Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to have the opportunity to join this debate today. This is with reference to a report from the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, recognizing Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Clearly this report, as we have heard from previous speakers, is an important one that is worthy of debate and discussion. I am delighted to have that opportunity today.
The Middle East has been a profoundly complex region for centuries, and the Arab-Israeli conflict has been one of the most persistent issues on the global agenda for decades. Today we have an opportunity to consider how Canada, recognized worldwide for our enlightened approach toward individuals and communities in need of refuge, can appropriately address the issue of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa in a principled way.
In May 2013, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development heard the profoundly personal stories of Jewish people who were uprooted from their homes of many centuries in Egypt and Iraq, and their subsequent migration to Israel or Canada, for which they have never received appropriate recognition.
In my address today, I will be discussing the prevailing context for Jewish communities at the time of Israel's independence, the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the current state of the peace process as it pertains to the government's response to the committee's recommendations.
Large parts of the over 4,000 years of history of the Jewish people is a history of exile, persecution, exclusion, and anti-Semitism. As we consider the questions in front of us today, it is important to recall the profound horrors endured by Jewish communities around the globe.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era, Jews have experienced persecution almost anywhere they have lived. It is for precisely these reasons that in the late 19th century, Theodor Herzl formalized the case for the establishment of a Jewish state. Amidst pogroms in the Russian empire and widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, Herzl's vision resounded with the Jewish diaspora, and thus began significant Jewish migration to Ottoman and Palestine in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
It is important to note that at the time, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities often lived together peacefully in the Middle East, in adjacent if distinct communities in the great cities of Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad.
However, at the same time as the momentum behind Jewish migration to the Holy Land grew, the geopolitical arrangements of the previous centuries were beginning to unravel. As European alliances erupted into World War I, the weakening Ottoman Empire collapsed, after ruling over a large part of the Middle East and North Africa for half a millennium, including over 400 years in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Europe's colonial powers took control over remaining parts of the empire, with France claiming Syria and Lebanon, and Britain gaining a mandate over Transjordan and Palestine in 1920.
Increasing anti-Semitism in Europe following World War I accelerated Jewish migration to mandate Palestine, further building on the small Jewish community that had formed, some of which had been present for centuries. During the period of the British mandate, the Jewish population of Palestine grew from one-sixth to nearly one-third of the overall population, and tensions began to grow between the Jewish and Arab populations, resulting in riots in Jaffa and a massacre in Hebron in 1929.
A decade later, back in Europe, the Jewish people endured some of humanity's darkest days, and during the Holocaust, the Nazis systematically murdered over six million Jewish people. While not the subject of today's discussion, it is important to recall the sheer horror of the Holocaust, the impact that this dreadful experience has had on the collective Jewish psyche, and the guidance that this terrible sequence of events should provide to people of conscience everywhere when discussing the modern State of Israel.
After the Holocaust, the international community did indeed come to recognize the compelling need for the establishment of a Jewish state. Canada was proud to be one of the countries preparing the blueprint for peace as part of the 1947 UN Special Committee on Palestine, contributing the services of Sir Ivan Rand, a Canadian Supreme Court justice.
That committee, with Rand playing an important swing role, proposed a two-state solution: a Jewish state and an Arab state, together with an international regime governing Jerusalem. The committee's recommendation ultimately resulted, on November 29, 1947, in the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, setting out the partition plan.
Canada was proudly among the 33 countries that voted for that resolution to ensure it gained the two thirds of votes required to pass, despite pressure from Britain to abstain. Unfortunately, among the 13 countries that voted against Resolution 181 were a number of neighbouring states in the region that would not support the establishment of a Jewish state.
It was no surprise, then, that following Israel's declaration of independence in May 1948, a protracted state of war followed. Israel was immediately attacked by neighbouring Arab states. The Haganah, predecessor to today's Israel Defense Forces, successfully defended the newly established Jewish state, and by the time of the armistice in 1941, had in fact expanded its borders well beyond those envisaged in the 1947 partition plan.
Those Palestinian Arabs who remained in their homes throughout the war period were granted Israeli citizenship. Those who fled were deemed Palestinian refugees.
As the committee concluded in its November 2013 report, one of the main messages to emerge from the committee's hearings is that two refugee populations were created by the Arab-Israeli conflict: one Palestinian and one Jewish. Just as Canada was driven by its humanitarian values to support the establishment of the State of Israel, so too Canada played an important role in supporting the needs of Palestinian refugee communities, both directly and through the UN.
The committee's hearings, however, have brought overdue attention to a second refugee population created following the 1948 war, that of the Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa. As the detailed presentations to the committee show, over 850,000 Jewish people lived in Arab countries in 1948. As noted earlier, these communities had lived together peacefully with their Christian and Muslim neighbours for centuries.
Following the adoption of the partition plan and the declaration of independence of Israel, Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa faced a changed landscape, becoming the subject of suspicion, fear, and violence. Within 10 years, over half had left these countries, with the vast majority of the remaining families following in the next 20 years.
Today, the once-vibrant Jewish quarters of Damascus, Cairo, and Sanaa are Jewish in name only. In many cases, as the committee poignantly heard, when Jewish families left, they left with nothing, despite leaving land and homes behind.
