Sephardi group in Ottawa
Rabbi Ilan Acoca, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill. (courtesy of Prime Minister’s Office)
Last month, a Jewish delegation paid a visit to Parliament Hill with two main items on the agenda – educating the Canadian government about Sephardi Jewry in Canada and discussing Iran’s aim to obtain nuclear weapons.
The delegation included Sephardi community leaders, activists, philanthropists and spiritual leaders from across Canada. They met with the prime minister, various ambassadors and other dignitaries. The delegation was led by Yehuda Azoulay and Vancouver’s Rabbi Ilan Acoca of Congregation Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardi synagogue west of Toronto.
A scholar, educator, author, activist and entrepreneur, Azoulay established the Sephardic Legacy Series: Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage. He envisioned the series as helping ensure future Sephardi publications, articles, lecture series, documentary films and research on Sephardi topics, and other works geared toward the benefit of Sephardi communities worldwide. It was the lack of general knowledge concerning Sephardi history, culture, Jewish law and other facets of Sephardi Judaism that prompted him to establish the organization. To date, Azoulay has authored five books and published more than 30 articles on various topics. In November 2013, he initiated a tribute luncheon to honor the contributions of Sephardi Jewry in America for members of the U.S. Congress.
The recent Parliament Hill delegation had as its primary goal to “create more awareness about Sephardic Jews in Canada by educating them about our history and our contributions to Canadian society,” Acoca told the Independent. “There are currently 55,000 Sephardic Jews in Canada and the number is growing. This is something that we related to the government.”
Acoca was born in Israel to parents of Moroccan descent. “I grew up in a typical, traditional Sephardic home,” he said. “Sephardic Judaism was an integral part of my upbringing.”
When Acoca was 13 years old, his family moved to Montreal, where he attended a Jewish high school. Growing up in Montreal’s Sephardi community, Acoca said, “helped me deepen my appreciation for my rich Sephardic ancestry.” Acoca eventually become a rabbi, fulfilling his grandfather’s wish that one of his descendants follow in his footsteps to the rabbinate, he said. In November 1999, Acoca and his wife Dina took on the roles of rabbi and rabbanit at Beth Hamidrash.
“Getting this responsibility made me more aware and passionate about my ancestry,” said Acoca. “My job enabled me to learn more about various Sephardic traditions and communities.”
Over the years, Acoca has added other aspects to his rabbinical role, teaching online, writing a monthly column in the Canadian Jewish News, heading the Rabbinical Council Sephardic Affinity Group, being an official Sephardi representative in Western Canada, and being the region’s Sephardi halachic authority.
Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas joined the group in Ottawa. Acoca described the importance of having Matas present in front of the House of Commons SubCommittee on International Human Rights about Iran’s intent to develop nuclear capability. During the presentation, Matas and Azoulay also conveyed some of the hardships that Iranian Jews “have faced and continue to endure.” (The full hearing is available at cpac.ca/en/programs/in-committee-house-of-commons/episodes/37646919.)
Matas gave six recommendations to the committee, which he shared with the Jewish Independent:
1. Expand the exceptions to sovereign immunity to catch Iranian human rights violations in a larger net. It should be possible for victims of the Iranian regime to sue in Canadian courts for the harm that the regime has done to them.
2. Ask for the extradition of Hassan el-Hajj Hassan, a Canadian citizen implicated in a Bulgarian bombing, from Lebanon to Canada. Under the Criminal Code, Canada has jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is a Canadian citizen, explained Matas. Canada does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon, but the Extradition Act allows for extradition, even without a treaty, on a case-by-case basis by agreement with the state where the accused is found.
3. Support the suggestion that any arms agreement between Iran and foreign states include a human rights component parallel to that of the Helsinki Accord. “A regime hell bent on the destruction of Israel and the Jews should be kept as far away from weapons of mass destruction as possible,” said Matas. “A nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, if one can be reached, should not just prevent nuclear weapons capability. It should have a place for human rights.”
4. The European Union in July 2013 added the military wing of Hezbollah to its list of terrorist entities. Canada should urge the EU to list Hezbollah in its entirety, not just the military wing, as a terrorist entity.
5. As the lead sponsor to the United Nations General Assembly, Canada should strengthen the language of the resolution, even if it that means fewer votes. “While we would not suggest language so strong that the resolution would be lost, Canada today has some room for manoeuvre,” said Matas.
6. Encourage the Government of Canada to take into account all refugee populations as part of any just and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. “That, of course, includes 55,000 Jewish refugees from Iran, driven out of Iran by the regime of the mullahs,” said Matas.
It is also important to confront the myth that Israel is a Western, imperial, colonial enterprise – a myth that holds particular sway with the mullahs of Iran, Matas said. The reality is that Israel is in large measure composed of Jews from the Middle East, including Iran. “Unless the Palestinians themselves accept the reality of dual victimization, a meaningful peace becomes impossible,” he said.
The delegation met with MPs Tim Uppal, Denis Lebel, Jason Kenney, Peter Kent, John Carmichael, Mark Adler, Joyce Bateman and Irwin Cotler. Other members of the delegation, including Acoca, met privately with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“The government officials were extremely supportive and promised they will assist,” said Acoca. “We were ecstatic, definitely.”
Acoca is eager to create more awareness of Sephardi Jewry, the community’s needs and cultural differences, and to promote understanding. He is also looking forward to following up on the event and meetings, and hopes this delegation will become an annual occurrence. “I would like the Sephardic way and philosophy to be preserved and am working hard, together with my colleagues, to ensure a thriving future,” said Acoca.
For a short video clip from the group’s Parliament Hill visit, see this link (at 0:26): youtube.com/watch?v=AiZ9_4O936Q.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.