Jul 17, 2013
Canadian Jews Leery of Ottawa’s Stance on Refugees
By: Arno Rosenfeld
Modern pro-Israel stance is welcome, but the country’s denial of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust is a driving factor in Jewish opposition to Bill C-31
A new advocacy group in Canada is proving that despite the current government’s vocal support for Israel, prominent members of the Jewish community in the Great White North remain unafraid to harshly criticize the ruling party.
The recently formed organization, Jewish Refugee Action Network (J-RAN), boasts an impressive board of directors and has offered a blistering critique of changes to immigration laws in Canada that advocates say put unfair obstacles in the way of asylum-seekers.
Specifically the group opposes Bill C-31, passed last summer, which imposed various changes on how prospective refugees are dealt with. The key change was the introduction of a list of “safe” countries. Considered stable, democratic and unlikely to produce credible refugee cases, prospective refugees from “Designated Countries of Origin” have their asylum applications fast-tracked. Unlike refugees from non-DCO countries, they can’t enroll in national healthcare while they wait for their claim to be processed and their ability to appeal a negative decision is significantly curtailed.
“This legislation clearly turns back the clock,” said J-RAN founder Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld. “Some of us feel [the changes] are draconian and very much at odds with what we consider the essence of Canadian culture.”
‘Some of us feel [the changes] are draconian and very much at odds with what we consider the essence of Canadian culture’
While Canada has become one of the leading destinations for refugees, those behind J-RAN recall a time when the country was known for nativism and harsh discrimination against minorities. The memory of how Jews were treated by the Canadian government leading up to and during the Holocaust has been a driving factor in Jewish opposition to Bill C-31.
“Most Jews who have any recollection of history understand it fully and it lives with us as one of the saddest notes in the behavior of Canadian immigration policy,” Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Lewis, an honorary co-chair of J-RAN, was referring to the stark refusal by the Canadian government to admit any Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the 1930s and to intern the handful who made it in.
Now Lewis and other prominent Canadian Jews are using J-RAN as a vehicle to speak out against the country’s new refugees policies, which they say are unfairly targeting the Roma minority in Hungary, one of the countries considered safe by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Porajmos, Romanis at concentration camps (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“We believed that Hungary was specifically picked to target Roma refugees who the minister himself designated as ‘bogus,’” Bernie Farber, former leader of the Canadian Jewish Congress, explained, noting that Roma were persecuted alongside Jews during the Holocaust.
For its part, the Canadian government defends the new system as ethical, fair and necessary to prevent phony refugee claimants from tying up resources.
“Canadians take great pride in our immigration and refugee system but they have no tolerance for those who abuse our generosity and seek to take unfair advantage of our country,” Citizen and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Sonia Lesage said in a statement to The Times of Israel.
According to Lewis, J-RAN’s plan is to muster support for a repeal of the immigration legislation by mobilizing their board’s considerable contacts within the Canadian political system and generating public outrage over the changes But this plan, a serious affront to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, is not without detractors.
‘Canadians take great pride in our immigration and refugee system but they have no tolerance for those who abuse our generosity and seek to take unfair advantage of our country’
“There’s no question that many of the leaders in the Jewish community support Harper because of Harper’s complete and total support for Israel,” Lewis explained.
One Jewish leader critical of J-RAN is Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which positions itself as the standard bearer for Jewish and Zionist Canadian advocacy.
“I do think there’s an element that is tempted to use this as just one of many issues of which to try and create a wedge between the Jewish community and the current government,” Fogel told The Times of Israel.
Lewis derided such accusations as irrelevant.
“They may be mad at us for criticizing the Harper government because they, for whatever reason, feel there should be an unbreakable phalanx — you’re not allowed to take a detour, you’re not allowed to split from the opinion on high,” Lewis said, referring to Jewish groups who opposed J-RAN.
Whether J-RAN is creating a wedge or not, there’s no question that Harper’s unflinching support for the Israeli government has endeared him to many in the Canadian Jewish establishment.
That support has included Canada being one of only a handful of nations to vote against the Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations last November and cutting diplomatic ties with Iran last year.
Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, has spoken forcefully in defense of the Israeli government, including saying, “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.”
‘When our friends make ethical errors in judgment, friends stand up and tell them’
“There can be no doubt that on issues around Israel, the Harper government has been strong and forceful and many in the community embrace that — and that’s a good thing,” Farber, the former Canadian Jewish Congress leader, said. “But when our friends make ethical errors in judgment, friends stand up and tell them.”
“Jews better than anyone understand what it means to be a refugee, a stateless person, somebody trying to escape oppression,” Farber added.
J-RAN appears to show that any illusions the Conservatives had of securing unified Jewish support through Zionist boosterism appears to be misguided.
But Lewis is confident that even harsh criticism from the Jewish community over the refugee issue won’t cause Harper to flinch in his policies vis-a-vis Israel.
“If you know the man, you know that nothing will deter him. That’s not a factor anybody in the Jewish community should worry about,” Lewis, who served alongside then-Israeli ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu in the United Nations, said.
But regardless of what impact J-RAN’s advocacy may have on the Harper government’s foreign policy, Farber said the organization is focused solely on the refugee issue.
“We’re not here to throw support behind any government,” Farber said. “We’re here to shine a light in a very dark corner and hope that by doing so we’re able to prevail upon the best ethical sense of politicians.”