Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to begin by thanking the government for taking the unprecedented and essential step of raising this important issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries here in the foreign affairs committee.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs applauds this committee's efforts. We encourage all of its members to carefully consider the testimony before them and join together in recommending official recognition of the persecution and displacement of over 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Previous witnesses set out the historical facts surrounding this issue. Our focus today will be on the Canadian dimension.
Two refugee populations were created as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one Palestinian and the other Jewish. Unfortunately the plight of Jewish refugees has been completely omitted from Canada's Middle East policy, while that of the Palestinians features prominently. It's essential that policy-makers correct this imbalance. Equitable consideration of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is a necessary component for any just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. It's important to note that achieving peace in the Middle East is not a zero-sum game. The rights and claims of one group need not come at the expense of or displace those of the other.
Much of the peace process is about validation, of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and the recognition of the Palestinians as a people. Redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries is another example of this and needs to be included for true and lasting peace to be achieved.
To be clear, the purpose of incorporating the historic claims of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not to diminish or compete with the claims of Palestinian refugees. The inclusion of the issue of Jewish refugees is meant to complete, not revise, the historical record. The omission of the experience of Jewish refugees from Arab countries from Canadian foreign policy is all the more baffling given how much was known by the Government of Canada throughout the evolution of their plight.
By March 1949, Canadian diplomats were reporting that many thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing North Africa were pouring into Palestine. Just parenthetically, Canadian archives have all of the cables and documents, which we would be happy to share with any committee members afterwards as the primary text that serves the basis of this presentation.
By March 1952, the Government of Canada received reports that Israel had absorbed over 300,000 Jews from Arab countries, including 120,000 from Iraq and another 50,000 from Yemen.
Following months of requests from one of our predecessor organizations, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian government decided in August 1956, “in view of the urgent humanitarian considerations involved”, to recommend waiving the normal security procedures and to facilitate the movement of North African Jews to Canada. That resulted in approximately 25,000 Jews coming to Canada from Morocco as part of the mass migration of over 200,000 Jewish Moroccans between 1948 and 1967.
In December 1956, the Department of External Affairs received diplomatic cables describing the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry. Those Jewish Egyptians who did not have a second citizenship and had been rendered stateless by the discriminatory 1926 nationality code, which impacted on approximately 50% of the 75,000 Jews living in Egypt, were faced with a horrific dilemma. The cables to External Affairs reported that Jews without nationality were given a choice between leaving Egypt or being sent to a concentration camp.
Jews would receive a visit by some official who would intimidate them into signing a declaration of intention to leave Egypt, which would then result in a cancellation of residence permits and then force them to leave the country.
In response to these reports, a memorandum to the Minister of External Affairs, sent in December 1956, stated:
||What we have in mind is that a sensible principle to accept would be that Jewish refugees wishing to go to Israel should do so and that those not wishing to go to Israel should be accommodated elsewhere in the free world, including Canada.
Six days later, External Affairs received another cable detailing a new emergency concerning the movement of 10,000 Jews from Egypt. The cable notes that Greece had offered asylum to an indefinite number, and that the only international agency involved at the time was the International Red Cross. In February 1957 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees deemed the Egyptian refugees eligible for UN protection.
Canadian cables from elsewhere in the region continued to tell a similar story into the following decade. On May 4, 1964, a memorandum from the Canadian Embassy in Switzerland to the Undersecretary of State of External Affairs spoke of apartheid conditions facing the Jews in Tunisia.
Even as late as March 1973, diplomats were expecting an increase in Jewish immigration to Canada from Morocco, “possibly more rapidly and dramatically than we would wish, as new Moroccan measures are being implemented in the months ahead that will force all those unwanted people to seek a new home”.
Yet despite all of this accumulated evidence, despite the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who found asylum in Canada, the official policy of successive governments has only recognized the displaced Palestinians. This remains the status quo today.
A quick review of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's website shows absolutely no reference whatsoever to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In the section that defines our official policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consideration of Palestinian refugees features prominently, while Jewish refugees are ignored.
The current imbalance in Canadian policy stands 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 a forum for discussing longer term issues and possible contributions from the international community to an effective resolution of the refugee issue. As gavel holder, Canada is uniquely placed to raise the profile of the Jewish refugee issue and to ensure that it is given the fair consideration it merits among all parties engaged in the pursuit of a durable peace.
Official incorporation of the Jewish refugee issue into Canadian foreign policy will signal to the world at this important juncture that Canada is ready to take the lead on this central issue and to foster a comprehensive resolution of all refugee claims.
