Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Welcoming the Stranger

The Evian Conference was not, contrary to its aqueous title, a meeting about a water issue. Rather, it was the brainchild of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and convened in July of 1938 in order to discuss and respond to the increasing plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.

Thirty-two countries were represented at the eight day discussion held in Evian-les-Bains France, and dozens of relief/refugee organizations were also in attendance. The Nazis also sent observers and while they weren't formally invited, nobody asked them to leave. Delegation after delegation rose to express sympathy for the refugees, but most countries, including Canada, The United States, and Great Britain, offered excuse after excuse as to why they refused to alter their quotas and admit Jews into their countries. The Nazi regime responded with great satisfaction to the failure of Evian. Leadership was "astounded" at foreign governments that were easy with their criticism of Germany's treatment of Jews, but none were willing to open their doors to help, and ultimately save the lives of Jewish refugees.

Kristallacht occurred four months later.

Canada did much better as a country when we admitted thousands of Hungarian refugees in the Fifties and thousands more Vietnamese refugees in the Seventies. We as a nation have grown proud of our record of global outreach to the most downtrodden.

Today we are bearing witness to a refugee crisis similar in size and scope to that of Europe in 1938. The Syrian refugees (yes..refugees, not migrants) are running for their lives and are begging the western nations to offer sanctuary. The German response has been nothing short of remarkable. And while Canada and The Harper Government has a stated plan in place to admit a set number of refugees, very few have been able to cut through the red-taped burdens placed on them. The rhetoric and unwillingness to alter responses to an hourly-changing disaster, is starting to have a familiar tone-deafness to those of us sensitive to history.

There is no question that this is a complicated issue, but it doesn't help that in the midst of a federal election candidates and the Prime Minister himself, are choosing to ratchet up fear, mistrust, and Islamophobia by neglecting the humanitarian issues for the sake of partisan politics. My local MP, a former journalist, yesterday tweeted the following:

Not only was it blatantly racist and fear-mongering, it was wholly false having been thoroughly debunked by the BBC, but that didn't stop Mr. Kent. While he did remove the offending tweet, he did so with a "non-apology apology."
Firstly, it wasn't a retweet but rather an original thought. Secondly, he refuses to name his "trusted source" who obviously is not so trusted. And thirdly, he obviously still stands by his anti-refugee rhetoric.

 In May of 1938 Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said "The admission of refugees perhaps posed a greater menace to Canada in 1938 than did Hitler." 

In May of 1939 when the S.S. St. Louis and its 907 Jewish refugees were refused admittance to Cuba,  Mackenzie King stated that he was "emphatically opposed to the admission of the St. Louis' passengers".

His immigration minister Frederik Blair said that "these refugees did not qualify under immigration laws, and in any case Canada had already done too much for the Jews...if these Jews were to find a home (in Canada) they would likely be followed by other shiploads. No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere". 

This sounds a lot like Prime Minister Harper this week when he said "How much is enough?"

This week, the election campaign turned on the photograph of a three-year old's body on a beach, and while his death is not in any way the fault of the Harper Government, the emotional response from the public has been overwhelming and the lack of both an emotional response and an appropriate stepped-up immigration effort from the Prime Minister, his Immigration Minister, and his party's candidates has fallen incredibly flat and is sadly reminiscent of 1939 in both its race-baiting and excuses. Canadians want and expect that their government will react to crises appropriately, much like Angela Merkel has done. As a Jewish Canadian I am both embarrassed and disgusted.

As we approach the High Holy Days, we all need to be reminded of not only our history, but of our religious obligation to welcome the stranger and to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We know what it is like to be the stranger, the other. It is our sacred duty to help.

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