Refugees: a Jewish issue comes to the fore

Daniel Wolgelerenter

A quintessentially Jewish issue has dominated the news and become a prominent election issue ever since the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead in the Mediterranean surf generated headlines worldwide earlier this month.

For many, the painful image has crystallized the ongoing question of what the world ought to be doing about the human fallout from Syria’s bloody civil war, which so far has killed 250,000 people and created a staggering four million refugees.

It may be the Conservatives’ misfortune the photo has galvanized Canadians in the midst of an election campaign, and they’ve been caught flatfooted on terrain that’s traditionally been friendlier to their rivals. Both the Liberals and the NDP have called for Canada to quickly admit thousands more refugees, despite criticism that this won’t solve the problem and comes with security risks if they can’t be properly vetted. 

This story is almost as central to the Canadians psyche as it is to the Jewish one, since many of us have come here fleeing persecution, poverty or both.

We Jews feel the issue in our bones. We were born a nation of refugees, as the Passover Exodus story attests, and our history is one of both wandering and exile. Whether it’s been at the hands of Babylonian soldiers, Roman centurions, Spanish Inquisitors or Nazi storm troopers, we know what it means to be uprooted.

Many Canadian Jews have an intensely personal connection to the issue, being Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, or having lost family members in the Shoah less than 75 years ago. We also have a collective memory of Canada’s “none is too many” Jewish immigration policy of the time, and of the MS St. Louis being turned away from our shores, only to return to Europe, where more than a quarter of its 937 Jewish passengers perished in the Holocaust.

It’s therefore no surprise synagogues are doing their part in response to the Syrian crisis. 

Even before the issue became daily news, Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto pledged to sponsor a Kurdish Syrian family’s immigration to Canada. And since the problem took on greater urgency, the City Shul and Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto have decided to do the same, while Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ont., has publicized its efforts – begun last April in partnership with a local mosque and a church – to sponsor a Syrian family.

On the policy front, the Jewish Refugee Action Network (JRAN), established in 2013, has been critical of the government’s changes to refugee law, which it says, “place [them] at risk and disrupt Canada’s humanitarian values and traditions.” Founder Arthur Bielfeld, rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El, says JRAN is “rooted in… the ancient [Jewish] summons to welcome the stranger.”

The group made some initial waves when it decried new federal measures that limit refugees’ access to free health care and designate certain jurisdictions as “safe countries,” which, by definition, don’t generate refugees, a move that particularly affected Roma being persecuted in Hungary. 

Until now, JRAN’s efforts have, unfortunately, had limited traction, even in the Jewish community. Its narrative has taken a back seat with mainstream Jewish groups, whose advocacy in recent years has become increasingly (and often understandably) focused on Israel, to the detriment of other priorities.

The image of one dead toddler, however, seems to be changing the landscape.

Is there an easy answer to the problem? One has to agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he says there isn’t, and making partisan hay of a human tragedy is distasteful, to be sure. 

But Harper’s initial choked-up reaction to Alan Kurdi’s death, and subsequent reassertion of his government’s anti-terror bona fides isn’t the kind of leadership many Canadians are seeking. A Postmedia poll released last week found roughly half disapprove of his approach and want to see a dramatic increase in refugee resettlement.

After stabilizing in the polls and despite inroads they’ve made with immigrant communities, the Conservatives are losing the thread of this story and appear to be suffering for it. If they don’t find the narrative soon, the issue – along with a faltering economy, the Duffy scandal and 10 years in power – could irreversibly solidify an appetite for change among voters, Jews and non-Jews alike.