Again, it's important for me to be absolutely unambiguous: We are not advocating for Palestinian refugee issues to feature less prominently. It is a central issue to resolving the conflict, and of that there's no doubt. However, as things currently stand, Canada's policy regarding Middle East refugees is not equitable and needs to be addressed.
It does not detract from the Palestinian refugee issue one iota to also account for the Jewish refugees and reflect their experience. Quite the opposite is true. By being inclusive, Canada's policy more accurately reflects the full reality of the refugee issue and is better oriented toward the comprehensive, final status peace it is supposed to encourage.
Prime Minister Paul Martin was the first world leader outside of the United States to raise this important issue. In a June 3, 2005 media interview, Martin stated:
||A refugee is a refugee, and the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must be recognized. All refugees deserve our consideration as they have lost both physical property and historical connections.
Ladies and gentlemen, the study you're undertaking is a groundbreaking initiative that, while worthy of applause, will only represent a meaningful initiative if it leads to a formal recognition of Jewish refugees in Canada's foreign policy. If we're serious about resolving the refugee issue in the Middle East, we must be true to our own values and enshrine in our official policy that a refugee is a refugee, regardless of ethnic or religious background.
Mr. Chair, thank you very much.
I'd like to express my gratitude to the Canadian committee on foreign affairs and international development for calling this hearing. It is my hope that the current Canadian government will advance the rights of Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.
I am a Jewish refugee from Libya and the co-founder of JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an organization seeking to educate and advocate on behalf of over 850,000 Jewish refugees from the region. Today I would like to share my story, just as I told it to the United States congressional human rights caucus.
I am here to break the silence surrounding the expulsion of nearly one million Jews indigenous to the Middle East. Jews had lived in my native Libya and the rest of the region for over 2,000 years. When I was born in 1948, there were about 36,000 living in Libya; by 1967 there were only 6,000; and today, ladies and gentlemen, my whole community is extinct.
I grew up in a middle-class Jewish community. My father, Rahmin Bublil, imported oil equipment for companies. My father often spoke of the 1945 Mora’ot, a pogrom that took place in Tripoli, when anti-Jewish mobs took to the streets and murdered over 145 Libyan Jews. He buried the severed bodies of his own friends. During the pogrom, my mother escaped the mobs by running from one rooftop to another until a Christian woman saved her life.
When I was born, the Jewish community of Tripoli constituted almost 30% of the total population of the city. My family had lived in Libya for over two millennia, but we were denied citizenship. We were denied basic rights. We were denied the right to travel and to have passports. All of these rights were given to all Libyan Muslims.
The first time I experienced hate and intolerance was in 1954 when I was six years old. I witnessed an arithmetic lesson at the local madrassa school. The teacher turned to the blackboard and said to the little six-year-old Muslim girls, “If you have 10 Jews and you kill five of them, how many Jews do you have left to kill?” I was six years old and completely traumatized. That was a very painful experience for me as a child: my first taste of anti-Jewish hatred.
Our Jewish community was forbidden to the leave the country. We were denied citizenship. We were denied passports. We were denied the right to travel, yet we had to live in this very anti-Jewish environment. In order to cope, we lived in denial and pretended that everything was going to be okay.
On June 6, 1967, the Six Day War broke out between Israel and its five Arab neighbours. I was 19 years old. In Tripoli and Benghazi, mobs took to the streets and shouted, “Edbah el Yehud, Edbah el Yehud”, “slaughter the Jews”. Armed with bottles of gasoline, the mob took to the streets, surrounded Jewish homes and businesses, and burned many of them. Many Jews were killed.
At the time of the riots, I was at work, unable to go home. My British employer hid me in his garage. I was temporarily safe but consumed by fear. While I was in hiding, mobs burned my father’s warehouse and were about to burn my own home when a Muslim neighbour stopped the mob outside, which had already poured gasoline all around the building. This righteous Muslim saved my family's lives. I will be eternally grateful to the honourable and kind Muslim who stood up against evil.
One month after the Six-Day War broke out, I rejoined my family from my hiding place. We were entirely devastated by the relentless rioting, the destruction that befell our ancient and helpless community.
Immediately after I was reunited with my family, the Libyan government ordered the expulsion of all the Jews and the confiscation of all of our property. We were being expelled from the country we had lived in for over 2,000 years. At first, of course, we were delighted to escape from the violence, but then our delight turned into anguish, which grew into fear, anger, and despair. We were being stripped of our property, all of our assets, our homes, and personal belongings. We had no money and no place to go. For days my family and I sat motionless around the kitchen table pondering our future. Where were we going to go? How would we live? We didn't have any money. Which country was going to take us?
