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Synagogue Shooting Suspect Had Social Media History


The man who opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue had a social media history. Posts reportedly associated with him attacked Jews and attacked refugees and linked refugees to Jews. After the shooting, the journalist Bari Weiss, who grew up in the neighborhood of the shooting, told us that she actually embraces that connection.

BARI WEISS: The Jewish connection to the refugee is not a conspiracy. That's something that we're very, very proud of. The organization that Robert Bowers was constantly calling out is an organization called HIAS, which brought people into this country.

INSKEEP: HIAS once stood for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. So what is their real story? Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer is education director for the group, and she joins us from New York.

Good morning.


INSKEEP: What does your group do?

MEYER: So as Bari said, HIAS was founded in 1881 to bring Jewish refugees to this country, which we did for about 120 years. And today we are one of nine partner agencies partnering with the U.S. government to bring refugees of all faiths and all ethnicities to this country. And we also work abroad, helping refugees to rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity.

INSKEEP: I want to state something really obvious for those who maybe aren't thinking about it. Why would Jews have been refugees in the 1880s?

MEYER: So for about as long as the Jewish people have been around, we have been forced out of our homelands for being who we are. In the 1880s, it was pogroms, anti-Jewish violence in Russia. But there have been so many displacements of the Jewish people throughout history.

INSKEEP: Do you have a - does your family have a personal connection to that story?

MEYER: We do. I am named for my great-grandmother Rebecca Barsky (ph) who came to this country fleeing the very violence that HIAS was founded to counter.

INSKEEP: Oh. And was HIAS part of her story of getting here?

MEYER: She - it was not. She came just before we were founded.


MEYER: But she certainly could have been one of our clients.

INSKEEP: OK. So you - but you have a personal connection to this story, and Jews have a personal connection to this story. How has your mission evolved in more recent years?

MEYER: Absolutely. In many ways, our mission hasn't evolved. Our mission has always been to protect people who are being persecuted because of who they are. And what we like to say is that we used to help refugees because they were Jewish, and now we help refugees because we are Jewish. So we are helping people of all faiths and all ethnicities, rooted in our values.

INSKEEP: And what is the way that you help people on a day-to-day basis?

MEYER: So we do it in many ways. We resettle refugees here to the United States. We help them find housing, jobs, language assistance. And we also focus abroad on the provision of legal services, of job training and of psychosocial support or trauma counseling because we know those are the things people need to really rebuild their lives.

INSKEEP: Where are the refugees coming from that you help?

MEYER: They are really coming from all over the world. Of course, the largest crisis is in Syria. But we help refugees from all over the world - from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Burma - really all the places that are producing refugees. Right now, we're seeing a large crisis in Central America, for instance.

INSKEEP: And some of those refugees end up in the United States; some of them don't, I suppose.

MEYER: That is true. So there are currently 68 million people displaced worldwide. About 25 million of those people are refugees. But less than 1 percent of that 25 million are resettled every year. And at the moment, there is a ceiling for refugee admissions in the United States, which has been set at 30,000, which is the lowest number since the 1980s, when we began resettling refugees in this country.

INSKEEP: Oh, President Trump has lowered that number and emphasized that the United States doesn't want the expense of refugees.

MEYER: That is correct, which we know to be false. We know that refugees contribute to our economy. They pay taxes. They really benefit our country. We are a country, of course, founded by immigrants and refugees.

INSKEEP: So what have you thought about, Rabbi Meyer, as you have learned not only that this man walked into a synagogue and killed 11 people but seemed to have connected himself to conspiracy theories involving your group?

MEYER: The first thing I'll say is that we are just heartbroken. We are absolutely in mourning with the Pittsburgh Jewish community and with the whole American Jewish community. And really, what I feel is just confounded - how a person could so twist a narrative and co-opt a narrative.

What happened, you know, was very close to National Refugee Shabbat, which was an initiative of HIAS which was meant to highlight American Jewish support for refugees because this is so quintessentially Jewish. And for this man to have twisted that narrative to express his hatred for Jews, to express his hatred for refugees and to use that hatred to fuel such violence is just so anathema to Jewish values, to American values. And so we are both heartbroken and confounded. But what we are also is really doubling down on our mission because there is no better way to respond to this hatred, we believe, than to support refugees.

INSKEEP: How are you going to double down?

MEYER: We will continue helping our clients. We'll continue raising a loud voice of American Jews saying that we stand with immigrants, we stand with refugees and that we are here, and we are not going anywhere.

INSKEEP: Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, thanks very much for joining us this morning. Really appreciate it.

MEYER: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: She is education director of the group called HIAS, letters that once stood for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.