The 2017 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented to HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Sunday, May 7, 2017 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue at 65th Street, New York City. The Joseph Prize was accepted by Mark Hetfield, President and CEO, HIAS. Read his remarks.
The Joseph Prize was established 38 years ago by Burton Joseph and Betty Greenberg, of blessed memory. They created this Prize to honor the memory of their brother, Roger, a man of exceptional personal courage and passionate devotion to principle and justice.
Founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS has touched the life of nearly every Jewish family in America and now welcomes all who have fled persecution.
Beginning with a storefront on the Lower East Side in New York City, HIAS provided meals, transportation, jobs, housing, comfort and aid to thousands of Jews fleeing waves of anti-Semitic riots. While those who arrived were refugees from homelands where their people were being killed, the world at that time did not yet have a legal concept for people who needed safe refuge outside their countries of origin.
HIAS established a bureau on Ellis Island in 1904 providing translation services, guiding immigrants through medical screenings, located relatives and of detained immigrants and arguing before the Boards of Special Enquiry to prevent deportations, and obtaining bonds to guarantee employable status. It loaned the $25 landing fee and sold railroad tickets at reduced rates to those headed for other cities, while its kosher kitchen provided more than half a million meals to new arrivals.
The outbreak of World War I brought the largest influx of Jews from Eastern Europe yet – more than 138,000 in that year alone. But soon after, restrictions limited the number of immigrants allowed into America to no more than 2 percent of the total of each nationality residing in the U.S. in 1890, severely restricting the entry of Jews from Eastern Europe. The restrictive National Origins Quota of 1924 prevented most Jews seeking to escape from Nazi persecution to immigrate to the U.S., but HIAS provided immigration and refugee services to those few who were allowed to enter this country. It was not until 1965, through the aggressive work of HIAS, that the National Origins Quota was replaced with a new law, liberalizing decades of restrictive admissions policies. After the war, HIAS was instrumental in evacuating the displaced persons camps in Europe and aiding in the resettlement of over 150,000 survivors of the Holocaust to 330 communities in the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia, and South America.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention, became the basis for U.S. asylum law, giving HIAS the basis for all future work to assist refugees no matter where they were. In 1956 HIAS assisted Jews fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and evacuated the Jewish community of Egypt after their expulsion during the Sinai Campaign. In 1959 HIAS set up operations in Miami to rescue the Jews fleeing Cuba’s revolution. During the 1960s, HIAS rescued Jews from Algeria and Libya and arranged with Morocco's King Hassan for the evacuation of his country's huge Jewish community. In1968 HIAS came to the aid of Czechoslovakia's Jews after the suppression of "Prague Spring" and to Poland's Jews after pogroms racked that country. In 1977 HIAS helped evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several dramatic airlifts to Israel. In 1979, when the overthrow of the Shah precipitated a slow but steady trickle of Jews escaping the oppressive theocracy of Iran, HIAS helped hundreds of Iranian Jews with close family living in the U.S. resettle here. The Jews of the Former Soviet Union found their way to freedom with the help of HIAS. The first wave of immigration peaked in 1979. The second wave, which began in the late '80s, has so far brought more than 140,000 Jews to these shores for reunification with their relatives. The U.S. Congress created a special refugee status for religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union, which now allows for resettlement of Jews, Christians, and Baha’is from Iran.
HIAS’ reach has had an impact beyond world Jewry. In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, when the State Department requested HIAS’ assistance with the resettlement of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, HIAS found new homes for 3,600 in 150 communities in 38 states and continued to assist refugees from Southeast Asia through 1979. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 threw the entire U.S. immigration system into turmoil, HIAS mobilized its network to continue serving refugees, despite extreme delays in the arrival process brought on by increased security measures and the reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the Department of Homeland Security.
Starting in the 2000s, HIAS expanded its resettlement work in the aftermath of conflicts to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union. In 2002 HIAS established operations in Kenya to provide protection to refugees from several African countries plagued by conflict, to advocate on their behalf, and to resettle the most vulnerable. This was the beginning of HIAS’ work to build safe communities for refugees in the countries of first refuge where the majority now remain indefinitely. HIAS continues to be on the front lines, working with refugees in camps and cities from Kenya to Ecuador. HIAS facilitates the application process for the most vulnerable refugees who can be resettled in countries around the world, and it works with local social service organizations throughout the U.S. to welcome refugees and help them integrate into their communities and build new lives.
Now in its 136th year, HIAS is the only Jewish organization whose mission is to assist refugees wherever they are. It has helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution, reunite families, and build new lives in freedom. It is uniquely qualified to address the contemporary refugee situation, which has mushroomed into a global humanitarian crisis. The right to refuge is a universal human right and HIAS is dedicated to providing welcome, safety, and freedom to refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from all over the world.