A few days later, with one suitcase per person and the equivalent of $25 per person, we boarded a bus to the airport. We were the only passengers. There were seven of us. Halfway to the airport, the driver and the conductor of the bus pulled over to the side of the road, told us there was something wrong with the bus, and one of them left to allegedly get some help.
I followed the conductor to a gas station, where he was using the telephone, and he refused to let me use the phone until I struggled with him physically, and with my hands shaking I was able to call Brian, my guardian angel. I spoke to him in English so that nobody could understand what I was saying. Eventually I said, “Come quickly, we are in mortal danger”, and then I quickly hung up.
When I tried to leave the small office, I found there were three men blocking my way. Again, I struggled with them physically and ran back to the bus. When I arrived at the scene of the bus, I found the driver was standing by a pool of gasoline under the bus. He had siphoned off all the gas from the bus and he was holding a box of matches in his hand. The life of my entire family, seven of us, was locked in that one box of matches.
Eventually, Brian, my British rescuer, and a friend, came to the rescue. They helped us quickly to get in their jeeps and they drove us to the airport, and our lives were spared. I'm standing here today because two brave British Christians saved our lives.
The baggage handlers, when we arrived at the airport, started shouting at us, “Al Yahud Kelabna Arab”, “Jews are the dogs of the Arabs”. They refused to load our bags.
We eventually went to Italy, where we lived penniless and destitute. Seven of us lived in one room, a very small room. Because there was no place to sleep on the floor anymore for the seven of us, my sister and I for two years shared sleeping inside a bathtub. Please don't try it. It's not very comfortable.
We had endured the hardships of discrimination, intolerance, the loss of a 2,000-year community, our culture. We endured human rights abuses only because we were Jewish. The only thing we had left was our dignity. We mourned the loss of our own selves. We felt we had been lost to civilization, lost to the world, lost to history forever.
Despite our oppression, despite our suffering and humiliation, we rose above victimhood. We were victimized, but we never felt as victims. We rose above revenge. We focused on rebuilding our shattered life.
I have personally forgiven the perpetrators who tried to kill my family and me. I believe that hate is a weapon of mass destruction.
My story is not unique. It is the story of nearly one million Jews who were made refugees from nine Arab countries. Six hundred thousand fled to Israel, which became the largest and most successful refugee camp in the Middle East, because it integrated us and gave us dignity and hope. The remaining 300,000 were absorbed in host countries around the world. In all, fully 99% of the Arab world's Jewish inhabitants fled or were expelled from nine Arab countries.
Two years after my expulsion, I came to the United States as a refugee. My Jewish community in San Francisco integrated me. I devoted my life to advocating for human rights all over the world. I never felt like the victim. But you know what is the most painful thing to endure for me? The realization that the United Nations international community inoculated itself with apathy and indifference when it came to our plight. Our losses were ignored by the western world. The expulsion of nearly one million Jews from nine Arab countries had no political consequences.
The fact that these Jewish refugees were forgotten is not just a matter of history. Forgetting nearly one million Jewish refugees from nine Arab countries means that we have a grossly distorted view of the Middle Eastern refugee problem today. It creates political distortions with real relevance to the future of the Middle Eastern peace process. If we want to understand the refugee problem of the Middle East, including the Palestinian refugee problem, and we want to find a fair and just solution, we must take into consideration the plight of nearly one million Jewish refugees. Today, I appeal to you to restore our narrative to its rightful place in history, and to speak forcefully on the discriminatory treatment and the expulsion of the Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region.
I would like to offer three recommendations to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Recommendation one is that the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development forward a resolution for the consideration of the Canadian House of Commons, similar to the United States House Resolution 185, which resolved the following:
||for any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement to be credible and enduring, the agreement must address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees, including Jews...
||...to use the voice, vote, and influence of the United States to ensure that [in Middle Eastern discussion, any explicit] reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue...must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
A full text of House Resolution 185 can be found online.
Recommendation two is that the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development issue a public statement that hearings were held on the plight and injustices of Jewish, Christian, and other displaced refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. The committee should indicate that it is examining ways to ensure that all Middle Eastern refugees are recognized and dealt with in a fair and balanced manner.
Recommendation three is that I urge to issue a public statement on the need to recognize the plight and legitimate right of all Middle Eastern refugees, including Jewish, Christian, and other populations. I urge Prime Minister Harper to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Prime Minister Paul Martin, who publicly recognized the plight of Jews who were displaced from the Middle East.
In closing, may I say how much all of us former Jewish refugees from North Africa, and my organization, JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, appreciate the way in which Canada is pursuing this issue to ensure equity for all, and that rights and redress should be sought for all Middle Eastern refugees.
