Toward the end of the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump paused his speech for the chamber to sing happy birthday to Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor Trump had invited as an honored guest. The bespectacled old man smiled and waved at the audience: At 81 years old, Samet had survived not only a Nazi concentration camp, but also an anti-Semitic massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October. (Samet had arrived at the Tree of Life synagogue just before a mass shooter, shouting anti-Jewish slurs, killed 11 people.)
At home with her family, Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, watched Trump's address with consternation. For the last two years, her organization, a global Jewish non-profit that seeks to aid and resettle refugees, has objected to the Trump administration's decision to cut the number of refugees the United States accepts to historic lows. Now, as she watched the president honor a Jewish immigrant in his speech, Nezer felt that he was sending a mixed message—"and mixed message is maybe the nicest way to put it," she says.
"It's important for the president, particularly this president, to honor Holocaust survivors," Nezer says. "But at the same time, a Holocaust survivor is a symbol of what it means to welcome refugees to the country, and the consequences of what happens when we don't."
HIAS has been around since 1881, when it formed to help Jewish refugees flee pogroms in Russia and across Europe. After World War II, HIAS evolved to aid refugees and immigrants of all faiths. With the organization's mission rooted in both the heritage of Jewish people and global refugees, Nezer said it was impossible for her and her colleagues to ignore the history of anti-immigrant sentiments fueling public policy in the U.S. "During the Holocaust, the U.S. closed the door to Jewish refugees," Nezer says. "Today's 'Muslim ban' and the cap on refugee resettlement are very similar. It's an echo of that time."
Today, anti-immigrant sentiment still mixes with anti-Semitism in the U.S. Just hours before he attacked the Tree of Life synagogue, the shooter posted a rant against HIAS on social media: "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered," he wrote.
Pacific Standard talked to Nezer about Trump's speech and the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments.
How did it feel, on a personal level, to watch a president honor a Jewish immigrant and Holocaust survivor after you have consistently opposed his policy on refugees for over two years?
To honor somebody who survived and who came here as an immigrant, while at the same time advocating policies that would completely shut our doors to refugees and asylum-seekers—it sent a very mixed message. It showed a disregard for our history, and for who Americans are. We are immigrants and refugees, with the exception of [Native Americans].
Why is it a mixed message for the president to honor a Holocaust survivor while also trying to limit the number of refugees who come to this country?
It's a mixed message to honor someone who survived the Holocaust and who was ultimately welcomed to the U.S., when so many weren't. For much of the Holocaust, the U.S.'s doors were closed to Jews and other refugees. When you see one Holocaust survivor, there are millions who didn't survive, who didn't have a way out. People who were trapped. Learning the lessons from that history would indicate that we would be more welcoming to today's refugees and asylum-seekers, but those aren't the policies that this administration is pursuing.
Besides Trump's moment of honoring Judah Samet, what else in the State of the Union address stood out to you?
For me, it was the repeated demonization of immigrants. The picture that he painted for the bulk of his speech invoked fear and scapegoated people. This is a tool that leaders have used throughout history. That's what I found the most upsetting and disturbing in his speech, this painting of an entire group of people as "the other" and as a threat. To try to create that divide between us and them is unconscionable. And creating that "us versus them" mentality can lead to a lot of negative things, including violence.
Before his attack, the Tree of Life shooter posted a rant against HIAS, claiming that your organization was bringing in "invaders." During World War II, there was a connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism in the United States. Does that connection still exist today?
I think, unfortunately, we saw that there is still a connection, with the murder of 11 innocent people in Pittsburgh. Hatred against Muslims, immigrants, refugees—anyone perceived as "the other"—reinforces all of the hate. It's a toxic brew, and unfortunately anti-Semitism is always part of that mix, throughout history. And it's not just anti-immigrant sentiment [that HIAS deals with], there's also a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment that's tied up with all of that, because HIAS is an agency that assists refugees and resettles refugees of all faiths.
How did HIAS evolve to help refugees of all faiths?
It's been an evolution over time. The simplest way to put it is, after World War II, the world had fewer Jewish refugees. And that was partly because of the creation of the state of Israel, and also the acceptance of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union and other places into the U.S. So, the world actually became, for a time—and we never take this for granted—a safer place for Jews.
At that point, there were a lot of conversations about what the next steps would be for HIAS. What we like to say is that the decision was made not to help refugees because they're Jewish, but because we're Jewish, and it's our values, and our history, and our experience that makes us the right organization to continue helping refugees regardless of where they're from.
What about HIAS's Jewish heritage makes it unique in its historical perspective, and in its ongoing mission to help refugees?
We have a unique history, and we have a deep connection to immigrant and refugee history, both ancient history and modern history. We "welcome the stranger." It's in the Torah, 36 times. It's as important as anything else in the Torah. So for faith reasons, and historical reasons, and because of our values, this is something that is personal to us. So hearing anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment, it may be done in the name of politics, but it has a particular resonance for the Jewish community, and it's hard for us to ignore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.