Canada and UNRWA: A Return to First Principles?

By DAVID H. GOLDBERG

For decades, Canadian governments – Liberal and Conservative – have routinely approved generous funding for United Nations agencies, with little apparent thought as to whether taxpayers’ dollars were being applied transparently, or that agency staff were adhering to the UN’s commitment to strict impartiality with respect to Israel and Israel-Arab relations.

Case in point is Canada’s relationship with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since UNRWA’s founding in 1950, support for the agency has remained a core principle of Canada’s Middle East policy, despite UNRWA’s consistent failure to fulfill its mandate to alleviate human suffering and its status as an impediment to achieving a viable solution to the Arab-Israel conflict.

For UNRWA, the term “refugee” refers solely to Arabs displaced from the former Palestine mandate by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Moreover, its prescription for resolving the refugees’ status is their return to their former homes in the former Palestine mandate, including all of pre-state Israel – a condition that is rejected by Israel as a recipe for the destruction of the Jewish state.

UNRWA perpetuates the untenable Palestinian dream of “right of return” rather than working to facilitate the refugees’ permanent resettlement in the countries of their current residence – whether Lebanon, Jordan, England or Canada – as is the UN’s preferred resettlement strategy for all international refugees other than the Palestinians. UNRWA also perpetuates the conflict by grossly exaggerating the number of Palestinians requiring agency support, by including among the 5 million “registered refugees” the children, grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) of Arab refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars. From Israel’s perspective, the only legitimate Arab refugees are the 700,000 who departed the former Palestine mandate in the 1948-1949 War of Independence. Israel calculates that only about 20,000 from this original group of Arab refugees remain alive today.

Other allegations include the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish language and images found in textbooks and curricula used in UNRWA-operated schools throughout the Middle East. There are also the documented cases of Hamas “active sympathizers” employed by UNRWA.

The agency’s defense – that while all local employees are vetted for connections with terrorist groups, UNRWA cannot control the hearts and minds of its personnel – strains credulity, as does its denial of awareness that its schools, medical clinics and ambulances have been used to hide, store, and transport Hamas weapons and armed fighters deployed in terrorist attacks against Israel.

In 2010, the Stephen Harper Conservatives suspended funding to UNRWA over the organization’s links to Hamas. The Justin Trudeau Liberals resumed funding in 2016, with a special focus on social media training and review of UNRWA school curricula. Also, Ottawa’s UNRWA funding would henceforth be overseen by “independent” authorities.

In August 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew all United States funding for UNRWA – more than $360 million – citing the agency’s overt anti-Israel bias. Two months later, Canada allocated $50 million over two years to an UNRWA emergency fund-raising campaign (this was in addition to Canada’s $15 million contribution to UNRWA’s 2018 annual budget.)

Global Affairs Canada explained that the emergency funds would help “bring stability to the region by helping Palestinian refugees cope with poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.” It would also “assist UNRWA with its ongoing efforts to improve neutrality within the agency and its operations.” There is, however, no evidence that concern about agency neutrality, presumably relating to the anti-Israel bias that precipitated the U.S. suspension of UNRWA funding, affected Canada’s funding deliberations in 2018.

If Canada was looking to review its relationship with UNRWA, the opportunity arose early in 2019, with release of a special internal agency investigation that revealed allegations of outrageous ethical and managerial misconduct involving UNRWA’s senior staff.

Canada expressed “concern” about such revelations, as well as its expectation that the UN’s full investigation of UNRWA would be rigorous, fair, accountable and transparent.

Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel, claimed the tepid Canadian response was calculated. Writing in the National Post, she argued that Canada wilfully ignored UNRWA’s ethical and institutional failings as one of the sacrifices of principle Ottawa was making to achieve broader geopolitical ambitions.

According to Bercovici, “[t]he current leadership in Ottawa so covets a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council that it will do anything to secure it, including throwing money at a corrupt organization [UNRWA] that is utterly committed to promoting antisemitism and colludes with Hamas and other unsavoury groups.”

Having recently failed to secure a Security Council seat, will Canada finally challenge the overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel programs of UN agencies such as UNRWA? This could be achieved by joining the United States in totally withdrawing funding for UNRWA.

Alternatively, further Canadian funding could be made contingent on fundamental improvements in UNRWA’s ethical and financial accountability, as well as a sincere and transparent commitment to strict impartiality when it comes to Judaism, Israel and Israel-Palestinian relations.

Redefining its relationship with UNRWA is a good, low-cost step for Canada toward resuming its principled policy approach toward UN agencies like UNRWA, whose important human rights work has been hijacked and politicized by the anti-Israel automatic majority of Arab, Muslim and developing world countries that dominate the UN General Assembly.


David Goldberg
David Goldberg

David H. Goldberg, PhD, the author of eight books on Israel, formerly served as director of research and education for the Canada-Israel Committee and for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

MP Levitt Quits Politics to Take Over FSWC

Aug. 5, 2020 –

Toronto-area Liberal Member of Parliament Michael Levitt has announced he is retiring from politics to become president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC).

Levitt has represented the riding of York Centre since 2015, when he defeated Conservative Mark Adler. He was re-elected in last year’s federal vote. His final day as an MP will be Sept. 1.

In a message to his constituents posted on Facebook, Levitt said the job of MP in Ottawa took a toll on his personal life.

“It hasn’t been without consequence to those I love most, and while it is an incredible privilege to serve the people of York Centre, I know deep down that now is the time for me to put family first and come back home, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Despite that, he said he “loved every minute” of political life. “…it has been the adventure of a lifetime.”

Among a handful of Jewish MPs, Levitt chaired the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group; the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development; and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

He will replace Avi Benlolo as head of the FSWC. No reason was given for Benlolo’s departure from the organization earlier this summer.

“FSWC is excited to welcome Michael Levitt as President and CEO,” the group’s chair, Fred Waks, said in a press release. “As the Member of Parliament for York Centre, Michael is deeply rooted in the community and his work in the fields of foreign affairs and human rights has garnered him respect from advocates at home and abroad. His distinguished career advocating for human rights, and his support for Israel and the fight against antisemitism, bring a high level of leadership and profile to our organization. We could not be more excited for the future.”

As an MP, Levitt frequently spoke out on Israel and issues of concern to Canada’s Jews, co-sponsoring a 2018 bill to make May of each year Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.

He was visible when Canada said it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and he often addressed anti-Jewish incidents in the country.

But Levitt found himself on the defensive last autumn when Ottawa abruptly changed its vote on a resolution at the United Nations to oppose Israel, which filed a diplomatic complaint against Canada.

Levitt was also a member of the Raoul Wallenberg Parliamentary Caucus on Human Rights. Before entering politics, he helped found the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.

In the FSWC statement, Levitt said he plans “to continue the organization’s proud legacy and the work I’ve done over the past five years in fighting antisemitism and promoting human rights, including bringing a renewed focus to the issue of systemic racism in Canada and how we can work together to address it.”

His appointment earned praise from former justice minister and international human rights advocate Irwin Cotler, who said Levitt’s “extensive experience and expertise dovetail perfectly with the mission and purpose of [FSWC], acting on the universal lessons of the Holocaust – combating racism and antisemitism and safeguarding Israel and the Jewish people.”

According to iPolitics, Levitt’s departure will trigger the first byelection of the current Parliament and will be the first during the COVID pandemic.

– CJR Staff