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P M Justin Trudeau
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Syrian refugee immigration to Canada: Is it good for the Jews?

Joy Mazel ,January 15, 2016


Ever since Justin Trudeau promised, prior to the last federal election to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the end of 2015, Canadians have been divided over his proposal. One poll commissioned by Ipsos found 60% of Canadians were opposed to the plan. A second poll by Forum in November indicated that 51% were opposed, whereas a second poll conducted by Forum in December found that the percentage opposed had dropped to 44%. The exact percentage opposed will likely vary depending on the exact question asked (which was different between the November and December Forum polls), the context of the question within the poll (the November poll had a number of questions about ISIS which may have affected the response to the refugee question by linking the two in respondents’ minds), and the timing in relation to such events as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. But clearly, some Canadians have reservations about accepting Syrian refugees. These reservations likely relate to a number of factors, including:  security concerns about accepting such a large number of refugees so quickly; concerns about the costs of resettling the refugees; and likely in some cases, a general opposition to any immigration due to xenophobia and racism.


No specific polls have been conducted among Canadian Jewry, but there is no reason to suspect that they are not divided on the issue as well. Now if one looks at the official community organizations, it would appear that Canadian Jewry is overwhelmingly supportive of the refugees. Synagogues in many communities are raising money to assist in resettlement. Even CIJA (The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) has come out with statements generally supportive of refugee resettlement in Canada. However, if one reads between the lines of the CIJA statements, and if one listens to the criticism of CIJA by others in the Jewish community, one gets a sense that there is not unanimity within the Canadian Jewish community.


For example, CIJA’s CEO, Shimon Koffler Fogel, issued a statement on behalf of CIJA on November 2015, in which he stated:

“…it is entirely appropriate and necessary for Canada to do its part in addressing the refugee crisis, including welcoming the displaced and vulnerable to Canada. The same focus applied to maximizing the impact of the military mission should also be applied to the humanitarian effort. As Canada moves forward with the noble objective of settling 25,000 refugees, the government should ensure that its plan has the greatest possible impact on the vulnerable groups we so desperately want to help.”


Sounds like CIJA is on board with Trudeau’s plan, right? Not so fast…


“According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, third state resettlement is not the preferred option, to be undertaken only when local solutions cannot be found. Canada should take in as many refugees as possible as quickly as possible based on an objective determination, not an arbitrary quota and timeline. This does not necessarily preclude the 25,000 by Dec. 31 target, but the overriding consideration must be “what would best serve the needs of the refugee population?”


Canada should work with countries like Lebanon and Jordan, which are dealing directly with the crisis on the ground, to determine whether Canadian resources, or at least a portion of them, could achieve more by improving conditions for refugees in camps near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. In the long run, this could better provide what the vast majority of refugees want: a chance to return home when the conflict is resolved. CIJA has engaged in preliminary discussions with the King of Jordan to explore ways that Canadians can contribute directly to this cause, and we would welcome the Government of Canada joining us in this endeavor.”


My impression after reading the CIJA statement is that they are trying to walk a fine line between not openly opposing Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada, and advocating for an alternative focus on refugee assistance outside of Canada as a more effective means of addressing this enormous issue.


CIJA’s advocacy of this alternative focus is couched in terms suggesting that it is the interests of the refugees that is the preeminent concern. But the elephant in the room, that is not addressed publicly by Jewish community organizations (although I suspect, it is a hot topic of discussion privately) is what this immigration potentially means for Canadian Jewry. Specifically, there are at least 3 potential concerns.


Firstly, what will the effect of this large immigration have on the influence of Canadian Jewry in federal politics, and specifically, the ability of Canadian Jewry to successfully advocate for Israel? The Muslim population in Canada is already growing in comparison to the Jewish population, which is shrinking. This trend will be accelerated by bringing in a large number of largely Muslim refugees from the middle east. The numbers cited by the liberal government as a goal are 25,000 refugees by February 2016, and as many as 35 to 50,000 by the end of next year. However, the civil war in Syria will likely go on for some time, and the potential pool of refugees currently in camps in Turkey, Jordan,  Lebanon, and Iraq number over 3 million, not even counting the number of internally displaced refugees within Syria, felt to number over 6 million. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the 35,000 to 50,000 will not be the end total, but rather just the beginning of the immigration. Further, with family reunification programs, which the Liberal government has pledged to liberalize, this number will almost certainly increase over time, as immigrants seek to bring relatives to Canada. This immigration will, over time have an effect on the political power of the Muslim community in Canada, which will make itself felt in Canadian politics, and in the Canadian governments response to domestic political pressure as it effects its foreign policy in the middle east. This process has already been underway for a number of years, but will likely accelerate as Canada’s Muslim population increases. The result will be a policy that will be described as more “balanced”, but will almost certainly reflect a greater concern for the Palestinian narrative, and less support for the government of Israel. This will be particularly the case if Israel continues to trend to the right, as it has in the past several decades. Canadian policy will likely more and more resemble the foreign policy of the European Union, with increasing criticism of Israel’s settlement policy, and the perceived unequal treatment of both Palestinians in the territories and Israeli Arabs within Israel. There will likely be less and less sympathy for the legitimate security concerns of Israel, and less support for Israeli retaliation against aggression, whether it be against Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.


