‘Hateful Speech Almost Always Leads to Hateful Action’
The head of the refugee resettlement group that transfixed the Pittsburgh shooter says xenophobia is rising globally.
Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on Saturday that killed 11 people, posted a flurry of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rants on the social media site Gab in the weeks leading up to the attack. But he seemed particularly obsessed with the Jewish humanitarian group HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which helps resettle refugees across the United States. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers wrote hours before the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. To understand more about the group, Foreign Policy spoke to its CEO, Mark Hetfield.
Foreign Policy: Can you tell me how you first heard about the Pittsburgh shooting?
Mark Hetfield: I was actually at a synagogue myself in Washington, D.C., at a bar mitzvah. My phone kept buzzing, and I was ignoring it because it was Shabbat. But finally it was getting so ridiculous that I decided to step out after half an hour, and I saw what’s going on and how we were a part of it.
FP: Your organization isn’t exactly a household name. Why do you think this suspect became so obsessed with your organization?
MH: Well, we are a household name for many in the Jewish community. We’ve been working very hard with Jewish congregations across the country in welcoming refugees to the United States, and we’ve been around for a long time—for over a century. We’re the oldest refugee organization in the world. So I guess we have a strong enough social media presence, and we also resettle refugees in Pittsburgh in partnership with Jewish Family and Community Services. So there’s a number of ways that we may have caught attention. We just completed last weekend a refugee celebration that we led with nearly 300 congregations around the country, in 32 states and the District of Columbia joining us. We are pretty well connected with the Jewish community in welcoming refugees. And this person should have realized that.
FP: Can you describe what your organization does?
MH: We work both in the United States and overseas. In the United States, we welcome refugees in partnership with the U.S. government. We’re one of nine refugee resettlement agencies that resettle refugees in communities throughout the United States, and we also assist asylum-seekers who are seeking asylum here. And on the international scale, we protect refugees in countries of first asylum in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Europe.
FP: Before this, have you ever been targeted elsewhere for your work?
MH: We have been, yes, but not like this. More like on social media, we’ve been attacked for our work with refugees. But obviously nothing on the scale.
FP: How has your work been affected by the Trump administration’s policies on refugees?
MH: It’s been impacted. It’s kind of been devastated, frankly, in the United States. Just to give you an example: In 2016, we resettled 4,633 refugees in this country. Last year, we resettled 1,245. So this is the impact. And the JFCS [Jewish Family and Children’s Services] in Pittsburgh, which works with us, they resettled 233 of those in 2016 but only 42 last year. And that’s reflective of the entire country.
FP: I want to ask you about the pipe bombs sent to some of the president’s political opponents and people in the media. Do you draw a connection between those attacks and violence? Or do you not draw connection?
MH: Well, clearly there is a lot of room right now for hate speech in this country, and it’s all connected to that. One thing leads to another. And the environment we’re in right now is a permissible environment for using hateful language. And hateful language devolves into hateful acts. So, yeah, there is a connection.
FP: Now other prominent rights groups and activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have seen an outpouring of public support since Trump’s election. What has been your experience?
MH: We’ve also enjoyed an outpouring of support. We really feel like we have the whole community behind us. We have over 400 congregations that have joined our welcome campaign for refugees. We’ve seen significant increase in donations and volunteer interest. The frustrating thing is that we have so many people who want to volunteer their time and donations but refugees aren’t being allowed to arrive.
FP: You work in other places around the world where there’s been a backlash against refugees. How have you addressed this outside of the United States?
MH: Through campaigns. We’ve done anti-xenophobia work in a number of the countries that we work in. We also just try to make sure we familiarize host communities with the refugees we’re helping. It’s the fear of the unknown, so we try to make it known that refugees are people who are fleeing terror. They’re not here to do harm—they’re here to flee harm and to start new lives for their families in safety and freedom, and that’s true around the world. The United States hosts a relatively small number of refugees compared with other countries across the globe, especially now, during this global refugee crisis that we’re facing.
FP: Do you think the xenophobia and backlash against refugees abroad is more or less worrying than what we see in the United States today?
MH: This is a global trend. It’s an international problem that we have of countries that are becoming overwhelmed by nationalism and fear of the other. So this is not a uniquely American problem. It’s a problem almost everywhere.
FP: What would you like the key message or takeaway for U.S. citizens to be in the wake of this tragedy?
MH: That fighting hate is everyone’s job. That too often nice people don’t speak up when they hear hateful speech. They just decide to ignore it or write it off as it being one crazy person’s opinion. But we can’t do that anymore. Every time we hear it, we have to speak out. We have to take action against it because, as I said, hateful speech almost always leads to hateful action. And that’s what we’ve just seen a few times this week already.
FP: Is there anything else you want to add?
MH: Just that leadership matters and words matter. We’re really facing a problem right now because the United States is not showing leadership in words or action when it comes to refugee protection anymore. And there are repercussions to that around the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.