Descriptively, I think, you're reasonably accurate. The only comment I would make about the premise of the observation is that I do recall that at the beginning of the Oslo process, when Canada was invited to serve as the gavel holder of the refugee working group, there were some focused discussions about what the scope of the working group's activity should be, and whether they should include consideration of Jews who had become refugees from Arab lands.
The conclusion then, one which , frankly, we supported, was that the working group was focusing its efforts on providing material help to Palestinian refugees so that they too could benefit from the peace dividends going forward, and to bring them in parallel with other dimensions of the peace process so that there could be some uniformity when it came time to move toward resolutions.
There was a deliberate decision to not address Jewish refugees from Arab lands, because they in fact had already benefited from meaningful resolution by their absorption into Israel or into countries throughout the diaspora.
Where I would offer some comment is that, first I think we have to divide it into two separate categories. As a Canadian, it's important for me to make a distinction between Canada's response to the reality of Jewish refugees from Arab countries to that of Jews who were facing similar challenges in Europe prior to World War II.
In the case of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Canadian officials were very responsive. They recognized it quickly. They recommended steps to address it. The result was an expedited process of immigration to Canada. In that respect, there is no quarrel or grievance against Canada's approach.
We focus on somehow formally recognizing it, and that's really the nub of your question. In that regard, I would offer just the following thought.
The immediate instinct when confronted with an issue of refugees is to fix the problem, to provide them with material help, to support their transition into a safer environment, and so forth. With respect to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, that was less of an urgent call because it was resolved, whereas I think we would all agree there are acute problems confronting Palestinian refugees, who require attention today to materially enhance the quality of their lives.
It is only when we get to a point where we're actually starting to focus on what a comprehensive resolution looks like that we do an inventory of all of those outstanding issues that require some attention. From our perspective, attention to the Jewish refugee claims from Arab countries starts, and may end, with formal recognition of including that narrative that Ms. Waldman referred to.
President Clinton came up with some kind of formula. It's rather complex. I don't know that it's in the committee's interest to inquire into it. But I think in terms of allowing stakeholders to exit a comprehensive resolution of the conflict, complete and whole, it has to include some kind of validation of their experience.
I think it's in that respect that we got more attention to it over the last decade than previously.
First, maybe it's not politically correct to say so, but the United Nations has never been a friend of the Jews. The United Nations has made sure that every single time they have made a resolution about the Palestinians—over 190, I believe—there has never been one single, solitary resolution about us. Twice the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recognized us as refugees, but never once has the UNHCR recognized us in any other way or given us the benefit of a resolution. When it comes to issues of refugees, people always look to the United Nations as being the expert. I think that has a lot to do with erasing, so to speak, our history from the face of the earth.
The other part, and again this is a personal opinion, is we never looked at ourselves as victims, and we felt very ashamed of our history. I can only speak from personal experience. When my family got out and they established themselves in Israel or in other places, they felt that what had happened to them was very shameful. They lost a lot of their dignity. They lost a lot of their pride. They lost their culture. They felt pain and they didn't want to revisit it.
In fact, surprisingly enough, in the same vein as you're talking about, my organization, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, has just now started with another group, Sephardi Voices, a program where we are doing videos of witnesses, people such as myself from every Arab country. It took 40 years for us to speak out because it was so painful. That may not be the only reason, of course. But I know that at first my mother would not tell her story, and she has a much more dramatic story than I do. It wasn't until two years ago that I was able to convince my mother to sit in front of a video camera and tell her story.
I think part of it is psychological. It may not have been the right way to go about it. Did we do it the right way? No. Should we have spoken out at first? Yes. I sometimes was asked by Libyan Jews, “Aren't you afraid that Gadhafi might come after you?” After all, Gadhafi was alive while I was doing this work. I had received some threats, letters. Two of my Libyan Jewish friends who escaped to Rome were killed by Gadhafi. There was always this fear of speaking out. Unfortunately, I think that is also part of what happened.
I think because we were absorbed so successfully in our business ways, and because we have a life and we're not sitting in a refugee camp, the flame was not on all the time. After all, we are successful. I think Israel in many ways looked at it that way too: “Well, you're citizens of Israel now. We're proud of you. You're part of our accomplishment. You're no longer refugees.” Or at least they don't look at us that way, but I think that legally we are refugees and our narrative and our rights need to be in a place where they belong.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen, in 1970-71, the then Government of Canada decided to intercede on behalf of 17 very desperate Jewish families who were trapped in Iraq, with the objective of reuniting them with their Canadian sons and daughters. Your predecessors exchanged our freedom for bales of wheat with a country in desperate need of feeding its population. I owe my life today to that endeavour.
