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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 offers its support to the peace process as presently structure" is disingenuous.  The Government of Canada has already taken a number of positions on the peace process which can be found at its Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) website.  I disagree with a number of points and think they should be changed.  It would take me too far afield to go into all these points and why I disagree with them.  But I point out that they are there.


Two of the many points on that website deal directly with refugees.  So I will mention those. One is the policy that

          "Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is central to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) and United Nations Security Council resolution 242."

That policy needs rewording to encompass Jewish refugees from Arab countries.


A just solution to the refugee issue, for all refugees created by the conflict, is central to a settlement of the conflict.  There were more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than there were Palestinian refugees from Israel.  It is one sided to mention only one refugee population. 


Moreover, resolutions 194 and 242 do not, as the policy statement suggests, refer only to Palestinian refugee. These resolutions refer to refugees generated by the conflict generically. 


Resolution 194 dates from 1948.  At that time the term "Palestine" was used to refer to the former British Mandate Palestine.  The term was not then used as it used now, to refer to the territory of the eventual Palestinian state.


The negotiating history of resolution 242 of November 1967 shows that it purposely used a broad term, rather than a Palestinian specific term, in order to encompass the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.  Describing the resolutions the way the policy statement does is both unreflective of the actual wording and a misstatement of history.


A second policy on the DFAIT website is that

          "A solution to the Palestinian refugee issue ... should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.  Canada has played a prominent role in the search for a viable and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, including through continuing to focus international attention on improving the situation of the more than four million Palestinian refugees."

That policy is self contradictory and needs rewording.


The four million people the Palestinian Authority designates as refugees are not refugees as that term is understood in international law.  The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a definition for Palestinian refugees which conflicts in a number of respects with the definition of refugees found in international law. 


The number of Palestinian refugees is artificially inflated to include those who are locally integrated, those who have the substantive rights of nationality in the country in which they live, those who have dual nationality, and those who have a durable solution where they are. 


The number of four million encompasses former temporary residents of British Mandate Palestine. It includes as well descendants of the original refugee population without reference to whether the descendants meet international law refugee criteria. 


The number is further artificially inflated by the refusal of this population to accept resettlement.  The commitment of anti-Zionists to maintaining Palestinians as refugees was highlighted when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in April 2000 and Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley in January 2001 offered to resettle Palestinian refugees in Canada. PLO spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman rejected the Prime Minister's offer.  He said: "We reject any kind of settlement of refugees in Arab countries, or in Canada."[3] 


John Manley, in response to his offer, was burned in effigy near the West Bank city of Nablus[4].  Hussum Khader, head of the largest Palestinian Fatah militia in Nablus, "If Canada is serious about resettlement you could expect military attacks in Ottawa or Montreal".[5]


The number of four million Palestinian refugees on the DFAIT website also, contrary to the international law of refugees, encompasses those who refuse to renounce armed activity as well as those complicit in acts of terrorism.  Many, indeed most, of the four million are not refugees at international law.  The reference to four million or for that matter any specific number should be dropped.


So that is one problem with the Government of Canada reaction to the Parliamentary statement -  a feigned position of neutrality and non-involvement, just simple support for whatever is happening when the DFAIT website tells a very different story.  A second problem is the statement that "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."   


This statement ignores the fact that some of the Jewish refugees generated by the wars against the existence of Israel come from the West Bank and Gaza, about 40,000[6].  Even if negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel were limited only to negotiations between Israel and the authorities which have jurisdiction over their territories of origin, the Palestinian Israeli peace negotiations should address that issue.


Second, and more important, the issue of refugees is central to the peace negotiations.  The notion that there could be peace, even meaningful peace negotiations, without reference to refugees is not tenable.  Yet, it is impossible to discuss one refugee population without discussing the other.


To get to peace we have to get at the genesis of war.  The genesis of war between Arab and Muslim states in the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on the one hand and Israel on the other is anti-Zionism.   The way to peace is combating anti-Zionism.  Any peace treaty which leaves to one side incitement to hatred and war propaganda is a treaty in name only which would generate only a fragile and temporary peace.


Front and centre in the anti-Zionist array of propaganda ploys is the theme that the creation of the state of Israel equates to the victimization of the Palestinians and that the only effective way to end that victimization is to end the creation of the state of Israel.   The notion that the refugee issue then can just be relegated to other later peace negotiations with the overall Arab world flies in the face of reality. 


Palestinian refugees are real people, many of them who are really suffering.  However their victimizers are not Israel or Israelis.  Their victimizers are rather anti-Zionism and anti-Zionists.  We can not see our way through to peace without breaking the chains of anti-Zionism holding Palestinian refugees down.


How do we do that? One way is confront the myth of one refugee population with the reality of two refugee population.  Change the future by confronting the past.  The acceptance of the dual victimization is not something that needs to be reserved for later wider negotiations.  Unless the Palestinians themselves accept the reality of dual victimization, a meaningful peace becomes impossible.  That is a position I am glad to see the Parliament of Canada has accepted.  That is a position that I am dismayed to see the Government of Canada has not.


The Palestinian Authority can not settle financial claims of Jewish refugees from Libya or Egypt or the many other countries whose governments confiscated Jewish property and otherwise victimized their Jewish nationals.  The Palestinian Authority can though acknowledge the reality of this Jewish refugee population and set up a mechanism and standards for compensation of both Arab refugees from Israel and Jewish refugees from the West Bank and Gaza which can then be emulated in broader later negotiations with countries in the Middle East and North Africa.


While what we Israelis and Palestinians do at the negotiating table may seem far removed from us here today, what the Government of Canada does is a different matter.  We need to urge the Government of Canada to agree with its own Parliament.  We should all do our part to work towards that.


David Matas is senior honorary counsel to B'nai Brith Canada and a lawyer in private practice in Winnipeg.


    [1]  "Jewish Population in Arab Countries 1948-2001" Roumani, "Maurice; The Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue". WOJAC, 1983; and American Jewish Yearbook: 1958, 1969, 1970, 1978, 1988, 2001, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

    [2] David Matas "Aftershock: Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism", Dundurn Press, Chapter 11, 2005

    [3] Robert Fife, "Policy chaos as PM stumbles again", National Post, April 13, 2000.

    [4] Mike Trickey "Angry at a reported offer of a home, Palestinians burn Manley in effigy" Ottawa Citizen, January 19, 2001.

    [5] "Canadians might understand now" Canadian Jewish News, February 22, 2001.

    [6] Sidney Zabludoff "Jewish Refugees of 1948"


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