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By JANICE ARNOLD, Staff Reporter, Canadian Jewish News   

Thursday, 21 January 2010


MONTREAL — The story of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were persecuted and forced to leave Arab countries should be included in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, now under construction in Winnipeg, say Quebec Jewish Congress (QJC) and representatives of those Jewish communities now living in Montreal.
During two days of public and private hearings held by the museum in Montreal last week, Lisette Shashoua and Gladys Daoud, natives of Iraq, provided harrowing testimony of their own families’ dispossession and flight from oppression and even physical danger in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Shashoua and Daoud emphasized that while the plight of Palestinian refugees has received much attention and their descendants are benefiting from international aid, few people are aware that about 800,000 Jews were exiled from their Arab homelands and never received any compensation.

“We are the forgotten refugees,” said Daoud, who immigrated to Canada in 1971 with her parents and brother.
Since June, a museum advisory committee has been holding consultations in every province and territory on what Canadians think the museum’s content should be. They are scheduled to conclude in Moncton, N.B., on Feb. 4.
Projected to open in 2012, the museum was a dream of the late Izzy Asper, founder of the Canwest Global media conglomerate, and has been carried on by his daughter, Gail Asper, since his death in 2003.
Three levels of government are contributing to the $265-million cost, and the rest is being raised in the private sector. The museum has been a federal Crown corporation since 2008.
Shashoua, who was an Air Canada flight attendant for 30 years, recounted how her family had once been so wealthy that her grandfather Shaul Shashoua’s home in Baghdad was the only one considered suitable enough to be the temporary residence of the British-appointed monarch until his palace was built.
His eight children would eventually end up with nothing and had to leave the country, she said. In one generation, the family went from riches to virtual rags because of the regime’s anti-Jewish campaigns, which she noted began well before the creation of the State of Israel. Eventually, all Jews were de-naturalized and their assets frozen, she said.
In Iraq, Jews not only were stripped of their economic and civil rights, but many were imprisoned, tortured and, in some cases, executed “for the simple reason that they were Jewish.”
All of the community lived in fear that they might be the next victims, she said. “No one knew when there would be a knock on the door in the night because a neighbour had denounced you as a Israeli spy. And there was no chance to prove your innocence,” she said.
The Jews of Iraq traced their history in the area back 2,700 years and were well-integrated, but their community was destroyed, Shashoua said. “We were more or less ethnically cleansed.”
At one time, there were close to 200,000 Jews in Baghdad. Today there are “two or three people,” Daoud added. “This was the destruction of an entire community based on religion… If that’s not a violation of human rights, I don’t know what is.”
Among the documentation the delegation left with museum officials was a video of the conference on Jews from Arab lands held in Montreal in 2002.
Shashoua escaped Iraq alone in 1970 and came to Montreal. Her parents couldn’t leave until 1990, and she had little communication with them for 20 years. “I could fly all over the world, but I could not go back to the country I was born in to see my parents,” she said.
Daoud also remembers how on the first day of university soon after the 1967 Six Day War, she was told to go back home because she was Jewish. “We became virtual prisoners in our home. We could not work. We could not withdraw money from the bank. We could not belong to any group, not even a gym,” she said.
The positive side of this story is that those Jews from Arab lands who immigrated to Canada got a second chance, and most did well thanks to their own effort, they said. Any depiction of their lives in the museum should make clear how grateful they are for that opportunity, the women agreed.
“For a long time, we did not talk about what happened. We wanted to put it behind us and move on with our lives, but Canadians should know about this,” Shashoua said.
Their request was backed by QJC president Adam Atlas and human rights chair Abby Shawn, whose parents are Iraqi.
“The museum committee said we were the first people to have raised the issue of Jews in Arab lands during the hearings, and asked for more information,” Shawn said.
The museum has, however, heard from at least one person who thinks Israel’s alleged violation of Palestinian rights should be included. Dr. Ismail Zayid of Halifax, president of the Canada-Palestine Association who was born in Beit Nuba in 1933, gave a lengthy testimony denouncing what he described as Israel’s aggression against Palestinians, including expulsion and destruction of villages in 1948.
QJC and the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors Organization, represented by Sarah Weinberg, also emphasized giving prominence to the Holocaust in the museum.
“There should be not an inkling of doubt that the Holocaust must have a permanent and prominent exhibit in the [museum] as the prime, extreme example of what the violation of human rights can do, the evils that can be perpetrated and that can be allowed to happen when ‘good people do nothing,’” Weinberg said in her written submission.
That view was echoed by Atlas, the son of a hidden child in Poland, who said, “The Holocaust was the fundamental precursor of international and Canadian human rights laws. The Holocaust became the lens through which all other human rights issues are perceived… We hope the museum sees fit to display the Holocaust as the genesis of the world’s realization that human rights must be enshrined universally.”
Individuals and groups can continue to submit their ideas on what the museum should include to, or by phone at 1-877-295-6639.
This article has been reprinted with the permission  of the Canadian Jewish News
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