Refugee Crisis ‘Not A Tough Sell’ For Jews


In his native Aleppo, Shadi Martini, a Muslim Arab who worked as general manager of a hospital until the civil war made life too dangerous for him and his family to stay there, grew up hearing “all the bad things” about Jews and Israelis. “For us, Jews were evil.” He learned this in school, in newspapers, in children’s books. “They were something monstrous.”

Martini left his homeland in 2012, settling with his family near Detroit.

He has spent most of the last four years working for the rescue and resettlement of his fellow Syrian refugees.

And the strongest moral and financial supporters of his humanitarian cause, he said, are American Jews.

“I see them willing to help,” said Martini, who serves as a policy adviser to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a New York-based project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that began as a Jewish initiative but quickly took on an ecumenical character. “Because Jewish people have suffered too,” an allusion to the Holocaust, whose history was not taught in the Syrian schools of his youth, “they are very sensitive to the suffering of others,” Martini said in a telephone interview.

Today, he gives frequent consciousness-raising and fundraising speeches to synagogues and other Jewish organizations as a spokesman for the Alliance, which coordinates its efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Given the Jewish history of suffering, the Syrian refugee crisis has become a fundraising priority for some Jewish groups. Getty Images

The Alliance and the JDC are among a growing number of Jewish groups in this country that have worked to support the resettlement of displaced Syrians in this country, and to provide money to groups working with the refugee population in the Middle East and Europe. The ongoing fighting in Syria has reduced cities like Aleppo to rubble, displaced millions of Syrians and created what most experts describe as the largest refugee crisis in the world since World War II.

“It’s not a tough sell” in the Jewish community, said Bill Swersey, who coordinates communications and digital media for HIAS. “Jews want to help.”

While the United States has granted asylum to some 10,000 Syrian refugees (mostly women and children) in the last year the refugee issue played a major part in the just-concluded presidential campaign — President-elect Donald Trump pledged to largely close U.S. borders to such Muslim refugees, while Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton favored a more-liberal admission policy. Meanwhile, the Jewish community has made the refugees a major recipient of its philanthropic dollars, while sometimes reflecting the ambivalence that characterized the national debate.

Most individual Jews and Jewish organizations whose support was sought in the last few years to contribute or help resettle Syrians in their communities have responded generously, often citing the Holocaust and other periods of discrimination, according to representatives of several Jewish humanitarian groups.

“I’ve heard direct analogies to the Holocaust” from potential donors, said Will Recant, the JDC’s assistant executive vice president for government affairs. “I’ve heard that a lot.”

The JDC, the overseas arm of the American Jewish community, has opened fundraising mailboxes for several non-sectarian (i.e., non-Jewish) causes in the last three decades, and has through the Jewish Coalition raised about $2 million for Syrian refugees. The money is sent to overseas organizations that are providing “direct assistance,” Recant said.

“Our job is to help the victims of [disasters and political crises] on a purely humanitarian level,” he said.

Fundraising literature of several Jewish organizations draws a comparison between what happened to the Jews of Nazi Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, and what has taken place in Syria in recent years.

“Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish. Today we help refugees because we are Jewish,” states a HIAS fundraising statement.

As part of the State Department’s refugee resettlement program, HIAS has since last year helped resettle “thousands” of Syrians in this country, said Swersey. He did not specify how much total money the organization has raised for this program, but told The Jewish Week that “in 2015 we raised almost $1 million more than anticipated … this year our fundraising has continued on an upward trajectory.”

A small number of Jews, spokesmen for Jewish organizations said, have been reluctant to participate in a campaign on behalf of Syrians because of the fear that the refugees might be supporters of terrorism, and because of Syria’s history as a political enemy and military opponent of Israel.

Recant said he occasionally hears such comments as “Syrians are enemies of Jews” and “Syrians are enemies of Israel” from people who decline to contribute.

“We have not encountered a lot of resistance,” said Georgette Bennett, president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center, which has coordinated its refugee fundraising work (about $2 million) with the Jewish Funders Network.

Other Jewish organizations working for Syrian refugees include HIAS, which received nearly 50 unsolicited donations, totaling nearly $10,000, immediately after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election last week; and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, convened by the JDC, which consists of more than 20 Jewish groups, on a national level, as well as local synagogues and Jewish Family Services around the country.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) announced last week that it has pledged $200,000 in money and gifts to HIAS to support the organization’s refugee resettlement work in the US.

In England, World Jewish Relief leads a European effort that has provided refugees in Greece and Turkey with winters kits and blankets, food and clothing, medical care and school kits.

“We don’t hide the fact” that HIAS is a Jewish organization, Swersey said — and its Jewishness is a surprise to many of the refugees.

Syrians who have resettled in the U.S. tell the Jews they meet that the assistance offered by the American Jewish community has “completely changed the way we look at Jews,” Swersey said. The participating Jewish groups get “tremendous gratitude,” he said.

That’s what happened to Martini.

He said he has “found a lot of support” — and an outpouring of contributions — when he speaks to Jewish audiences. “The human contact changes many people. I see the transformation on both [Jewish and Arab] sides.”

Martini said he plans to keep taking his message to synagogues and other Jewish organizations. “Why would I stop?”