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Monday, August 31, 2015

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CIJA must choose its battles carefully

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Michael Diamond, Guest Columnist

I object to Bernie Farber’s recent column (“It’s time for Jewish leadership to lead,” July 3), about the Pusuma family, Romas from Hungary, currently seeking sanctuary in Canada. 

My concern is based on two distinct lines of reasoning. The first is a difference of opinion about the issue itself. The second, which is far more problematic in my view, relates to Farber’s attack on the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) for what amounts to his frustration that CIJA does not agree with his position on the Roma, which I see as inappropriate, unfair and not helpful to the Jewish community. 

Regarding the case itself, the apparent ineptness of the lawyer involved in the Pusumas’ case before the refugee board did not change the outcome. If this was a miscarriage of justice, blame it on the courts, not the government or CIJA. But there is a reason most refugee claimants from Hungary are refused: Hungary is a member of the European Union, and as such, there are 27 countries the Pusumas could move to without requiring a visa. Further, the Hungarian government, on the basis of stated policy, as well as the EU, appear to be invested in improving the situation for the Roma. Their plight is difficult, but not, as some have suggested, similar to that of the Jews of the 1930s.

I, too, am moved to do what some very good people – many or most of them Jewish – are doing right now to help change the situation for this family.  However, my recommendation would be to use the considerable energy being invested in this situation to raise money for the Pusumas so that they can move to another place in the EU where they will feel more comfortable. This seems to me the best option available, given that it appears unlikely the government will interfere with the courts in this matter – especially given the evident hubris of the courts right now, and particularly in their dealings with the Conservative government.

But that is just my opinion, and I respect the right of others to disagree.  Readers should make up their own minds. 

However, I question why The CJN gave Farber the opportunity to attack CIJA, our community’s representative in the world of advocacy. 

We Jews represent one per cent of the Canadian population. Our institutions cannot be expected to take up the fight for every cause, including every unhappy or mistreated refugee. We have enough trouble fighting our own battles, let alone taking on the battles of others.  

If decent individuals within our community wish to take up a specific cause, that is their choice. But our community organizations have a responsibility to act in the best interests of the Jewish community, not the broader public. Perhaps CIJA decided the case was not winnable. Or maybe it recognized that its primary objective and responsibility is to the Canadian Jewish community and to Israel, not to every unfortunate situation that arises across Canada. 

Farber is the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress, which when it merged with Canada-Israel Committee to become CIJA, lost some of the social action focus it once had. In my view, there is a very good reason for that: we Jews are under siege right now – on campus, in Israel, in the media, even in our high schools and on the street. Those matters must be the priority. That is where CIJA’s focus must be – not on individual causes, even if they are championed by some very good people. 

Farber’s column would have had far more credibility if it had simply focused on the arguments in support of the Pusuma family. He could have called for grassroots community support, or perhaps led the charge to raise the funds to put this wonderful family back on its feet. Instead, Farber used the Pusuma family’s situation to attack CIJA and, indirectly, the Conservative government. 

Michael Diamond is a business consultant, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He is involved extensively in Jewish and non-Jewish community life and sits on or chairs several boards and committees of a number of non-profit organizations.

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