In recent, the Foreign Affairs Committee of Canada’s House of Commons launched a study examining the experience of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The following is excerpted from my presentation to the Committee, outlining Canada’s diplomatic history on this file and making the case for a substantive change in Canadian foreign policy.
Two refugee populations were created as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict – one Palestinian and the other Jewish. Unfortunately, the plight of Jewish refugees has been completely omitted from Canada’s Middle East policy while that of the Palestinians features prominently. It is essential that policymakers correct this inherent imbalance. Equitable consideration of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is a necessary component for any just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
It is important to note that achieving peace in the Middle East is not a zero-sum game: the rights and claims of one group need not come at the expense of or displacement of the other’s.
Much of the peace process is about validation: the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish State and the recognition of the Palestinians as a people are two good examples. Redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries is another, which must be included in any formulation for true and lasting peace.
To be absolutely clear: the purpose of incorporating the historic claims of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not to diminish or compete with the claims of Palestinian refugees. The inclusion of Jewish refugees is meant to complete – not revise – the historical record.
The omission from Canadian foreign policy of the experience of Jewish refugees from Arab Countries is baffling given how much was known by the Government of Canada throughout the evolution of their plight. The following examples are from government records available at Library and Archives Canada.
By March 1949, Canadian diplomats were reporting that “many thousands” of Jewish refugees fleeing North Africa were “pouring into Palestine”.
By March 1952, the Government of Canada received reports that Israel had absorbed more than 300,000 Jews from Arab countries, including 120,000 from Iraq and 50,000 from Yemen.
In August 1956, following months of requests from one of our predecessor organizations, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian government decided: “in view of the urgent humanitarian considerations involved”, to waive the normal security procedures and facilitate the movement of North African Jews to Canada. Approximately 25,000 Jews came to Canada from Morocco as part of the mass migration of more than 200,000 Jewish Moroccans between 1948 and 1967.
In December 1956, the Department of External Affairs received diplomatic cables describing the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry. Those Jewish Egyptians who were rendered stateless by the discriminatory 1926 Nationality Code (approximately 50% of the Jewish population in 1956) were faced with a horrific dilemma.
Cables to External Affairs reported that “Jews without nationality are given [a] choice between leaving Egypt or being sent to a concentration camp. …Jews would receive a visit of some official who would intimidate them into signing a declaration of intention to leave Egypt which would result in cancellation of residence permit and then force them to leave the country.”
On December 20, 1956, in response to these reports, a memorandum to the Minister of External Affairs stated: “What we have in mind is that a sensible principle to accept would be that Jewish refugees wishing to go to Israel should do so and that those not wishing to go to Israel should be accommodated elsewhere in the free world, including Canada.”
Six days later, External Affairs received another cable detailing “a new emergency…concerning the movement of ten thousand Jews from Egypt.”
In February 1957, the UN High Commissioner of Refugees deemed the Egyptian refugees eligible for UN protection.
Canadian cables from elsewhere in the region continued to tell a similar story into the following decade. For example, a May 4, 1964 memorandum from the Canadian Embassy in Switzerland to the Under-Secretary of State of External Affairs spoke of Apartheid conditions facing the Jews of Tunisia.
Even as late as March 1973, diplomats were expecting an increase in Jewish immigration to Canada from Morocco, “possibly more rapidly and dramatically than we would wish, as new Moroccan measures are being implemented in the months ahead” that “will force all these unwanted people to seek a new home.”
Yet, despite all this accumulated evidence, despite the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries that found asylum in Canada, the official policy of successive Canadian governments has only recognized the displaced Palestinians. This remains the status quo today.
A review of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s website shows absolutely no mention of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In the section that defines Canada’s official policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consideration of Palestinian refugees features prominently while Jewish refugees are ignored.
This imbalance in Canadian policy stands in sharp contrast to the leadership role Canada has played on the refugee file since the inception of the Middle East peace process, as “Gavel Holder” of the multilateral Refugee Working Group. A product of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the Working Group has served as a complement to bilateral negotiations and as a forum for discussing longer-term issues and possible contributions from the international community to an effective resolution to the refugee issue.
As “Gavel Holder”, Canada is uniquely placed to raise the profile of the Jewish refugee issue and to ensure it is given the fair consideration it merits. Official incorporation of the Jewish refugee issue into Canadian foreign policy will signal to the world, at this important juncture, that Canada is ready to take the lead on this central issue and to foster a comprehensive resolution of all refugee claims.
Prime Minister Paul Martin was the first world leader outside the United States to raise this important issue. In a June 3, 2005 media interview, Martin stated: “A refugee is a refugee and the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must be recognized. All refugees deserve our consideration as they have lost both physical property and historical connections.”
The study you are undertaking is a ground-breaking initiative that, while worthy of applause, will only represent a truly meaningful initiative if it leads to a formal recognition of Jewish refugees in Canada’s foreign policy. If we are serious about resolving the refugee issue in the Middle East, we must be true to our own values as Canadians and enshrine in our official policy that regardless of ethnic, national or religious background, a refugee is a refugee.