My name is Gladys Daoud. I arrived in Canada on August 28, 1971. I am a management consultant and a lecturer by profession. I have two degrees, a Bachelor of Arts and an MBA, both from McGill. I have two children, a lawyer and a director of finance, as well as two grandchildren. I consider myself blessed to be a citizen of Canada.
This is in great contrast to my life in Iraq.
I was born in Baghdad into a wealthy and prominent Jewish family. On my father's side, my grandfather was a wealthy landowner who owned sizable tracts of land all over Iraq. On my mother's side, my grandfather was a banker who was in charge of the country's treasury.
After World War I, Iraq became independent from the Ottoman Empire. Jews played an important role in the financial, cultural, and political life of the new country. Iraqi Jews occupied prominent positions in the ministries of finance and justice and in Parliament. Furthermore, Jewish lawyers were instrumental in drafting the constitution of the new state.
My grandfather sent my father and his two brothers to France for their education. My father became a doctor, and was lucky to return to Baghdad before World War II. His two brothers, one a real estate developer and the other a medical student, ended their short lives in a concentration camp in Germany, but that is another story.
My father returned to Iraq and established his medical practice after serving in the Iraqi army as a colonel. My parents' life in Iraq until the creation of the State of Israel was relatively happy, even though it was marred by tragic events that occurred at various intervals. For example, my paternal grandfather was murdered. His murder was not investigated by the police, and his murderer was never brought to justice.
In 1941 the people of Baghdad, encouraged by the pro-Nazi government at the time, went on a murderous rampage in the Jewish quarter, killing close to 200 Jews and pillaging homes and businesses. My maternal grandfather miraculously survived despite being hunted by rebels trying to get hold of the key to the country's treasury. In spite of that, my parents endured and prospered.
After the creation of the State of Israel, the Iraqi government embarked on a policy of ethnic cleansing and persecution of its Jewish population. Prominent Jews were publicly hanged. Jewish businesses were confiscated. Import licences were cancelled. Jewish public servants were fired.
Jews were forbidden from leaving the country under the pretense that they would join the Zionist enemy and attack Iraq. Under international pressure, the government finally relented, and allowed Jews to leave Iraq provided they abandoned all of their assets in favour of the state. Out of 150,000 Jews, 140,000 left the country, abandoning all of their possessions with the exception of one suitcase of clothes.
Those who stayed behind were deluded optimists who believed that the violence directed at the Jews would pass, and that coexistence in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbours was still possible.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1963, after the Baath regime took power. Their first priority was to embark on an ethnic cleansing policy towards the Iraqi Jews. They banned all exit visas for Jews, and actively promoted a culture of hatred and incitement towards them.
I was a teenager going to school in 1967 when the Six Day War took place. I saw my entire world collapse around me. All Jews in Baghdad were declared spies and enemies of the people. The radio was blaring all day, calling the people to action to kill the Jews. Needless to say, we were terrified, and we had nowhere to go.
The government proceeded with a plan of total isolation and economic strangulation. Employers were instructed to fire their Jewish employees. Christian and Muslim co-workers and business partners were terrified of being associated with enemies of the state, and thus all Jewish-owned businesses closed their doors, and our school lost all its teachers. Our Muslim and Christian friends whom we grew up with no longer dared to speak to us.
My father's medical clinic was adjacent to the local government intelligence office. His patients were afraid of being seen there, so the only patients he treated were policemen and the intelligence officers who were treated free of charge while keeping a close watch on his movements.
As Jewish students, we were refused admittance to any higher education. The few students who were already enrolled in university were regularly beaten by their classmates while the teachers and administration turned a blind eye.
I finished my government high school exam in June 1967. I ranked second in all of Iraq and was immediately accepted into Baghdad University. In fact, I had also applied to McGill and MIT and was accepted at both of these universities. However, on learning that I was of the Jewish faith, my acceptance at Baghdad University was retracted and I was refused a passport to study abroad. For the four years that followed, I endured the life of a non-person and watched all my hopes and aspirations go to ashes as I sat confined to my room, between four walls, thinking of what other young people all over the world were doing.
I applied for a secretarial job at the Belgian consulate and was accepted. Three weeks later, I was called into the consul's office and informed very politely that although I was not being asked to leave, they had received word that my father would be imprisoned should I not leave immediately. Needless to say, I did just that.
My family's bank accounts were frozen, our property was confiscated, and we were only able to survive thanks to the money that my mother had the foresight to bury in our garden. We were forbidden to leave Baghdad. Our telephone line was cancelled, and we could not meet with other Jewish families since this could lead to an accusation that we were conspiring against the state. Our condition was desperate.
