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Migration & Refugees

Canada’s Israel Lobby Criticised on Refugees

TORONTO, Feb 4 2013 (IPS) - Canada’s major Israel lobby organisation is running into conflict with critics who say it is betraying the historical liberal legacy of this country’s 380,000-member Jewish community.

The barely two-years-old Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is supporting restrictive Canadian refugee legislation, Bill C-31, that has sparked opposition from traditional human rights groups including Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and the Canadian Council for Refugees.

For prominent Toronto Jewish refugee doctor, Dr. Philip Berger, CIJA is rejecting traditional sympathy in his community in Canada for people fleeing oppression. This included fellow Jews escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, when an earlier Canadian government under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King enforced a “none is too many” policy towards people seeking refuge from Nazi rule.

“CIJA is a disaster for the Jewish community. It is actually starting to become evident a little bit already,” he told IPS.

The new Canadian refugee law provides wide powers to Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney to designate countries as “safe” and “democratic” and thus more liable to generating “bogus” refugees versus those who are genuine.

The inclusion of Hungary on the Canadian government list despite reports of the Budapest government’s failure to protect its Roma minority population from discrimination and physical attacks is also upsetting some Jewish organisations, including the Toronto Board of Rabbis and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

Says Alice Herscovitch, executive director of the Montreal Centre, “People should have access to a fair refugee system. There are countries that produce refugees despite the fact that they are democratic and have an elected government.”

But CIJA’s Steve McDonald counters that Bill C-31 makes “significant improvements toward protecting the safety and security of Canadians”, as well as “deterring human smuggling and dispensing with unsubstantial refugees fairly and quickly”. The centre is refusing to join others in demanding Hungary be taken off the safe list.

CIJA has also unsuccessfully urged the Canadian government to rethink its decision to restrict health services to refugees from its designated list of safe countries.

But this is not enough for Berger. “CIJA should be leading front and centre (on
this issue),” he said. “They know damn well what is going on. They are so manacled to the Conservative government that they have forfeited any notion of an independent organisation that represents the true interests and views of the Jewish community.”

CIJA came into being as Canadian foreign policy, first under the Liberals and now under the Conservatives, became decidedly more pro-Israel versus taking an even-handed stance between Israel and the Palestinians, notes University of Victoria political scientist and professor emeritus, Reg Whitaker.

“The uncritical alignment of the (Stephen) Harper government with the Israeli Right (i.e. Israel’s governing Likud party) has obviously created a much more welcome climate for aggressive AIPAC-style lobbying in Ottawa,” he told IPS.

Whittaker was alluding to the U.S.-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which he describes as having a higher profile in Washington than is the case with CIJA in Ottawa.

This is not for lack of trying on the part of CIJA, he added. Whitaker suggested that the powerful donors who decided to merge various organisations, including the century-old Canadian Jewish Congress, to create CIJA wanted a Canadian version of AIPAC to buttress the case for Israel in Canada.

“The effect of the takeover is to subsume the wider and diverse interests of the (Jewish) community, previously served by a variety of institutions and advocacy groups, under an aggressive AIPAC-style umbrella that conflates ‘Jewish’ interests with Israel’s interests – or in fact with the interests of the Israeli Right. The flip side of course is to automatically label any criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic,” he said.

But CIJA has been clumsy at times, said Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov. She pointed to CIJA’s effort to discourage a U.S. author, Peter Beinart, from addressing Jewish Hillel student groups on two university campuses in Ottawa and Montreal. He was on a tour advocating a boycott of products manufactured in illegal Jewish settlement on Palestinian lands under Israeli control.

Also calling for a similar action, Sucharov predicted being barred personally from speaking to the same students. “Through my annual donation to my local Jewish Federation’s annual campaign, I help fund both CIJA and Hillel, the very organisations that would seek to muzzle me and the many others who oppose economic support of the settlements.”

In its defence, CIJA contends that a boycott of settlement products plays a part in “delegitimize(ing)” the state of Israel.

“A boycott of Jews – no matter where they live – is not a tactic of debate or engagement. It’s a tool of conflict. One who calls for the singling out of our fellow Jews for punishment, economic or otherwise, has rejected an essential principle of people hood,” CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Bernie Farber, who headed the old Canadian Jewish Congress before it was forced to merge with the new CIJA, refuses to be drawn into a criticism of the new governing Jewish body.

“CIJA did come out with a couple of statements in support of the Roma. Some feel that it wasn’t strong; some feel they should not have said anything,” he told IPS. “It is typical of the Jewish community where you are going to have a number of opinions.”

Farber also maintained that Jews and Roma groups share a special historical bond because both were specifically targeted in Europe for genocide during the Holocaust by the Nazis.

And he recalled the significant legal and human resources that his organisation under this leadership invested in the past decades on behalf of the Roma in Canada. “There is no longer a Canadian Jewish congress, but the (Jewish) community is still finding ways (to speak out), maybe not through its official spokesbody,” he said.

Steve McDonald defended the different emphasis at CIJA. “I have to say, in general, I’m not sure I can conceive a situation in which we take a position that isn’t met with some disagreement within the diverse landscape of Canada’s Jewish community. This goes back to our view that we should strive for unity of purpose rather than uniformity of viewpoint.”

Meanwhile, to discourage potential asylum seekers the Canadian government is paying for billboard advertising in the Hungarian city of Miskolc where many members of the Roma community reside.

“Virtually all Hungarian asylum claims are abandoned or withdrawn by the claimants themselves, or determined to be unfounded by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board,” said Alexis Pavlich, a spokesperson for Canadian minister Jason Kenney in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“Canadians have no tolerance for those who abuse our system and seek to take unfair advantage of our country at great expense to taxpayers.”

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