Any successful refugee journey requires a number of miracles. One significant miracle for tens of thousands of Soviet Jews was the fact that disparate, raucous, often-clashing factions of American Jewry managed to set aside animosity and unite around our freedom. When I was 10 years old, my family was among those tens of thousands welcomed to America, a long process made possible by the coordinated efforts of the Indiana community that adopted us, the groups that lobbied Congress to raise immigration quotas, the quarter million who marched on Washington to demand our liberation, and HIAS, the Jewish refugee organization which was instrumental to our resettlement.
That’s why I was deeply disheartened to see the Zionist Organization of America roll out a campaign against the nomination of former HIAS chair Dianne Lob, who was tapped to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of U.S. Jewish entities.
But my disgust wasn’t only personal. In fact, the ZOA resorted to inexcusable and reckless rhetoric when presented with Lob’s potential leadership. The ZOA’s seven-page letter protesting Lob’s candidacy centers on Lob’s leadership of HIAS, which, per the ZOA, makes her unfit to lead the Conference. “HIAS relies on for its refugee streams and closely collaborates with anti-Semitic, anti-Israel U.N. agencies,” the letter claimed. “HIAS’s litigation positions are detrimental to the safety of the American (and especially, American Jewish) public.”
This isn’t the first time the ZOA has gone after HIAS. In fact, last year, the acrimony reached the point at which the Conference of Presidents privately rebuked the ZOA’s “insults, ad hominem attacks and name-calling,” which targeted several groups including HIAS and the Anti-Defamation League.
But name-calling isn’t the only issue here. Jews like to debate, associations always have internal drama and personal vendettas, and one would expect a Jewish association to have plenty of both. It’s the clearly xenophobic language that ZOA’s president Mort Klein deployed against HIAS that makes this a true shonda. “The overwhelming majority of refugees HIAS brings to America are non Jews and mostly Muslims,” Klein tweeted. “The unvetted Syrian Muslims they bring here have gone to schools teaching hatred of Jews and Israel.”
No. The overwhelming majority of refugees HIAS brings to America are non Jews and mostly Muslims. That’s why they changed their name from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to HIAS. The unvetted Syrian Muslims they bring here have gone to schools teaching hatred of Jews and Israel. https://t.co/aa2LpzFutZ— Morton Klein (@MortonAKlein7) April 23, 2020
Even worse, the vision presented by the ZOA’s screed against Lob portrays HIAS as a sinister America-hating group scheming to bring over America-hating Muslims to the detriment of the U.S. That’s also the central claim of white genocide theory, which was the driving motive for white terrorist massacres in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Christchurch, as well as the bloody Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
This isn’t just offensive; it’s dangerous. Because xenophobes capitalize on it.
The ZOA’s latest attack on HIAS is already being amplified by anti-immigration conservatives. “Under Ms. Lob’s leadership… HIAS became preoccupied with making money on government contracts by resettling mostly unassimilable Muslims here,” anti-Muslim Republican operative Frank Gaffney wrote last week in a piece titled “ZOA is right, Lob is wrong for the Conference of Presidents.” Klein’s letter was also cited by former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, himself no stranger to anti-immigrant controversy. In his tweet, Huckabee — who, like Gaffney, isn’t Jewish — took it upon himself to goysplain to the Conference that Lob’s choice goes against Jewish interests, while calling HIAS “radical.”
W/O dispute @realDonaldTrump is best US President ever as ally to @IsraeliPM so why would Conf of Presidents of Jewish Groups nominate anti-Trump Dianne Lob fmrly of HIAS (ties to radical groups) to lead them? Makes NO sense! Hope they reconsider-for their own sake!— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) April 21, 2020
On Sunday night, the Conference of Presidents attempted to mitigate the ZOA’s concerns by proposing a one-year transition period in the leadership. Under this framework, Arthur Stark, the current head, will retain his seat while Lob functions as a “chair-elect” until next April. The Conference is scheduled to vote on Lob’s confirmation under this new arrangement on Tuesday.
As a proud ex-refugee who’s been resettled by HIAS, I support the group’s mission to aid all refugees, not just Jewish ones. That said, I do not know Lob, I don’t know the Conference leadership, and frankly I don’t care who they pick to run the group. But as someone who’s spent years reporting on white supremacy, I believe the Conference should publicly denounce the ZOA’s language, which feeds into xenophobic theories.
White supremacy is already surging across the globe. The last thing we need is a Jewish dispute giving it aid. Surely, that’s something all Jewish organizations can agree on.
Lev Golinkin is the author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Amazon’s Debut of the Month, a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program selection, and winner of the Premio Salerno Libro d’Europa. Mr. Golinkin, a graduate of Boston College, came to the US as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in 1990. His writing on the Ukraine crisis, Russia, the far right, and immigrant and refugee identity has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN, NBC, The Boston Globe, Politico Europe, and Time.com, among others; he has been interviewed by MSNBC, NPR, ABC Radio, WSJ Live and HuffPost Live.