In addition to the effects of the immigration on the relative weight of the Muslim community in Canadian politics, there are legitimate security concerns regarding the large, and rather precipitous Syrian refugee immigration to Canada. In a rather candid interview, a top former Canadian government official admitted that the liberal government was letting politics trump policy and security concerns. Gerry Van Kessel, former Director General Refugees, for the Immigration Department, accused the government of being more concerned with the political optics of refugee policy, and putting into place an unrealistic timeframe for bringing in 25,000 immigrants, leading to the possibility that corners will be cut. This is further suggested by the fact that the government has been repeatedly forced to revise the details of the number and timing of the refugee’s arriving. Initially 25,000 were supposed to arrive by the end of 2015.  As of December 26th, exactly 2,413 had arrived. One might argue that the fact that revisions have taken place supports the fact that the government is being prudent in their approach. An alternative explanation, which in my opinion is more compelling, is that the security and logistical problems were so egregious that the security and immigration bureaucracy demanded the government put on the breaks. A government pushing a reluctant bureaucracy to speed up the process to avoid political embarrassment does not instill a great deal of confidence in the process. Further, even a better process of screening refugees would suffer from the inherent difficulties in such an undertaking. FBI Director James B. Comey has stated that there is intelligence indicating that terrorist groups are actively planning to take advantage of refugee immigration in order to infiltrate Western societies. The vetting of the refugees cannot be perfect. By giving preference to women, children and men with families, the government intends to minimize the chance of a terrorist entering Canada, based on the assumption that the most common profile of an Islamic terrorist is the lone young single male. Yet while this is true, the fact is there are exceptions. Two of the men who carried out the 2005 London bombings had wives and children. The Charlie Hebdo killers had wives. In fact, Britain estimates that 10% of those who have left Britain to fight with ISIS are women, and in France, officials estimate the figure may be as high as 25%. If 25,000 refugees are coming to Canada, and we manage to successfully screen 99.9% of them, this would be considered a highly successful screening program. And yet for those who do the math, 25 terrorists will slip into the country with this success rate. Is it reasonable to expect 100% success? Anyone who has dealt with a bureaucracy in any form, whether legal, medical, government, police, or military, knows that to expect 100% success is not realistic. There will be terrorists that enter Canada, and even more terrorist sympathizers. Then question is not whether, in my mind, but when, and how many.


However, the political and security concerns are actually not my major concern. Rather, it is what Canada, and Canada’s political and public culture will look like in the next few decades, and what implications this has for Canadian Jews. This is a difficult topic, and one that is not easy to bring up without bringing on charges of racism and xenophobia. Let me make several things clear. I know many muslims, both Canadian, and from the Middle East. I have worked with them, socialized with them, celebrated life events with them. In almost all respects, they are not dissimilar from my Jewish friends. Among them are some who are intelligent, some not so intelligent, some social, some introverted, some with a keen sense of humour, some who rarely laugh. In short, they are essentially people like any other people. But there is an exception, and that involves their views on Israel, and the right of Jewish people to have a nation state. With a few exceptions there is very little sympathy for Zionism. The narrative they have grown up with, through religious teaching or political indoctrination, is that Palestine was stolen from the Muslims by white European Jews, and that Israel is a colonial project that was foisted on the middle east due to European guilt over the Holocaust. In general, Israel is not seen as legitimate. And for those muslims, (in my opinion a distinct minority) who accept Israel’s right to exist, it is usually only within fairly well demarcated theoretical lines, including a divided Jerusalem, and a significant right of return, the latter antithetical to maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.


I wonder what will happen 10 years from now, in the presence of a larger, more assertive muslim community in Canada, when there is another war involving Israel in the middle east. I wonder, as anger grows in the Muslim community over civilian casualties in Gaza or Lebanon, what will transpire on our streets, including the streets of Winnipeg. What will happen to Jews as they line up to enter the Israeli pavilion for Folklorama? What will happen in front of the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, or synagogues? What will happen to Jews that happen to be observant, and wear kippas or tsitsit in public? Will there be a space in public for a walk in support of Israel, or will the police advise against it, because they cannot control the large and hostile crowd that might oppose it? No one can know for sure. But one can get a sense of one possible outcome by turning one’s eyes to Europe, where Muslim communities have grown over the past 50 years. Once can look at Sweden, (Malmo if one is pessimistic). Once can look at France, at Britain. Of course another possible outcome is that the tolerance and humanism of the Canadian mosaic will triumph, and that all views will be peacefully respected and accommodated. But I would not bet on that possibility. And I would not bet my children’s future on that possibility. It is important to understand that it is not necessary for a majority of the Muslim immigrants to be openly anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, or even a large minority. All it takes is a small critical mass that is hostile and committed, to significantly change the climate for the worse, and make the public space one that is hostile for Canadian Jewry.


Were I to come face to face with a Syrian refugee family, and were I to be given the authority to allow them into Canada, or banish them to the wasteland of the refugee camps in the middle east, I would have a very difficult time saying no to them. I would have no choice but to welcome them to Canada for a better life. But the fact remains that such sentiments, and the policy that accompanies them, will have very real consequences for Canadian Jews in the future, and we should be realistic about this as well.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.