Should Israelis be given Canadian Refugee status?

Canadian Refugee status for Israelis

An Israeli who said his conscience wouldn’t allow him to join the Israeli Army and that he feared terror attacks had his refugee claim denied by Federal Court of Canada this week.

Yuriy Goltsberg, 35, was born in the Ukraine but has Israeli citizenship. He and his wife and daughter immigrated to Israel in 2003, but Goltsberg said he experienced discrimination there because he is Jewish.

Israeli citizens over 18 must perform mandatory military service, and in Goltsberg’s case, a mandatory one month per year.

The judge threw out his claim because he did not feel the man was a conventional refugee, that his fear of persecution was not realistic and that his not wanting to join the army based on the fact that “he could not kill people” wasn’t enough. Goltsberg did not inform the Israeli Defence Forces of his feelings prior, nor did he apply for one of the many exemptions the army offers.

The judges decision said, “The applicant provided no explanation for his failure to even make inquiries into the possibility of an exemption. Instead, he departed Israel at the conclusion of the one-year period which exempted him from service.” The judge also said Goltsberg is no different than anyone else in Israel who fears a suicide bomber attack.

Goltsberg is also accused of lying about not knowing about the compulsory service, as he had previously attended consultations at the Israeli consulate where he would have been informed at least three times.

According to Toronto immigration lawyer Max Berger who was interviewed by the National Post about the case, refugee claims accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board for Israeli citizens are becoming more and more rare, but were common 20 years ago.

Our opinion on whether Israelis should be given Canadian Refugee status

My take? These cases are hard ones. Despite all the political issues surrounding Israel, it nevertheless is a democratic country. There are no Kings or Queens at the helm; no public executions and there is a general separation of religion and state (although not completely). Further, in Israel, democratic institutions like a Parliament, law courts, tribunals etc are in place.

So if Israel, by most measures, is a democracy, the question becomes should it be properly seen as a “refugee producing country”? In other words, should Israeli citizens have standing in Canada to make Refugee Claims, seeking “protection”  against alleged persecution there? My general answer, which would apply to any democratic country, is no.

However, like other democracies, Israel despite its freedoms, is not a “pure” democracy.

What stands out as particularly “undemocratic” in the case of Israel are its army conscription laws where at a certain age, citizens are forced to participate in the military subject to certain exceptions. Now it can be argued as it has, that Israels “geography” being surrounded by sworn enemies, leaves it no choice but to force its citizens to join the army. Israel’s very survival, it is argued, depends on a fully stocked military.

I am no military strategist but history shows that the best armies in general and the best soldiers in particular consist of voluntary members. Like a democratic-based economy, an army runs best when its participants have the freedom of choice. Further, in the age of military technology where brute man-power has largely been replaced by high tech land and air equipment, a trend that has no end in sight, I can’t see the need to force people to line up these days.

But regardless of the merits of forced military service, the deeper issue is that such policies are, in my view, undemocratic.

So my take is that when it comes to the narrow issue of mandatory military service even when in a democratic country like Israel, Refugee claimants from that country do have a case and should be given refugee status if their claims are proven. A hard-pill to swallow but persecution is persecution. If someone does not wish to fight, they should not be forced to.

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Michael Niren

About Michael Niren

Michael is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section and the Associate Member of the American Bar Association. Read more

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