Canada Announces More Funding for UNRWA

Dec. 22, 2020

By RON CSILLAG

Canada has announced more funding – up to $90 million over three years – for Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The funds will “help respond to the rising needs of vulnerable Palestinian refugees in UNRWA’s five areas of operation: the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan,” said a Dec. 21 statement from Karina Gould, Minister of International Development.

The previous release of regular funding to UNRWA was in 2018, when Canada announced a contribution of $50 million over two years.

This time, the funds will contribute “to meeting the basic education, health and livelihood needs of Palestinian refugees, especially women and children,” Gould’s office stated. 

It will also provide “emergency life-saving assistance to an estimated 465,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon, through UNRWA’s Emergency Appeal for the Syria regional crisis. In addition, it will complement UNRWA’s response to the new and emerging needs created by the COVID pandemic.”

Canada’s funding of UNRWA continues to be a hot-button issue in Jewish circles. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eliminated aid to the agency in 2010 over its ties to Hamas. The Liberals restored funding in 2016 with promises of more stringent oversight. The latest tranche puts Canada’s combined commitment at about $200 million.

There have long been allegations that funds and supplies to UNRWA are diverted to terrorist activity, black marketeering, and to bankroll antisemitic and anti-Zionist propaganda, especially in Palestinian schools.

B’nai Brith Canada said it is “extremely disappointed” at Canada’s latest round of aid to the agency.

The move represents “a missed opportunity to leverage our international leadership to foster conditions for a durable Middle East peace during a time of transformative regional change,” B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn told the CJR in an email. The agency’s core objectives “are not conducive to finding equitable solutions for Palestinian ‘refugees,’ and its educational efforts help perpetuate a feeling of hatred towards Israel and the Jewish people. This must end.”

Mostyn called it “intolerable that UNRWA schools continue to indoctrinate Palestinian children toward antisemitism and eternal war, rather than peace and acceptance. Canadians deserve to know that their international aid dollars are not supporting terrorism or incitement in any way, shape or form.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, sounded a more conciliatory tone. He said CIJA supports Canadian humanitarian aid “to those genuinely in need, particularly the victims of the devastating conflict in Syria where the humanitarian situation remains extremely dire.”

Over the years, Fogel said CIJA “has communicated our concerns about UNRWA’s accountability and neutrality to the Government of Canada. We appreciate both the government’s acknowledgement of these concerns and the measures Canada has now put into place to ensure meaningful accountability and oversight.”

Ottawa said it is continuing its support for UNRWA’s “ongoing efforts to promote neutrality in its operations and among its staff.”

On its website, the federal government referenced the “Framework for Cooperation” between Global Affairs and UNRWA, a 3,000-word document that lays out such issues as monitoring, reporting, oversight, policies of neutrality, and compliance with Canadian anti-terrorism requirements. It was signed in April 2017 by Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner General of UNRWA and Peter Boehm, Deputy Minister of International Development.

In August 2019, B’nai Brith and CIJA called on Ottawa to suspend funding to UNRWA after a damning report alleged widespread mismanagement, nepotism and wrongdoing at the agency.

Last April, Erin O’Toole, then a candidate for the leadership of the federal Conservatives, told The Canadian Jewish News: “I will end funding for UNRWA unless it is significantly reformed. It cannot under any circumstances provide support to terror organizations or their affiliates. It also cannot create dependencies, which serve as a deterrent to lasting peace and deter resettlement efforts in other parts of the world. Canada will not continue funding if these reforms are not underway by the midway point of our first term.”

Gould’s Dec. 21 statement said the needs of Palestinian refugees “are undeniable, especially during a global pandemic: they face high rates of poverty, food insecurity and unemployment,” continued. Ottawa’s continued support for UNRWA “builds upon Canada’s long-standing commitment to Palestinians while also contributing to stability in the region.”

She said this latest round of aid will help more than half a million Palestinian refugee children receive quality basic education.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, expressed concern that Canada “still refuses to support UNRWA politically or diplomatically.”

