Beyond ‘Ashkenormativity’: Sharing the Stories of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

Dec. 8, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

Nov. 29, known by some as Kaf-Tet b’November, is an important day to Jewish communities around the world. It was on that day in 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the plan to partition British Mandate Palestine between Arabs and Jews. David Ben-Gurion, leading the nascent nation, subsequently declared the State of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Perhaps less well known is that the following day, Nov. 30, serves as a solemn occasion of remembrance and tribute to Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. It is known as Yom Plitim (“the Day of Recognition for Jewish Refugees”).

The UN’s support for the establishment of a Jewish state is seen as a turning point in the history of minority Jewish populations across the Arab world, who had lived there for centuries. During the mid-20th century, these Jews, primarily belonging to Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, were persecuted, and subsequently expelled from the places that they had called home for generations. It is estimated that 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced from Arab and Muslim lands from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Many found haven in Israel, while others immigrated to countries around the world, including Canada. These communities have continued to preserve and pass down their heritage, while contributing to society as a whole. From flight to perseverance, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be treasured. More than that, they should be retold.

Yet, I’m struck by the seeming lack of awareness regarding this important history. Despite growing up in an Ashkenazi household, attending Jewish day school and summer camp, and taking several Jewish studies courses in university, I find myself undereducated on the history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This is a startling gap.

I think that Jewish continuity and identity are rooted in education. I hope that curricula for day schools, post-secondary Jewish studies courses, and experiential/informal Jewish education will better integrate the stories of these Jewish refugees.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning Ashkenazi-majority communities have often sought to further their own history while placing the stories of minorities within the Jewish community on the back burner. This problem has been worsened by external factors, such as “traditional” depictions of Jews and what it means to “look Jewish,” which often typify an Ashkenazi stereotype that many have come to internalize.

From my understanding, this has caused Jews from outside the Ashkenazi norm to feel distanced from “the community.” By breaking off into segments, our tent becomes smaller and weaker. Our institutions fail in their stated ideal of being inviting, instead leading to further isolation.

While recognizing these shortcomings, I want to applaud various community organizations that have made significant strides in the right direction. This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in the UJA Genesis Community Leadership Accelerator. This program made a concerted effort to include speakers from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds.

As a prime example, Erez Zobary, a young educator and musician, shared with us the stories of her Yemenite Jewish heritage. Her paternal grandparents’ determination and resilience to make a better life in Israel, while remaining connected to its roots, rang of a delicate, dynamic balance. It was particularly interesting to hear her experience, having been born in Canada, of fitting into a Jewish community school where most of her friends and teachers were of Ashkenazi heritage.

Additional efforts have been undertaken by Jewish organizations to raise awareness about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This past Nov. 29, the Consulate General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, in conjunction with Sephardi Voices, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and a handful of congregations, marked Yom Plitim. They held a virtual event that featured Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. The keynote speaker, Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, herself a Jewish refugee from Iraq, went on to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offering an invaluable perspective into Arab culture and geopolitics.

B’nai Brith Canada held a similar event the next day. The organization fittingly described its webinar, in part, as an opportunity “to virtually commemorate this tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history.” To honour this history, B’nai Brith encouraged participants to contact their MP and urge the government to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, based on a motion passed by the previous Parliament. I am glad to see a range of Jewish organizations marking this important epoch.

So what else can we do?

At a time of increasing polarization, we should reach out, challenge our assumptions, and learn something new. We should question why certain stories are retold, while others are overlooked. We should amplify the voices of minorities within our own community. We should harness this moment for inclusion and understanding. Most importantly, we should undertake considerable outreach and strive for all Jews to be reflected in our community at large.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.

Complex Yet Critical: Where Does the Jewish Community’s Relationship with the Trudeau Government Stand?

Dec. 1, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

The multicultural mosaic of Canadian society is a critical pillar, one that makes our country unique. It adds to the vibrancy and richness of the fabric of our great nation. However, it also results in ongoing complexity as communities navigate their relationship with each other and with the federal government.

It’s first important to recognize that the Jewish community, like other ethnocultural groups in Canada, is not monolithic. To assume so would be to take a reductionist perspective. The pursuit of unity of purpose, despite disparity of opinion, is a lofty yet laudable objective.

On Nov. 25, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed human rights advocate and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler to the newly-created post of Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

Based on Cotler’s impressive body of work in law, academia, and politics, he’s an excellent, unifying choice. I want to fully acknowledge the importance of this announcement. While we wait to learn details of his mandate, we should watch his work closely and contribute when possible.

However, I cannot help but be troubled by this announcement’s timing, as it comes on the heels of Canada’s jarring vote at the United Nations on an Israel-related resolution.

Each year, the UN General Assembly considers the same basket of 20 or so motions on the “Question of Palestine,” but which serve to single out Israel, apply an unfair double-standard in assessing its policies, or worse.

One such resolution, which Canada approved, affirms Palestinian self-determination, but without reference to the same rights for Israel, and defies Jewish connections to what it classifies as “East Jerusalem,” including the Western Wall.

The vote marked the second consecutive year that Canada opposed Israel on this key resolution, while supporting Israel on most others.

This was a break from 14 years of Canadian foreign policy that refused to support UN motions singling out Israel, and which the Trudeau government upheld during its first term. Many community members feel betrayed by this policy reversal, since Liberal candidates in the last election promised to keep with this longstanding government position.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to consider where the Jewish community’s relationship stands with the federal government. On one hand, Cotler’s new post is good news. On the other, some might view this gesture as a cynical attempt to regain Jewish trust, after strong disappointment from a broad coalition of Jewish advocacy groups and community members with Canada’s UN vote reversal.

To navigate this relationship going forward, it’s important for us to own our end of the partnership. First, I would argue that based on Jewish history, including the Holocaust, it is often difficult for Jews to be fully trusting of government actions, especially after that trust is tarnished. I am hopeful that through this new post, more Canadians will become aware of key aspects of Jewish history, and that governments will become more sensitive to the caution inherent in our trust.

It is also important that our community be empowered and know our worth. We are worth, simultaneously, having our past recognized and our future protected. Grassroots community members deserve greater opportunities for direct engagement with government officials as a complement to the commendable advocacy work undertaken by Jewish organizations. We should feel supported unreservedly, without grounds for doubt in the government’s intentions.

Finally, it is important to remind ourselves of the inextricable link between the Holocaust, antisemitism, and the modern State of Israel. Israel’s founding and continued vitality represent a haven for Jews around the world. Any attempts to recognize the impact of the Holocaust and antisemitism are half-hearted without support for the State of Israel. This is the message we should continue to convey to our elected officials and to our neighbours.

Canadian Jewry’s relationship with the government of Canada is both complex and critical, and vice-versa. Despite challenges, we must not walk away, and we trust that our partners likewise engage in good faith. Let’s continue striving for better.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.