The federal government has formally recognized as refugees the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s founding.
The government is now seeking approval from Parliament to have the plight of these exiled and dispossessed people taken into account in Canada’s standing policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The World Jewish Congress says 850,000 Jews were displaced from Arab lands in the years and, in some countries, decades after the State of Israel was established in 1948.
Current Canadian policy acknowledges the hardship of Arab refugees from territories that became part of the Jewish state, but makes no mention of Jews in Arab lands being persecuted and driven from their homes.
It’s a breakthrough for Jewish groups in Canada and around the world who have been trying for decades to get governments to recognize the grave injustice done to Jews who had lived in countries like Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Iraq for centuries, and even millennia.
They received no compensation from these regimes.
On March 4, the cabinet adopted the two recommendations made by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in a report submitted to Parliament in November.
The committee says Canada should “officially recognize the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The all-party committee further recommended that Canada should “encourage the direct negotiating parties to take into account all refugee populations as part of any just and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”
The New Democratic Party, the official Opposition, did not endorse this second recommendation, but provided no reason.
In an addendum to the report, the NDP only agrees the experience of Jews in Arab countries “must be better known by all Canadians” and condemned the “injustices and anti-Semitism experienced by many Jewish refugees.”
The governmnent’s decision was applauded by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which gave extensive testimony before the committee when it held hearings last May.
“[The] decision brings Canada one step closer to recognizing the otherwise forgotten persecution of Jewish minorities across the Middle East,” CIJA president David Koschitzky said in a statement.
“This is not only a matter of ensuring historical accuracy. Once implemented, it will correct a fundamental imbalance in a Canadian policy that acknowledges Arab refugees but makes no mention of Jewish refugees resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict…
“We look forward to seeing the government’s support integrated into Canada’s standing policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the premise that peace can only be achieved through a balanced and honest examination of Jewish and Arab refugees alike.”
As a first step in that direction, Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid moved the report in the House of Commons on March 4, calling the Jewish refugee history a “great human tragedy.”
“These refugees were driven from their homes, often at risk to their lives, and almost always with complete loss of property and the destruction of communities that had existed, in some case for two millennia,” he said
Reid said the government would only accept concurrence by Parliament on the report in its entirety, referring to the NDP’s dissension from the recommendation to include the plight of Jewish refugees in peace talks.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen of British Columbia responded to Reid’s presentation, but made no direct reference to the motion.
B’nai Brith executive vice-president Frank Dimant pointed out that it’s premature to speak of Canada’s now recognizing Jewish refugees from Arab states.
“As confirmed by a review of the Hansard transcripts [of March 4] and conversations with Parliamentary officials, it is clear that, while discussions on the report began [March 4], the debate was adjourned without any conclusive results,” Dimant said.
Sylvain Abitbol, co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), which also testified before the committee in May, hailed Canada for taking the lead on this issue.
“For those of us who were personally impacted by the Jewish exodus from Arab countries, it is a matter of justice that any future peace accord acknowledges this painful, and widely neglected, chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
The committee, chaired by Ontario Conservative MP Dean Allison, also heard from the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and World Jewish Congress, as well as two individuals, Gladys Daoud and Lisette Shashoua, originally from Iraq. They told of the retaliation against Jewish citizens after the Six Day War, the fear they lived in and having to abandon their homes.
Stan Urman, executive vice-president of the U.S.-based JJAC, told the committee the estimated value of Jewish refugees’ lost assets is $6 billion.
While agreeing that Jews had suffered at the hands of Middle Eastern and North African governments during the 20th century, especially during 1948-49 and 1967, the committee “underline[d] its belief that recognition of the experiences of Jewish refugees does not diminish or compete with the situation of Palestinian refugees” in its 17-page report.