To make things worse, the government decided to publicly execute 14 Iraqis in 1969, most of whom were innocent Jews. I personally knew a couple of them who were students like me, unable to work or study and trying to keep busy by learning a foreign language. They were hanged in the public square and the population was given the day off and invited to gather and dance in celebration underneath the dangling corpses. I still have nightmares about being back in Baghdad and reliving the anguish of those days.
Those were not the only Jews who lost their lives. Every so often, a Jew would randomly be arrested, never to be heard from again. Their families to this day have no closure.
The situation was so desperate that we had no choice but to seek to escape by any means possible. Many left on foot or on the back of a mule, across the mountains in northern Iraq and into Iran with the help of Kurdish guides. Some were arrested and brought back. Those who were carrying any diplomas or valuables with them would try to flush them down a toilet so as not to provide proof about their intended flight. These secret departures added to the despair of those left behind. They saw their close friends and relatives disappear while they were left behind not knowing what the next day might bring.
On April 17, 1971, with one suitcase of clothes and some pocket change, my parents and I locked the front door of our home in Baghdad for the last time and started a long journey to come to Montreal to seek a new beginning.
I was free at last to make a life for myself. That day will remain etched in my heart and memory for all time. I am thankful for the many blessings our great country offers.
By the mid-1970s, most of the Jews were gone from Iraq. We owe our survival to all the people in the free world who demonstrated on our behalf and put pressure on the authorities to intercede for our freedom.
Today there are five elderly Jews remaining in Baghdad.
The 2,500 years of history and Jewish tradition by the rivers of Babylon came to an abrupt and gruesome end. The religious shrines, artifacts, and books of learning that remain in Iraq should be the only reminders, except, as we speak, the Iraqi authorities are trying to deface these shrines and erase any reminder of the Jewish existence.
I hope this story serves as a reminder to all of us to remain vigilant and stand up against all incitement of hatred, racism, and discrimination. Let us always strive to uncover the truth and seek justice for all.
Thank you very much for your time and for the privilege to tell my story.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen.
For 25 centuries, Jews lived in harmony with the inhabitants and contributed to the economic, social, and cultural background of first Babylon, now Iraq. There were a few pogroms against the Jews in Iraq, most notably in 1929 and later in 1941: the infamous farhud incited by the Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem. In 1948, the State of Israel was created. Iraq, along with four other Arab countries, suffered a sore defeat on the front against Israel, so Iraq needed a scapegoat to justify this defeat. They tried and hanged the innocent Mr. Shafiq Ades as an Israeli spy. They hanged him in front of his house and forced his wife and children to watch. Three of his children live in Montreal today. Sixty-five years later, this family still carries the scars and the trauma of this inhuman tragedy.
I will now tell you my own story. My father was the son of a well-to-do, self-made merchant and property owner in Iraq. In the early 1920s when England decided to appoint a king in Iraq, King Faisal I, they chose my grandfather's house for him to live in. My grandfather, Shaul Shashoua, duly moved out and rented his house for a nominal sum to the king until a suitable palace was built for him to move into.
Up until 1950, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. After the farhud and the persecution of the Jews by their fellow citizens and the government, and after the hanging of Mr. Shafiq Ades, Iraq stated that it would now allow the Jews to leave for Israel on condition they renounce their Iraqi citizenship. Nearly the entire Jewish population asked for this laisser passer. They were denationalized and their assets were frozen while they were still in Iraq waiting for their turn to leave.
Upon their departure they were searched and further stripped of their cash and jewellery, allowed one suitcase each, and only 50 Iraqi dinars to take with them. The Government of Iraq duly confiscated all their property immediately upon their departure. My father and mother, however, decided to stay and weather the storm along with around 7,000 other Jews. Things stabilized slowly in the country, yet Jews, including my sisters, left Iraq for various reasons, never to return. All those who left were eventually stripped of their Iraqi nationality and had their assets frozen. I, being the youngest, stayed with my parents.
I have to stress here the fact that we who chose to stay in Iraq despite all the persecutions had no connections with Israel, especially because of the total Iraqi boycott of Israel. Even drawing the Star of David was taboo, even in the privacy of our own homes.
