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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 25,0

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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.