Jews Applauded for Speaking out on Safe Haven for Haitian Refugees

Leaders of the Haitian community in the United States are applauding Jewish groups that have called on President Bush to permit Haitian refugees fleeing military dictatorship to reside freely, at least temporarily, in the United States.

In the more than 10 weeks since a military coup deposed democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept.30, nearly 7,000 Haitians have fled their native Caribbean island.

Traveling in small boats and carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs, most have been plucked out of the water by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are being detained in military camps.

Hundreds of refugees have drowned attempting to escape from Haiti, according to Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

The Bush administration would like to return the refugees to Haiti, but on Dec. 3 was temporarily restrained from doing so by U.S. District Judge Clyde Atkins of the Southern District of Florida.

That ruling was overturned Tuesday by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. But the case is now expected to go to the Supreme Court.

A statement of support for the plight of the refugees came first from a coalition of Hasidic groups in the Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Boro Park sections of Brooklyn.

It was soon followed by statements from organizations including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Jewish Labor Committee, New York Jewish Community Relations Council and the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

And two Jews spoke to a crowd of 3,000 Haitians at a rally in Washington on Dec. 13: Gary Rubin, director of national affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

HAITIANS PLEASED BY SUPPORT

In statements and speeches, all of the Jewish groups have called upon President Bush to provide the refugees safe haven in the United States by granting them temporary protected status, allowing them to live and work in this country legally until the political crisis in Haiti is resolved.

The Jewish organizations’ statements of concern for the refugees were welcomed by Haitian leaders here.

“We are happy to see that the Jewish community recognizes that we Haitian people, even though we are black and poor, we are people too. There is no double standard,” said Philippe Wilson Desir, Haiti’s consul general in New York.

“I’m very pleased by the kind of support that the Haitians have gotten from Jewish groups all over the spectrum,” said McCalla. “It’s essential that the Jewish community demonstrate this support.”

“Haitians feel like the Jewish community is the one that can relate to it and is responding,” said Rubin.

But while Jewish statements of support are important as humanitarian gestures, he said, they are not going to do much to heal rifts in the black-Jewish relationship.

“We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking this is the front-burner issue in black-Jewish relations,” Rubin said.

That relationship “will be made more on domestic social issues,” he said. “As a coalition issue, this is more of a high priority for some of the church groups. It’s not in the top tier of issues for blacks.”

HASIDIC STAND MADE AN IMPRESSION

But the statement made by the historically insular Hasidic communities, especially by the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, made an important impression, said the Haitian leaders.

For it was in Crown Heights that anger, violence and death ripped through the Lubavitcher and the black, largely Caribbean-American, communities in August.

Some in the black community attempted to legitimize the violence against the Jews at the time by saying it was borne out of frustration at being treated with a double standard by police, city officials and the Lubavitchers themselves.

The joint statement signed by the Lubavitchers, while not enough to heal the rift, is “a move in the right direction,” said McCalla.

According to Desir, “the position of those (Jewish) organizations and the members of the Jewish community in this matter will never be forgotten” by Haitians.

“Now we know that the Jewish people and the Haitian people can work together, and we hope that in the future we will work together for unification and better understanding between us,” Desir said.

Haitians beyond the level of organizational leadership have been made aware, through local newspaper articles, of the Jewish statements of support.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said about a dozen Haitians had tracked down the JCRC and called him to thank the Jewish community for all that it has done.

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