The regime in Iraq underwent many revolutions and coups d'état, the last one in 1962 when the Baath Party arrived with Saddam Hussein. This party soon restricted travel for the Jews again. They froze the sales of our own property all over again. In 1967, the Six Day War broke out and Israel won the war. As a retaliation against Israel, Iraq tightened the screws on the now 3,000 innocent Jews remaining there. They cut off all our telephones. They refused to admit Jews at universities. They revoked all commercial licences. They instructed all businesses to fire their Jewish employees. There was no unemployment insurance in Iraq, so they had no money left to live on. They froze all our assets. Eventually they allowed us to withdraw only 300 dinars a month from our own bank accounts for daily expenses. Many Jewish children were fainting at school from hunger because their parents had no money left for food. When my grandfather passed away in 1968, my mother and grandmother were forced to pay the government rent for the house my grandfather built in 1927. They were paying for the shares my mom's siblings should have inherited, but now belonged to the Iraqi government.
On top of this, they started to go to Jewish homes at random, usually after midnight. They would search the house, vandalize it, arrest the father, the son, sometimes even the daughter. The accusation was always that they were spying for Israel.
It got to the stage that any time a car passed by at night, I would wake up, kneel, and pray that this car would not stop at our house to raise havoc in our lives. My mother and I bought sleeping pills to commit suicide if ever they came to arrest us.
In 1968 the random arrests intensified. Men were now tortured and forced to say they were spies. They were tied to ceiling fans that were turned to full speed. Some had their fingernails, toenails, teeth pulled out. Their genitals were electrocuted. Many died from the torture alone.
All these arrests and this torture culminated in mock Mickey Mouse trials in December 1968 and January 1969. The defendants were not allowed to have their own lawyer. The state appointed one for them, who further incriminated them as spies for Israel. They sentenced them and hanged them that same night.
When we woke up on January 27, 1969, to our horror we found out that 14 innocent men had been hanged. Ten of them were Jewish. At least three of these victims were less than 18 years of age. The Iraqi courts jacked up the ages to make it legal internationally to hang them. All the charges were glaringly trumped up.
The Iraqi people, so hungry for blood, went into a frenzy of jubilation. Thousands were dancing and chanting and poking the dead men. Women were breastfeeding and entire families were picnicking in front of the dangling bodies of those martyrs. The radio was blaring that the country was now rid of their spies, and encouraged the public to continue denouncing the fifth column.
We were still attending university then, and were in the midst of mid-term exams, so we had no choice but to go to university that day. I was thinking, “Surely we are among the educated. Surely they are smart enough to discern that the whole trial is utter nonsense. Plus, they are our friends, our colleagues. They will surely sympathize. They'll understand.” Yet to our surprise, when we arrived at the university, we were greeted with banners applauding what the government did and demanding more such acts. They were looking at us and laughing. The message was, “You are next.” We were horrified, yet we were too terrified to show our grief.
Israel attested that those victims were innocent and not its spies. There was a world outcry following these fake accusations, and the Iraqi government defiantly answered that it had enough trees to hang all the remaining Jews in the country.
You can just imagine the sheer terror that dominated our daily existence after that horrid day. It was the blackest day in our young teenage lives, a day that is indelible in the memory of any Jew who was living in Iraq then.
Eventually, in 1970, a small window of opportunity presented itself to us. There was a temporary truce between the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Iraqi government. The Kurds were willing to help us escape because they too were a mistreated minority and understood what we were going through. The Iraqi government decided to turn a blind eye to the Jews who were escaping, partly because of international pressure, partly because they were paid by Jewish agencies abroad for each one who left. Yet the big prize was still the assets left behind.
They still managed to terrorize us anyway, because from time to time they would perform mass arrests of entire families.
Seeing that there was no future for me in Baghdad, I decided to take a chance. I knew that by leaving illegally I was endangering both my life and the lives of my parents, who were staying behind in the hope of someday salvaging some of their now frozen properties. We were acting out of desperation.
I was among the lucky ones. I managed to escape with another family successfully. However, many of my friends were caught while trying to escape; some of them were even arrested twice. Imagine the interrogations, the torture, and the terror they went through.
I arrived safely in Iran in November 1990 and stopped in London on my way to North America.
I met many of my childhood friends and met some of my uncles, aunts, and cousins for the first time because they had left Iraq before I was born and were, as I have just become, banned from ever going back.
I finally arrived at my final destination, Canada, that wonderful utopia called Canada, where I was reunited with my sisters and even more family. We finally tasted freedom. North America was and is this haven where everyone is equal and free. We arrived in this glorious country where we were able to finally close an ugly chapter of our lives and start a new and fresh one.
I became a flight attendant with Air Canada. I was able to fly all over the world, except to Baghdad to see my parents. For 20 years, we could not speak to them because their telephones had been cut off during the Six Day War. The letters to and from my parents were censored and took three weeks to reach Baghdad. It took another three weeks to get an answer. I never knew if they were still alive from the time they would write the letter to the time I'd receive that letter. For 20 years I had that constant ache about my parents. It was like a scar in the heart that would never heal. It was also this constant worry about their welfare, well-being, and safety.
