Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, left, and Dr. Harold Troper. (photo by David Berson)
The current refugee crisis – and Canada’s responses to past crises – was the topic of an interfaith panel recently, which raised issues especially relevant as Passover approaches.
Our Home and Native Land? A Multi-Faith Symposium on Refugee Settlement featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Harold Troper, co-author of None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. The event, on March 18, also included a panel discussion that featured Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom. Catalina Parra brought a First Nations perspective, Imam Balal Khokhar spoke from a Muslim point of view and Rev. Dr. Richard Topping spoke as a Christian.
Troper recalled being part of a Canadian group that traveled to eastern Germany two decades ago, after the Berlin Wall fell. States in the east of the newly reunified Germany were seeing an upsurge in migration from countries further to the east. A group of Canadians was invited to listen and give advice on Canada’s experience integrating newcomers. At one point, a local official thanked Troper for his comments, but asked, “What do you do with your foreigners?”
Troper expounded on the concept of “new Canadians,” a formulation perhaps unknown in any other country, in which people arriving with the intent of making Canada their home are acknowledged not as foreigners or as migrants, but as people becoming part of our polyglot population already on a path to inclusion.
Of course, Troper acknowledged, this was not always so. None is Too Many, published in 1983, was a seminal book that has had lasting impacts on Canadian views of migration and refugees. The title comes from a quote from an anonymous Canadian immigration official who responded with these words to the question of how many post-Holocaust refugees to admit. The words have been attributed, in some tellings, to F.C. Blair, Canada’s then-director of immigration. However, while this is not provable, Blair’s actions were in line with the words.
Recounting this country’s exclusionary policies toward the desperate Jewish populations of Europe in the prewar period, but also a similar disregard after the war, the book has been held up as an object lesson in how not to respond to people in crisis. Troper said he didn’t know until years later the impact the book had had on one very significant episode in Canadian history.
In 1979, Troper and Abella sent an academic paper that preceded the book to Ron Atkey, Canada’s immigration minister. Atkey was a member of Joe Clark’s cabinet and, though that Progressive Conservative government lasted only nine months, it was during Clark’s term as prime minister that the decision was made to welcome 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, known as “boat people.” Troper said he found out later that the manuscript they sent played a role in the decision.
“We hope Canada will not be found wanting in this refugee crisis the way it was in the previous one,” the authors wrote in a note accompanying the manuscript. They expected no response and they received none. But, several years later, Troper said, Atkey told him that he had read it.
“He told us he was shocked and dismayed when he saw the political parallels between the Vietnamese and Jewish refugee crises,” Troper recalled. “Then and there, Atkey told us, he decided he was not going to go down as the F.C. Blair of the boat people.”
Already predisposed to encourage his cabinet colleagues to take a generous approach, the article stiffened his resolve to stand firm against ministers who disagreed. The government initiated a joint federal-private sponsorship program.
“It today serves as the prototype for Canada’s Syrian refugee program,” said Troper.
Now, as refugees are coming from North Africa, Asia and, most notably, the Middle East, fleeing civil war and ruin in Syria and Iraq, Troper sees parallels between the fears expressed now and those of seven decades ago.
“The fears are not only around the expenses of accommodating these refugees, but that the intake of a population of different race, religion and cultural assumptions and social expectations will destabilize destination countries,” he said.
Not dissimilar, he said, were fears that European Jews might bring socialism, communism, anarchism – even Nazism – with them.
“Foreshadowing the kind of anti-refugee arguments commonly heard today,” Troper said, “reports of persecution were dismissed as exaggerated if not bogus, fabrications designed to justify an end-run around Canadian immigration restrictions. And who were these refugees anyway? Were they really innocent victims? Surely they must have done something to turn their fellow citizens against them. Why make Europe’s problem our problem? And weren’t Jews in Canada already a pesky problem? Do we want more? And who’s to say that communists or even Nazis would not pose as refugees to infiltrate as subversives into Canada? Keeping Canada strong and united meant keeping Jews out.”
Another haunting parallel was the galvanizing photo of the 3-year-old Kurdish child who washed up on a Turkish beach and a photo Troper came across decades ago in his research for None is Too Many while going through archival boxes in the Toronto office of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. The boxes were filled with prewar letters from European Jewish parents who, knowing that entire families were unlikely to be granted admission to Canada, begged that their children might be taken in by a Canadian family. In each case, a terse response told the desperate parents that Canada was not admitting any Jews but that the request would be held on file in case something changed.
“Going through these files, I came across a letter that impacted me the way I imagine the photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying facedown in the sand of a Turkish beach impacted on all of us,” he said. “The letter was from a father begging for some shelter for his two daughters. A picture of two smiling children was attached. As I read this letter, my eyes began to tear; you see, I am also the father of two girls. At the time they were 3 and 5 years old. For a split moment, it was as if I was that desperate father, his children were my children and his fears were my fears.”
As part of the panel that followed, Moskovitz spoke of the bread of affliction.
“How inappropriate it might seem to hold up a matzah when we sit around a seder table filled with food, and to think that we are supposed to connect with this when we have so much,” the rabbi told the Independent after the event. “The point is to remind us that there was a time in our lives when we didn’t have so much.
“Each of the faith traditions,” he said, “spoke about that lens of empathy, of remembering historically that we once ate the bread of affliction, that we once didn’t have much and so we have to share with those who do.”
Religious perspectives are critical in this discussion, he added.
“Left to our own devices, society will often do what they think is in [their] own immediate best interest, which is often isolationism – we’re seeing that in the U.S. elections today – and fear of the other,” he said. “The role of religion is to compel us to do what is morally right and good, what is spiritually elevated, what is holy. It’s a religious foundation that is compelling us to love the stranger, because our political reality, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Brussels, is telling us to fear the stranger.”
For Jews, he said, the plight of refugees is not a momentary news story.
“This is not just a headline that has come and gone,” said Moskovitz. “Our Passover Haggadah makes it a headline for Jews every year, that we are reminded to see the world through the lens of a refugee every single year. It’s the most observed Jewish holiday in the Jewish calendar – that says something about how important the status of a refugee is in Jewish tradition.”
The multi-faith symposium was organized by the Inter-Religious Studies program at Vancouver School of Theology and facilitated by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, the program’s director.