Canada One Step Closer to Recognizing Jewish Refugees

Just five days before the UN’s historic 1947 vote to recommend the partition of the British Mandate into two states for two peoples, the head of the Egyptian delegation issued an ominous warning: “The lives of 1,000,000 Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by the establishment of a Jewish state.”

These words would prove prescient in the years to come. The ensuing displacement of Jews from Arab countries was a modern-day exodus characterized by incitement and theft by the state, mass protests and arson attacks, pogroms and outright murder. The trauma of the hatred, violence, and hasty evacuations is etched in the living memory of the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, an intrinsic part of the global Jewish family.

It’s astonishing how often it is overlooked that Israel is a country founded for a stateless people by refugees themselves who, in turn, doubled their numbers in a few short years through the absorption of yet another huge cohort of refugees. As with far too many issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, an entire chapter seems to have been torn from the historic record – or at least relegated to the status of a footnote. The experience of Jewish refugees is an example of how the failure to perform a serious and complete historic reckoning hampers well-intentioned peace efforts by outside parties and ultimately plagues Palestinian nationalism.

The international community cannot understand the elusiveness of peace today without taking into account the consistent history of opposition to the Jewish state’s very existence, of which the precipitous flight of Jews from Arab lands is primary evidence.

And Palestinians who harbour national aspirations for independence will never achieve their goal without addressing the Palestinian rejectionism that has forestalled statehood since the 1947 partition vote. This can be fully achieved through a peace agreement that includes mutual recognition not only of the legitimacy of the other today, but also an acknowledgement of the suffering of the other in the past.

Last week, a Report was tabled in Canada’s Parliament summarizing a recent study by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the experience of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. The Report concludes by calling on the Government of Canada to formally recognize Jewish refugees from Arab countries and to encourage Israeli and Arab negotiators to take all refugees into account in any future peace agreement.

As Jewish Canadian activists, parliamentary validation is another key milestone in an effort long-in-the-making, and one that has been an important priority on the advocacy agenda of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). Our hope is that it will lead to an imminent change to Canada’s standing policy on Middle East peace in line with the committee’s recommendation.

Members of the Foreign Affairs committee from across the political spectrum deserve our applause for examining this issue thoroughly and forthrightly, a responsibility too few governments around the world have been willing to undertake. CIJA joins with the international coalition, led by JJAC – Justice for Jews from Arab Countries – to urge other governments to correct the historical record and validate the experience of Jews from Arab countries.

Should the Canadian government take the next logical step and heed the committee’s advice, Canada’s influence as a credible voice on the world stage can help establish balance in the conversation around Middle East refugees – and encourage the historic reckoning that will be essential to a lasting peace.

About the Author
Based in Ottawa, Shimon Koffler Fogel is President and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) - the advocacy agent of Canada's Jewish Federations.