Finally, a miracle happened. After the Iran-Iraq war, they granted passports to everyone in Iraq, including the Jews. My parents were finally able to leave Iraq. The first time I heard them on the phone I did not even recognize their voices. It was a miracle that they finally arrived in Canada in 1990. We were finally happily reunited. We were with our beloved mom and dad, who waited 20 years in vain to sell any of their properties. My dad was 80 years old. He left everything he owned in Iraq and came out with nothing. All his siblings had long lost their inheritance upon leaving Iraq 40 years earlier.
They came penniless, but Canada offered them a haven to come to after all those wasted years when my parents lived in constant fear. They missed all the special occasions with their children, such as their daughters' weddings, grandchildren, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs. My parents got to meet their grandchildren for the first time only after they became teenagers. They did manage, however, to walk me down the aisle when I got married to my wonderful husband.
It is a happy ending in many ways because most of us survived those harrowing times, but it does not mean that we did not suffer emotionally and financially and we still struggle to make a living while we have all these properties in Iraq that we cannot access. I would like to point out also that none of the Iraqi Jews who came to either Canada or the United States, or to England for that matter, asked for or received refugee status or privileges, including my parents. We all came as immigrants and threw ourselves immediately into starting new lives, into working hard, paying taxes, and enjoying, as well as serving, this glorious country that has so much to offer. It is a happy ending because we arrived in this wonderful country called Canada.
In closing, we pray that God bless Canada and the United States, these two great countries where we live free and normal lives, our new wonderful country and home that embraced us and that we are privileged to be a part of. We hope to continue to contribute towards its growth and well-being. Amen.
Thank you, Canada.
I'll make a brief comment and then ask you to comment on it.
Mr. Chairman, the last couple of sessions we've had an extraordinary opportunity to hear the real experience of not only communities, but of individuals whose lives have been terribly affected by the politics of the whole of the Middle East, by this rising nationalism, this xenophobia which includes anti-Semitism and excludes all others. The dangers and risks of extremism, not only in the Middle East but everywhere, are in front of us all the time.
We've also heard about the importance of this group, these MPs, this House, understanding the nature of the historical experience, what has actually happened, because I think Canadians need to know the story. You are our fellow Canadians and we need to be able to share that story with people.
If I may, Mr. Chairman, I'm reminded of the fact that Rabbi Hillel was in Iraq; he was in Babylon. Of course, he is one of the most famous of the teachers of Judaism and asked the famous three questions. Right? You asked your three questions. He had his three questions: If I am not for myself, then who will be for me; but if I'm only for myself, then what am I; and if not now, when?
It seems to me that the witnesses who have come forward require us to ask the same question, that we respect the importance of the Jewish community expressing itself and recovering its historical memory. It's not unusual.
I was asking earlier about why it's taken so long for some of these accounts to come out, and I think, in fact, it's natural. It's taken the world several generations to fully appreciate the impact of the Holocaust and we're still coming to grips with the impact of the Holocaust.
This second nakba, the Jewish nakba, the nakba experienced by people leaving, is one that I'm sure was suppressed. People were getting on and making a living, whether they were making a living in Israel or making a living somewhere else. As time has gone on, they've had a chance to tell their stories.
People should be reminded that the Middle East is actually a very complex place. Nobody should pretend that the Middle East is all of one thing. It has obviously a strong Arab and Muslim history, but it also has a Christian history, and not Christians who came from western Europe but who lived there and have been there for thousands of years. It's the same with the Jews. The Jews didn't suddenly emerge from nowhere. They were there for thousands of years living in the Middle East. It was their home.
These are stories that we need to hear. I think the committee needs to consider what we do and how we make sure we provide the appropriate recognition to show that we understand the vitality of this experience, and also understand its relevance.
I want to express my personal appreciation to the two witnesses. I know that if my colleague, , were here, he'd want to express his appreciation as well. He has helped to lead the fight in defining this issue for Canadians, and I do want to make sure you understand that we hear what you're saying. As Mr. Martin said, a refugee is a refugee, is a refugee.
At the same time, it's important for us to understand the uniqueness of each refugee experience. The Palestinian situation is unique to itself, and this experience is unique to itself. We have to understand the different elements that make it up, and I think what you've done today is extremely worthwhile.
I hope you feel that you've been able to tell us like it is and tell us a story that many of us would not otherwise have known or understood. I think it's very important that we express our appreciation to you for doing that.