
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Asylum Nations: The U.S. and Israel were built by refugees. While protecting the rights of present and future refugees, Jews should not ignore the plight of the victims of Syria’s civil war.

By Mark Hetfield

Published June 17, 2013.
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To put this massive humanitarian crisis in further perspective, after the State of Israel was established, there were 726,000 Arab refugees, and 856,000 Jews who were forcibly displaced from Arab lands. Combined, the number of Arabs and Jews displaced during the War of Independence and its aftermath was 1,582,000, a number we in the Jewish community have always found troubling. The number of Syrian refugees is already nearly 100,000 higher than that.

Today in Israel, one out of every 140 people is an African asylum seeker, though this number is no longer growing due to the fence built along the Sinai. And, in the United States, for every 3,000 Americans, just one refugee and asylum seeker came here in the past year.

As overwhelming as the Syrian crisis seems, there is much we, as individuals, can do.

First of all, starting on Word Refugee Day, let’s not tolerate intolerance toward refugees and the refugee “burden” being placed on the United States and Israel. We should welcome the refugees among us, not complain about them. Let’s remember that the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community came here, or are descended from people who came here, as refugees.

HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, is launching a twelve-month campaign starting on World Refugee Day 2013. The campaign urges Jews to show their support for refugees by pledging to implement the principles in the recently developed international inter-faith “Affirmation of Welcome,” a concept that was originally proposed by Rabbi Nava Hefetz of Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and was embraced by the UNHCR and a multitude of faith groups. Sign onto the affirmation at

Second, notwithstanding political differences with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the American Jewish community should observe World Refugee Day by recognizing every day that the Syrian refugee crisis is one that these countries did not create, and that they cannot address alone. Massive humanitarian assistance is needed from the United States and the international community. For 2013, the UNHCR has appealed for $2.9 billion for assistance to refugees, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has appealed for $1.4 billion for assistance within Syria, $449 million for the government of Lebanon and $380 million for the government of Jordan. So far, Turkey has not asked for aid, though that may soon change with thousands more Syrian refugees arriving each day. Please urge your lawmaker, the President, and Secretary of State to ensure that the United States shows leadership in providing humanitarian assistance to address the crisis.

This $5 billion appeal for aid, of course, treats only the symptom and not the cause – to ensure the survival of Syrians displaced by the conflict. A diplomatic solution is immediately needed to stop the slaughter. The political posturing between Russia, Iran, the United States, needs to be replaced by a genuine effort to create peace. American Jews and the American Jewish community should show our government that we care deeply about solving what the UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres has called “the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War.” Urge Congress, the President and the Secretary of State to make an end to the bloodshed in Syria a top diplomatic priority.

Hopefully, one day World Refugee Day will be about the past. Sadly, however, in 2013 World Refugee Day is more relevant than ever. Sign onto, and help implement, the Affirmation of Welcome. And until there are no more refugees, make every day World Refugee Day.

Mark Hetfield is President & CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

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