Atlanta has come a long way from the Jim Crow South to a vibrant city immersed in various cultures and religions. It has become a haven for those who seek a brighter future and those who wish to start a new life.
Every day Atlanta residents interact with multiple ethnicities and faiths with, one hopes, respect, understanding and curiosity. Like any other city, how Atlanta’s diverse communities accept and embrace one another will determine its path toward the future.
Faith-based communities and organizations are no exception, and while some have pioneered the building of bridges of understanding between religious and cultural communities, others have chosen a different route.
To address the challenges facing Atlanta’s diverse communities, Emory University’s Candler College of Theology and Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts held their third annual Leadership and Multifaith Program Symposium to foster interfaith dialogue on global migration.
The topic was prophetic, thanks to the Trump administration’s moratorium on refugees, but the program was less successful at addressing political concerns during each workshop.
Deanna Womack, the LAMP director and a professor of history and multifaith relations at the Candler School, invited leaders from local organizations that work with refugees, such as Welcoming America and New American Pathways, to create workshops discussing asylum, refuge and relocation.
With limited resources, Womack consulted Compassionate Atlanta Executive Director Leanne Rubenstein to form a discussion panel on “Compassion in Action: An Interfaith Response.” The dialogue was intended to foster communication among Atlanta leaders whose actions on behalf of immigrant and refugee communities are rooted in their respective faith traditions.
The workshop sought to link local and global responses to the refugee crisis by providing a glimpse of services available to refugees from faith-based organizations and steps needed to assist refugees in Atlanta and around the world.
Safia Jama, a department manager for New American Pathways, expressed her appreciation for synagogues and Jewish communities in Atlanta and worldwide for assisting Syrian refugees and her dissatisfaction with others who have not: “Why aren’t rich Middle Eastern countries taking in refugees when they have the means to do so?”
She said she had thought that “Jews were the enemy because that is what we were taught by our government, but then I met some Jews in Holland, and we became friends. I saw how much they helped incoming immigrants.”
Jama began her career with New American Pathways 17 years ago and has helped refugees in over 20 countries. As a widowed mother of nine and a refugee herself, she relates to the challenges refugees face. “Islamic tradition encourages one to provide food and shelter to those suffering injustice, irrespective of what religion they are — with the priority given to women and children.”
For a Jewish representative, other than herself as moderator, Rubenstein chose Ilise Cohen, who heads Jewish Voice for Peace’s Atlanta chapter.
Rubenstein coordinated with Womack on panelist suggestions and met with community members, but she knew some panel candidates, including Cohen, with whom she has been friends for a long time.
Rubenstein said Jews benefit from white privilege, and she wanted to take on the issues without being paternalistic.
“How do we stand with Muslims within this country when we as Jews were banned once before?” Rubenstein said.
“There is no one in the Jewish community doing anything specifically in refugee resettlement,” she said. “JF&CS has a program to work with elderly refugees, and a couple of synagogues who have set up apartments, but other than that, I don’t know about anyone in the community that is assisting refugees.”
Rubenstein said the Atlanta Jewish community no longer has a resettlement program because no Jews are coming. HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, no longer has an affiliation with Jewish Family & Career Services. “I am open to other community leaders coming to hold a dialogue, but I don’t see any synagogues in the Jewish community taking an initiative to help refugees.”
(Temple Sinai member Kevin Abel, the vice chair of the New American Pathways board, has said his Sandy Springs congregation has enough donations and volunteers to make a sustained commitment to supporting refugees settled in the Atlanta area.)
“Ilise Cohen was chosen for a number of different reasons” for the panel, Rubenstein said, “because JVP looks at refugee resettlement worldwide, and JVP works a lot with Islamophobia. I don’t see that in the Jewish community. I felt that there was no one else who could speak on that on behalf of the community.”
She added that she thinks every faith community had a representative speaking that group’s truth.
Cohen is a Middle East scholar-activist and Interfaith Peace Builders delegation leader, board member and former chair. She confronts white supremacy, state violence and works for justice for Palestinians.
The Evian Conference in 1938, at which only the Dominican Republic offered to accept Jewish refugees from Europe, had a dramatic influence on Cohen and stuck in her mind when the United States closed its doors to refugees seeking to escape persecution.
“I thought it was a critical moment of resistance,” Cohen said.
But the only refugees mentioned in the Jewish Voice for Peace mission statement are Palestinians. Sure enough, Cohen focused on Palestinians and the politics surrounding them during the LAMP panel on refugees. “The Palestinians were kicked out and continue to live under refugee status in Israel. They are not treated like any other refugees and are still waiting for the 1948 armistice lines to live in Israel. … Palestinians have lost everything — the West Bank, Gaza — and have not been allowed to escape.”
Cohen addressed what the she believes Jews think of Palestinians: “Jews believe if Palestinians returned, there would no longer be a Jewish majority, and Jews don’t want to be in a pool.”
She also criticized Israel’s response to African asylum seekers. “There are a lot of African individuals seeking asylum in Israel, and the country has refused them. Israel holds them in detention centers and does not absorb them. The state of Israel does not care or want to think about them.”
As part of its advocacy for Palestinians, JVP supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement but has little to say about non-Palestinian refugees in the United States.
Cohen’s rhetoric reached far beyond interfaith support for immigrants and went straight to politics when she was asked to relate the Jewish community to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians and refugees affected by the Trump executive order are separate entities, but Cohen portrayed them as one and the same.
Not only did no one from the Jewish community present an alternative view to Cohen’s, but another voice, Louisa Merchant from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, removed herself from the panel to clear the way for the Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Rubenstein believes that Christian voices too often dominated discussions between Muslims and Jews.
Judy Marx, who serves as a community engagement co-chair of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and executive director of Interfaith Community Initiatives, attended the workshop and said she enjoyed the panelists’ stories and the pushback from their own communities.
Marx said she would have stopped Cohen from making some of her comments, but the symposium wanted someone from the Jewish left.
For future symposiums, Womack and Rubenstein would do well to invite community leaders who embrace cooperation over conflict and seek to balance peace among faith-based communities and organizations. Atlanta has set the pace for acceptance and led the fight for inclusion for many years; it shouldn’t stop now.