In a June 2005 interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Prime Minister Paul Martin inserted an important element of moral clarity to Canada’s Middle East policy. In asserting that “A refugee is a refugee … I think we’ve got to be prepared to take Jewish claims into consideration,” Mr. Martin was not only establishing a standard of statesmanship that other countries should seek to emulate; he was also effectively redefining the terms of reference for a settlement of the regional refugee issue which had always been skewed in favour of the Palestinian refugees.
For, although it has gotten the lion’s share of international attention, the issue of the estimated 650,000 Palestinian Arabs who became refugees in the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War has never existed in a vacuum. Comparatively little is heard about the 820,000 Jews who were forced by anti-Zionist rioting to flee their centuries’-old homes and properties in Arab countries around the time of Israel’s establishment.
The vast majority of the Jewish refugees were immediately granted citizenship, and successfully absorbed and resettled by the State of Israel; in glaring contrast, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian refugees were denied citizenship by the Arab countries in which they came to reside and in many cases are, to this day, forced to remain in squalid, under-serviced refugee camps as pawns in the Arab world’s ongoing propaganda campaign to embarrass and delegitimize the State of Israel.
Unlike the Palestinian refugees (who demand a non-existent “right of return” to Israel), the Jewish refugees do not wish to return to their former homes and properties in Arab countries. Instead, they want financial compensation for confiscated properties and, more importantly, they want their claims and concerns reflected, acknowledged, and respected in any comprehensive settlement, along with those of the Palestinian refugees.
At the Annapolis Conference, Canada was invited to resume its leadership over the Middle East regional refugee issue. To do so effectively, Canada should continue to formally recognize the Jews from Arab countries as “refugees” and work to ensure their concerns are incorporated in any comprehensive settlement.