In 1948, there were an estimated 856,000 Jews in Arab and Muslim countries, from Algeria to Iraq. The estimated Jewish population in 2012 was 4,315 – 3,000 of whom are in Morocco alone.
Four months after the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development’s November 2013 report “Recognizing Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa,” Canada’s Cabinet accepted one of its two recommendations. The next day, on March 4, Parliament “concurred in” the report.
As the United States pushes for at least a framework for a peace agreement in the coming weeks, the Palestinian side will continue to use as a significant bargaining chip the millions (under the unique definition of “Palestinian refugee”) of people seeking a “right of return.” The parliamentary committee recommended that Canada officially recognize these displaced persons and, secondly, that our federal government “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.”
Responding to the committee’s recommendations, Cabinet made nice noises, concurring heartily with the first recognition, which is, ultimately, merely symbolic. On the second recommendation, the Conservative government resorted to diplomatic verbiage, saying, it “understands the positive intent underlying this recommendation but, at this time, Canada has offered its support to the peace process as presently structured.”
During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49, somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Arab Palestinians were made refugees. History – and the Arab countries in which these refugees found themselves – has not been kind to them. The 1967 war created more refugees, while placing those Arab Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Israeli control.
This history, which includes a definition of refugee known nowhere else in the world – one that is passed down from generation to generation, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the refugee situation – is well known. Yet, it is remarkable how many otherwise well-informed people are unaware of the Jewish refugees throughout the Middle East in the same era. To varying degrees, life for Jews in Arab- and Muslim-majority countries deteriorated rapidly after the 1948 war, and hundreds of thousands were either forced to leave their homelands or found it prudent to do so. The 1967 war finished the job.
But even the Jews who migrated to Israel during this period have often acknowledged that they were not comfortable assuming the role of historical victim. First of all, Jews who were forced from Arab and Muslim countries were welcomed (discrimination and economic disparities affecting Mizrahi Jews notwithstanding) by the new state of Israel, which they helped to build and strengthen.
Compared with the Arab Palestinians who had been displaced and who were, and still are, held in a form of statelessness, the Jewish emigrants were absorbed by Israel and the other countries to which they migrated, including Canada. More significantly, those who went to Israel joined a country that was absorbing refugees from Europe, whose experiences of statelessness had been more harrowing and catastrophic. Faced with new fellow citizens who had lost not only their material possessions and their ancestral villages, but also entire extended families, most of their civilization and even their mother tongue, the Jews who migrated from the Middle East and North Africa often found it best to keep their own tragic experiences closer to the vest.
Small nonprofit groups like JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) have kept this history alive. On the political front, in 2008, the United States became the first (and so far only) country to official recognize the Jewish refugees. More than a year ago, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler tabled a motion that Canada should recognize these forgotten refugees. In the parliamentary committee hearings, Canadians, including some refugees themselves, told personal stories of this history.
The government is on the right track. It is a matter of righting the historical record and of simple justice that, when Palestinian refugees are considered in the process of reconciliation, so should Jews who were forced from their homelands in the same era. But it is necessary for Canada, as the vaunted “honest broker” we claim to be, to demand that Jewish refugees also be considered among the many difficult historical realities that must be resolved for a lasting and just peace to be realized.