What Made Canada Recognize Jewish Refugees From Arab Countries?

'The narrative that somehow only Palestinians have been victims of the conflict has to be challenged,' says Jewish leader.

Vicky Tobianah
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Vicky Tobianah

As a Jew growing up in Iraq, Gladys Daoud had an ordinary life. Her father served in the Iraqi army as a colonel and had a medical practice in Baghdad. Her childhood was relatively happy and uneventful — until 1948. Once the establishment of the State of Israel disrupted the equilibrium in the Middle East, Iraq, like many other Arab countries, began persecuting its once-equal Jewish citizens, looting Jewish stores and workshops, firing Jewish workers, and restricting Jews from entering universities. Daoud’s quiet life was over.

“Jews were forbidden from leaving the country, under the pretext that they would join the Zionist enemy and attack Iraq. Under international pressure, the government finally relented, and allowed Jews to leave, provided they abandoned all of their assets in favor of the state,” said Daoud, whose family eventually settled in Montreal, Canada. “Our Muslim and Christian friends who we grew up with no longer dared to speak to us.”

More than 65 years later, the justice and recognition that families like Daoud’s have been seeking may finally have arrived, at least in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s markedly pro-Israel government recently announced that it is accepting a parliamentary committee’s recommendation to officially “recognize the experience” of some 850,000 Jewish refugees who were displaced from the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the 1948 war. At the same time, however, the government refrained from accepting a second recommendation “to take into account all refugee populations as part of any just and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”

“The narrative that somehow only Palestinians have been victims of the conflict has to be challenged and more importantly, has to be recognized by the international community,” said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a non-partisan organization that works to strengthen the Canada-Israel relationship. “Canada is responding because we took up the issue and claimed that Canadian policy is incomplete.”

U.S. was first

Canada is the second government besides Israel's to recognize the plight of Jewish refugees. In 2008, the U.S. Congress adopted Resolution 185, which declared that “it would be inappropriate and unjust for the United States to recognize rights for Palestinian refugees without recognizing equal rights for former Jewish, Christian, and other refugees from Arab countries.” The resolution goes even further than the Canadian recommendation by also adding that “any resolutions relating to the issue of Middle East refugees…must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

While peace negotiations have not formally included the Jewish refugee issue, it has been raised in the past.

“The situation of Jews displaced from Arab countries has been addressed in the Middle East peace process, in one way or another, since the Camp David negotiations of 2000. In this sense, the recognition comes 14 years after the fact,” said McGill University political science professor Rex Brynen. “The issue is also routinely addressed in ‘second track’ and other policy-relevant work on the refugee issue.”

Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both made public statements recognizing Jewish refugees from Arab counties. The plight of Jewish refugees is increasingly being brought up in Israel as well. In early February, the Bill to Commemorate the Flight and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran, which would designate November 30 as the official day to commemorate the displaced Jews and the destruction of their communities, passed its first reading in the Knesset.

Part of framework agreement?

What the Jewish refugees who testified at the Canadian meeting and the organizations behind the committee report want, however, is for this issue not to be left aside in the current peace process, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I think the current Canadian government has certainly been very open to listen to a variety of Israeli claims,” said Constaza Musu, associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. “Israel has been conducting a very systematic campaign to have the issue of refugees addressed in the negotiations… I think the issue is whether in the end Israel will succeed in having enough international support for that.”

Critics point out, however, that this pushes Canada’s foreign policy further to the right at the risk of alienating its own citizens. “All you hear from (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) is this black and white rhetoric,” said Omer Aziz, a political writer, human rights journalist and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar at Cambridge University. “I’m not sure that this really, really right-wing, pro-Israel (stance) is reflective of (Canadian) public opinion.”

“Part of it is politics and part of it is principles. The politics is really simple - Stephen Harper wants the Jewish vote, wants to maintain it. But the principle is there too, because his world view is quite black and white, in terms of here are the good guys, here are the bad guys,” said Aziz.

While some may view the newest move as another lurch by Ottawa to the pro-Israel right, Fogel argues that this is another example of Canada bringing controversial issues international attention.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the influence that Canada exercises internationally. It’s already demonstrated at the G8 and various UN forums the extent to which its moral leadership has pointed the international community to a more constructive consensus,” he said. “Everyone recognizes just how influential Canada is in helping to frame and shape consideration of issues internationally. We don’t have to look further than the sanctions imposed on Iran – Canada was a real leader in defining what it should look like and how it should be applied.”

Ultimately, practical issues will need to be addressed, like whether the Jewish refugees should be given reparations and, if so, from whom.

Middle Eastern Jews like Daoud just want their communities to be remembered. “The 2,500 years of history and Jewish tradition by the rivers of Babylon came to an abrupt and gruesome end,” she said. “As we speak, the Iraqi authorities are trying to deface religious shrines and erase any reminder of the Jewish existence.”

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