There is, however, no UN agency responsible for the primary services of these populations. There are no camps housing them. Most resettled in Israel or in welcoming countries such as Canada. As the committee heard, however, these ultimately divergent outcomes do not negate the need for recognition of the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948.
The eventual success of the State of Israel and the successful integration of many Jewish families into other countries do not diminish the need to acknowledge this very difficult experience.
The government is also in agreement with the committee's view that recognition of the experiences of Jewish refugees does not diminish or compete with the situation of Palestinian refugees. It is important, therefore, to ensure that the statements and actions of the Government of Canada do not undermine current negotiations or seek to prejudge their outcome. In this regard, the ensuing history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is pertinent to today's discussion.
Amidst an environment of continued hostility toward the Jewish state, Israel continued to mature into a strong democracy. During the upheaval of the Cold War, Israel continued to attract Jewish migrants from all over the world. They saw in Israel a place where they would forever be free from persecution. Israel was not, however, free from enemies. Following the 1948 war, Jordan had occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Egypt took control over the Gaza Strip, both areas that were part of the planned Arab state envisioned in UN resolution 181. As tension mounted, the Six Day War erupted in 1967, and Israel's victory resulted in its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Sinai and the Golan Heights. A second conflict in 1973 with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan confirmed Israel's military supremacy in the region.
In the ensuing decades, in addition to demonstrating strength, Israel has demonstrated its willingness to make peace with its neighbours when such efforts are genuine. As a result, in 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a historic peace accord, which returned the Sinai to Egypt and ended the hostilities between Israel and the largest Arab state. In 1994, Jordan followed suit, and signed a peace treaty with Israel. The latter agreement was signed in the context of great optimism for peace in the region, with secret talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, resulting in the Oslo accords of 1993, granting the Palestinians self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian aspirations of statehood, left unfulfilled since UN resolution 181, seemed within reach.
The great optimism of this period was shattered, however, with the assassination in 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist Jewish settler, Yigal Amir. With the architect of the Oslo accords gone, commitment to the process faded and, instead, nearly two decades of intermittent violence and continued military occupation have ensued.
This brings us to the present day. The nearly 20 years since Rabin's assassination have seen numerous attempts by the international community, and in particular the U.S., to bring the two sides back together to achieve a final status agreement. Wye River, Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba, Annapolis, and Amman have been the sites of summits and conferences, but none have resulted in an agreement acceptable to the parties.
Canada's foreign policy objective throughout has been a comprehensive, two-state solution reached through a negotiated agreement between the parties that guarantees Israel's right to live in peace and security with its neighbours and leads to the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state.
Today, with U.S. stewardship, an opportunity to achieve such a historic peace may be before us. Under the leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the peace process has begun again in earnest, with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators meeting regularly since July 2013. It is understood that all final status issues are on the table, including borders, security, settlements, and security for Jerusalem and refugees. This follows a period during which hopes for peace had all but faded, and the Palestinians sought to gain recognition through unilateral actions, such as a statehood bid at the United Nations.
Canada's support for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, like our opposition to the statehood initiative in November 2012, is based on the recognition that a just and lasting peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as spelled out in UN resolutions 242 and 338.
Today, these negotiations may present the last chance to achieve the two-state solution. For those committed to the defence of the Jewish state and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the current process is a genuine opportunity for peace.
Secretary Kerry has obtained explicit backing from the Arab League for the initiative, reiterating the Arab peace initiative that would make an Israel-Palestinian peace the cornerstone of Israel's security in the wider region, in recognition from its neighbours. Unlike the Madrid process of the 1990s, this is a direct, bilateral consultation with strong U.S. engagement. In line with Canadian statements in recent years, it is our view that this is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace.
For these negotiations to be successful, third parties need to allow the process to unfold and not seek to prejudge its outcome. It is our assessment, therefore, that now is not an opportune time to implement the committee's second recommendation. As the issue of Jewish refugees in the Middle East and North Africa is not currently under negotiation, a request by a third party such as Canada to insert this issue into talks at this stage is unlikely to be helpful.
The current negotiations build on years of history, and the sequencing and layers of nuance between Palestinian refugees, the right of return, the recognition of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, and a host of other issues, lie in a delicate balance. Introducing the issue of Jewish refugees at this stage may set back the discussions and may risk violating the principle that the committee sought to respect in ensuring that the recognition of Jewish refugees does not diminish or compete with the situation of Palestinian refugees.
In keeping with Canada's principled approach to the conflict, we agree with the committee's first recommendation that the Government of Canada officially recognize the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948. Such recognition, long overdue, would be historic and would place Canada at the forefront of the international discussion on Jewish refugees. Canada's official recognition would be one small step in acknowledging this difficult period for Jewish communities of the region.
Given the current delicate state of affairs with closely held negotiations ongoing, it is not an opportune time to implement the second recommendation. By seeking to influence the parties to acknowledge the plight of Jewish refugees at this time, Canada would run the risk of having its recognition of Jewish refugees diminish or compete with the situation of Palestinian refugees. At this stage, therefore, we believe that the appropriate course of action is to officially recognize the experience of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa while continuing to support U.S.-led efforts in bringing the parties toward a comprehensive, two-state solution.
Peace will only be reached through a negotiated agreement between the two parties that guarantees Israel's right to live in peace and security with its neighbours and leads to the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state.
This brings my comments to an end.