Key Facts about the Experience of Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa
- In March of 2014, the Government of Canada became the first aside from Israel to recognize, as a cabinet decision, the plight of nearly one million Jewish refugees who fled their homes in Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel. This historic decision was made in response to a recommendation from the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, unanimously endorsed by all political parties.
- In the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, 856,000 Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa became refugees as a result of local pressure, intimidation, expulsion, and violence.
- Thousands arrived in Canada where they rebuilt their lives, established communities, and contributed to their new country.
- Alongside hundreds of thousands of European Jews who arrived in Israel after the Holocaust, most Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa chose to rebuild their lives in the Jewish state. Ten years after Israel’s establishment, the country’s once-filled refugee camps became obsolete as the new arrivals received citizenship and were integrated into society.
- In the case of the Iraqi Jewish community, some 130,000 Jews were forced to flee – marking the end of a community that had existed for 2,500 years.
- Since 1950, the UN has provided Jewish refugees with a grand total of $35,000 in funds (compared to $13.7 billion for Palestinian refugees).
The years following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war witnessed a massive dislocation of civilians in the Middle East. As one contemporary observer described the refugee situation: “Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were concentrated in tents in transit camps … There was no privacy, and conditions were appalling. An embryonic educational system for children was established, but they suffered from the intense heat and dust in the summer, and wallowed in the mud in winter rains. At one stage, there was no grain whatsoever left, and no money to pay for a shipment due to arrive from America.”
The refugee camps described above were to be found not in Lebanon or Syria, but rather in the then-nascent state of Israel. The observer was Chaim Herzog, who would go on to become Israel’s sixth President. And the refugee children were Jews who’d come from Arab lands. They represented the youngest of nearly a million Jews forced to flee a swath of majority-Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Iraq. In the latter case, the departure of 130,000 Iraqi Jews, who had been driven to poverty thanks to Baghdad’s confiscation of Jewish property, marked the end of a vibrant community that had thrived for no fewer than 2,500 years.
Thousands of refugees from French-speaking North Africa made their way to France and Montreal in the 1950s and 60s. Others went to Europe and the United States. But the overwhelming majority of these Jewish refugees rebuilt their lives in Israel. Ten years after the Jewish state’s establishment, Israel’s refugee camps, once bursting at the seams, became obsolete and were shut down. Every last refugee had been resettled and, despite facing the same economic and social challenges felt by newcomers the world over, were integrated as citizens.
This was achieved (remarkably so, given that this was then a state of only about 1-million people) with little international fanfare. Indeed, since 1950, the UN has provided Jewish refugees with a grand total of $35,000 in funds (compared to $13.7 billion for Palestinian refugees).
Ironically, it is Israel’s success in integrating Jewish refugees from the Middle East that has relegated their tragic dislocation to the footnotes of history. There are no UN agencies or documentary filmmakers to take an interest in these refugees because they no longer exist.
The reverse has been true for their Palestinian counterparts, many of whom lived in camps until their deaths. Even for their children and grandchildren, who inhabit those same camps in Arab nations, the status of “refugee” is inherited from one generation to the next, in perpetuity — the only instance in international law in which the UN specifically defines a refugee in such open-ended terms.
Living in refugee-camp limbo within Arab regimes throughout the region, Palestinian refugees have not only been denied local Arab citizenship but also basic rights of employment, housing and social mobility. Arab governments have presided over the institutionalization of the Palestinian refugee through UNRWA — the only UN agency today tasked with a single group of refugees.
Any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must recognize the plight of all refugees as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict — the roughly 856,000 Jews from Arab lands as well as the 726,000 Palestinians from present-day Israel. As Paul Martin said when he was Prime Minister: “A refugee is a refugee. The situation of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must be recognized.”
Canada’s standing policy on Middle East peace, for many years, recognized Palestinian refugees but made no mention of Jewish refugees form the region. This imbalance was in sharp contrast to the leadership role Canada has played on the refugee file since the inception of the Middle East peace process, as “Gavel Holder” of the multilateral Refugee Working Group. A product of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the working group has served as a complement to bilateral negotiations and as a forum for discussing longer-term issues and possible contributions from the international community to an effective resolution to the refugee issue.
In recent years, CIJA has worked to raise awareness and engage parliamentarians across party lines on the need for Canada to recognize – finally and formally – the history of Jewish refugees from Arab-majority countries. In March of 2014, the Government of Canada became the first aside from Israel to recognize, as a cabinet decision, the plight of nearly one million Jewish refugees from across the region who fled their homes after the creation of the State of Israel. This historic decision was made in response to a recommendation from the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, unanimously endorsed by all political parties.
CIJA looks forward to the implementation of this ground-breaking policy change, which now stands as a core element of Canada’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.