ADL, Hebrew Union College Honor HIAS’ Work On Behalf of Refugees

By Gabe Cahn,

“If America is a nation of immigrants, Jews are a nation of refugees,” said HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield.

Hetfield was accepting the inaugural ADL Blum-Kovler Nation of Immigrants Award during the ADL’s National Leadership Summit Gala Dinner on Monday, May 8.

In 1958, the ADL reached out to then-Senator John F. Kennedy to engage him in the effort to push back against the rising trends of nativism and bigotry, and to instead highlight the many contributions of immigrants. What followed was an essay that later became the book published by the ADL which coined the famous phrase we still use today.

The Nation of Immigrants Award, established this year by the Blum-Kovler Foundation and the ADL, celebrates the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth as well as his famous book, “A Nation of Immigrants.”

During his speech at the gala dinner in Washington, D.C., Hetfield showed an enlarged photo of then-Congressman Kennedy speaking at a HIAS meeting, and quoted directly from Kennedy’s words in “Nation of Immigrants.”  

“The famous words of Emma Lazarus on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty read: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free. Until 1921, this was an accurate picture of our society. Under present law it would be appropriate to add: ‘as long as they come from Northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill, never stole a loaf of bread, never joined any questionable organizations, and can document their activities for the past two years’.”

Hetfield noted that the U.S. is once again in danger of treating people differently, “based solely on where they happened to be born, and what their faith happens to be.”

This wasn’t the only honor Hetfield has accepted recently. On back to back days this week, HIAS was recognized by the American Jewish community for its 136-year history protecting refugees.

In New York City on Sunday, May 7, the HIAS CEO accepted the Roger E. Joseph Prize as part of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s ordination ceremonies.

While accepting the award, Hetfield asked the rabbis and cantors being ordained that day to do their part in standing up for and welcoming refugees.

“The Roger E. Joseph Prize has been awarded to honor those who have fought for the causes of human rights and Jewish survival,” he told the audience at Congregation Emanu-El.

“Welcoming refugees is about both human rights and Jewish survival – the history of the Jewish people is the history of a refugee people – a people who would no longer exist had their ancestors not found refuge.”

The first recipient of The Joseph Prize in 1978 was Victor Kugler, who gave refuge to Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam when they could find asylum no place else. Additional notable recipients include Helen Suzman, a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Rosa Parks, pioneer of the American civil rights movement.  

In his remarks after receiving the awards in both New York and Washington, Hetfield offered a brief history of the periods when this country has shown a commitment to protecting the vulnerable, as well as the times when the United States has enacted policies to restrict who can find safe haven on our shores.

He noted that today, just like the years of limited immigration for Jews and Catholics between 1921 and 1965, “many Americans are afraid that refugees will bring the problems of their own regions to the United States.”  

Describing the significance of receiving the two awards, Hetfield said, “our advocacy for refugees is only as strong as the community that stands behind us. We are so thankful for both the ADL and HUC-JIR’s partnership, which is needed more than ever in this fight for American and Jewish values.”

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