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David Matas: Justice for Jews from Arab countries and the Peace Process

by David Matas, posted May 28, 2014

(Excerpts from remarks prepared for delivery to the Shaarey Zedek Sisterhood Interfaith Luncheon, 6 May 2014, Winnipeg, Mb.)


Statistics tell a striking story[1].  In 1948, the year Israel began, the Jewish population of Arab countries was 856,000; in 2001 the figure was 7,800. During that period, another 57,000 were displaced from Iran.  About 600,000 of the over 900,000 settled in Israel.


According to United Nations estimates, the Arab Israeli war of 1948 created 726,000 Palestinian refugees.  So there were more Jewish refugees uprooted from Arab countries and Iran than there were Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the 1948 war.


These people were not, for the most part, voluntary migrants seeking to leave their home countries for economic reasons or wanting to immigrate to Israel for religious or ethnic reasons.  They were mainly refugees forced to flee to save themselves.  Before they were displaced, they were threatened, harassed and persecuted.  Their property was forfeited or confiscated, either before or after they fled.  The Jews who fled Arab countries and Iran are a victim population, people who suffered human rights violations at the hands of the governments and populations in the countries in which they lived[2]


There were three reasons articulated for victimizing Jews in Arab countries.  One was that Jews were seen as enemy aliens.   The antisemitic dual loyalty card that the Jewish community has seen for generations played itself out against the Jewish population of Arab countries.   Expropriation and denationalization laws as well as laws restricting employment to nationals referred to Zionists or Israelis.  The terms "Zionist" or "Israeli" was undefined, but in practice, it meant "Jewish".


This rationalization echoed the rhetoric of the Holocaust.  Jews were rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other death and concentration camps on the ground that they were enemies of the Nazis.  It did not matter that they shared the same nationality as their perpetrators.  Their very Jewishness made them enemies.  


A second reason was state sponsored terrorism.  Arab states terrorized their Jewish population as a way of attempting to intimidate and threaten Israel.  The enemies of Israel decided to attack the Jewish people in their midst as a way of attacking Israel.   This victimization was a form of blackmail, extortion.  But what was sought in return was not money so much as Israeli self destruction.


A third reason was a simple tit for tat.   Because, according to the anti-Zionist view of the world, Israel has created a Palestinian refugee population, anti-Zionists would in turn create a Jewish refugee population.


For each country in the region, there are specific incidents and laws to recount.  Overall, there is a pattern -  antisemitic mob violence which the authorities did nothing to prevent, control or punish, as well as strikingly similar discriminatory legislation, expropriating the property of Jews, denying them employment and refusing them citizenship status.  Jews were subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, and even public execution. 


Despite the grotesque violations of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, the global community has been silent.  The contrast with the clamour over Palestinian refugees is stark.


Since 1947, there have been hundreds of UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with virtually every aspect of the Middle East and the Arab Israeli conflict.  Over 100 of these UN resolutions refer to the plight of Palestinian refugees.  In none of these many resolutions is there a reference to the fate of Jews living in Arab countries or to Jewish refugees. 


This clamour about Palestinian refugees and silence about Jewish refugees gets me back to the aspect from which I want to address the issue, the currently stalled peace talks.  The relation of this topic to those talks is not just a Middle East issue.  It is also a Canadian issue.


A Parliamentary Committee and the Government of Canada have both addressed the issue. Despite the fact that the Government has a majority and controls Parliament, the Parliamentary Committee and the Government have diverged on this issue.  In my view, the Parliamentary Committee is right and the Government is wrong.


The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development held hearings on the question of recognizing Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa a year ago, in May 2013.  I appeared before the Committee with others on behalf of the organization Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.  The Committee reported in November 2013.  They had two recommendations.  They were:

          "Recommendation 1

          The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada officially recognize the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948.

          Recommendation 2

          The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada 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 Government of Canada accepted the first recommendation, but had reservations about the second. The Government issued an official statement in which it said about the second recommendation that:

          "The Government of Canada understands the positive intent underlying this recommendation but at this time, Canada has offered its support to the peace process as presently structured. The current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations take place in the context of the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel peace with the broader Arab world if it reaches an agreement with the Palestinians. There currently are no direct negotiations on the subject of Jewish refugees between Israel and the refugees' countries of origin in the Middle East and North Africa."


The phrase "Canada o

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