Earlier this month, Canada abstained on a UN resolution to renew UNRWA’s mandate, and voted “no” on another motion supporting the activities of UNRWA, the group noted in a statement following the announcement of Canada’s latest round of funding.

“It is hypocritical when Canada funds UNRWA to the tune of $90 million, but then refuses to stick up for the agency politically on the international stage,” said Michael Bueckert, vice president of CJPME.

JSpaceCanada welcomes the government’s announcement.

“This funding will provide Palestinians with crucial education, health, and livelihood supports – making important contributions to regional stability and peace,” the progressive group said in a statement. It also applauded Canada’s “continued work to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability of UNWRA and of all foreign aid commitments.”

Liberal MP Affirms Friendship with Jewish Community

Nov. 12, 2020 

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—One year after he was elected, Montreal-area Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi welcomed the opportunity to finally put to rest Conservative allegations that he is antisemitic and a proponent of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Sameer Zuberi
Photo credit: Bernard Thibodeau

“That’s completely false and wrong; it’s inconsistent with who I am and my record,” Zuberi told a videoconference hosted by Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Nov. 3. “…The Conservative attack is a red herring. If it were actually true, I would not be doing what I am doing now.”

On the eve of the contested Liberal nomination meeting in the Pierrefonds-Dollard riding in September 2019, the Conservative Party issued a press release describing Zuberi as having an “antisemitic past” and “promoted conspiracy theories” about 9/11.

The release also denounced Zuberi, who is Muslim, as a “radical activist” when he was a student leader at Concordia University in the early 2000s.

Zuberi, 41, who won the nomination over five other contenders, denied the allegations at the time, but went further in explaining why they were inaccurate and hurtful in response to a question during the virtual Temple event.

First, he emphasized that he comes from a mixed background. His father emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s and his mother is a third-generation Canadian from Brockville, Ont.

An aunt converted to Judaism, and she, his uncle and their children – Zuberi’s cousins – observe kashruth and Shabbat. “I participated in that from a young age. My parents always reminded me that we have Christians and Jews in our family. Since the cradle, that has always been my world view and why I have worked so hard to create understanding among communities,” he said.

Zuberi, who was active in the Canadian Muslim Forum and worked as the diversity and engagement officer in McGill University’s faculty of medicine before running in the October 2019 federal election, said he has been devoted to bridge-building throughout his life.

Well before he considered entering politics, Zuberi said he attended a Shalom Hartman Institute program in Jerusalem to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience. There, he “learned from rabbis, thought leaders and civil society in an unvarnished way.”

He said he “cares deeply for the Jewish community and respects the Jews of Canada and the world.”

Addressing the specific Conservative charges, which were never retracted, Zuberi said to characterize him as a “9/11 truther could not be further from the truth. I have constantly denounced terrorism and Osama bin Laden…I am on the record dozens of times.”

The Conservatives reproduced an exchange on Zuberi’s Facebook page from May 3, 2011, just after bin Laden was assassinated, to back up their allegation. Zuberi responded to a comment posted that whether bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 was still “a matter of public debate,” but cautioned the commenter against subscribing to theories that confirmed their views.

Zuberi points out that on that day, he had a letter published in the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette in which he wrote that “the death of Osama bin Laden is a welcome event.” The thrust of the letter was that, 10 years after 9/11, “it was time to turn a new page and move on to something else,” he explained.

As for the accusation that as a Concordia Student Union vice-president, he supported the suspension of the Jewish student club Hillel in late 2002 because it was accused of disseminating Israel Defense Forces recruitment materials, Zuberi said that, “at that time, I am on the record that Hillel should not be suspended. I dug up that statement and shared it publicly.”

The Temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow’s association with Zuberi goes back to before he entered federal politics. She said they worked together on interfaith and intercultural projects, and collaborated during the fight against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. He has taken part in the Temple’s Muslim Awareness Week and other programming, she said.

“Sameer has consistently been a friend of our community,” she said.