Tag Archives: refugees

Acknowledging Wrongs of the Past

Maru

SS Komagata Maru, 1914. City of Vancouver Archives

Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that in May, he would make an official apology in the House of Commons for what is commonly known as the Komagata Maru Incident. In 1914, a ship (the Komagata Maru) of Indian passengers sailed from Japan to Vancouver, where the Canadian government refused to let almost all the passengers enter Canada. Most of the passengers were Sikhs, though there were a handful of Muslims and Hindus aboard, and Trudeau intends to address his apology to the Sikh community as a whole.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange transnational incident. 1914 saw the beginning of World War One, which in part contributed to Canada’s restrictions, but most of its limited immigration policies were grounded in xenophobia similar to that in the U.S. at the turn of the century, and Canada passed laws restricting immigration form Asia just as the U.S. did.

The passengers aboard the Komagata Maru argued that they had a right to enter Canada because they were British subjects. India was still a British colony, and both countries would supply troops to Great Britain in the First World War. Nevertheless, national fears of Asian immigrants persisted in 1914. The Komagata Maru sat in port in Vancouver for months before finally leaving.

Over a century later, a different Prime Minister of a different political party hopes to make amends. Formal apologies on behalf of governments to historically persecuted groups are not unheard of. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar formal apology to the indigenous population of Australia, but Trudeau’s comments come at a unique political moment.

Trudeau will apology for Canada’s suppression of immigrants, and he intends to do so after his party, the Liberals, ran partly on a platform of allowing Syrian refugees into Canada, while political parties in Europe and the U.S. discuss either similar or opposite measures. Many politicians have advocated restricting and even halting immigration, and have used xenophobic rhetoric almost identical to that used by the Canadian government in 1914.

Trudeau’s apology is, of course, a highly political statement. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry, but of acknowledging what is now considered a broken logic, and with that acknowledgment comes a subtle declaration that such logic no longer has a place in his government. It admits not just past wrongdoing, but decries the possibility of future wrongdoing. The apology is a policy statement, an act of historical legislation that does not wipe away but makes an example of one of Canada’s worst actions, and in doing so, Trudeau invites others to listen, to introspect, and to follow suit.

-jk

Europe’s Refugee Crisis of 1492

Expulsion of Spanish Jews Universal History Archive

The Alhambra Decree. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

1492 marks an important moment in world history, not just because it’s the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean, along with smallpox, mercantilism, and other European diseases. It is also an important year in Spanish, Ottoman, and Jewish history. As European powers were slowly consolidating into modern nation-states, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain passed a decree, the Alhambra Decree of 1492, that required all Jews to be expelled from Spain, or else convert to Christianity. This pattern of expulsion began with the centuries-long Reconquista, ending with the 1491 fall of the Emirate of Granada. The Spanish monarchs wanted not just a larger nation-state, but a religiously pure one. Thus, they expelled any Jew who refused to convert. Many crossed the border into Portugal; a few years later, the Portuguese crown declared the same policy, but directed its efforts at forced conversion rather than expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition played a crucial role in these events, as well.

Thousands of Jewish and Muslim refugees were left without a home as a result. The next month, after hearing about the expulsion, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, issued decrees of his own allowing any and all Jewish refugees to resettle in Ottoman territories. He sent the massive Ottoman navy to Spain, under the famous admiral Kemal Reis, to help Jews, as well as Muslims, flee religious persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, known as Al-Andalus to the Ottomans. The refugees settled throughout the Ottoman Empire, often in large urban centers such as Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus. Today, Sephardic Jewish communities still hold a presence in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was at its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It enjoyed economic influence over its surrounding polities, had a strong military, and was known for its extreme religious tolerance. A diverse empire to begin with, encompassing Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, and Armenians, the Sultanate practiced tolerance for all religious traditions inside the empire, including Sunni and Shi’i Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, long-standing Judaism, and at its edge Catholic and later Protestant Christianity. In many ways, the Ottoman Sultan was the leader of the free world at the time.

I’ve never believed history repeats itself. I don’t want history to repeat itself. It’s often hideous and unfair. But maybe the western world should take a lesson from the Ottoman Empire and open its borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing many of the same places Europe’s refugees resettled in the 1490s. Maybe this is one of the few moments in history that should be repeated. European nations cannot reverse the policies of Assad and ISIS, just as the Ottoman Sultan could not reverse the equally barbarous policies of King Ferdinand (yes, ISIS and the Spanish Monarchy are equally evil). But Europe and the U.S., as much as the Ottomans, can commit to an act of compassion in the face of unmitigated brutality. After all, it’s clearly been done before.

-jk

Jewish History Sourcebook: The Expulsion from Spain, 1492 CE

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.