Accepting Refugees: International Law in a Canadian Context in the Twentieth Century

Accepting Refugees: International Law in a Canadian Context in the Twentieth Century


Howard Adelman

Keynote Address

24th Annual Canadian International Law Students’ Conference (CILSC)

“International Rules and Standards: A Meeting of Minds”

3 February 2017; revised 22 February 2017

Faculty of Law, University of Toronto.



The dominant discourse in contemporary refugee scholarship re policy and law is based on refugee rights. However, by far, the vast majority of refugees in the world are humanitarian refugees; they flee, not because they are targeted for persecution, but because of war or a natural disaster.[1] Even when the instigation is persecution, they are often accepted for admission as humanitarian rather than Convention refugees.[2] Further, the Convention refugee category offers rights only to those victimized by very specific kinds of persecution. Yet, Convention refugees constitute most of those admitted to Canada as refugees.[3]

Why does the Convention and the issue of refugee rights dominate the intellectual and conceptual landscape? Why is there not far greater attention applied to those who flee because of need? Why, in fact, are rights granted only to those who flee persecution and not to those who flee because of need? This is especially important because a number of states, including Canada, have, at times, been more willing to grant entry to humanitarian refugees rather than respecting the right of Convention refugee claimants to claim refugee status once on Canadian shores. The intake of Indochinese refugees is an example.

In the case of rights refugees, there is a direct clash with the concept of sovereignty. In the case of needs refugees, there is no conceptual conflict – though some would try to make one.

“When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security — big trouble!”

Donald Trump tweet, 4 February 2017

This paper will discuss the interweaving of policy in Canada applied to rights refugees and humanitarian refugees since WWII, not to answer the above questions, but to provide an empirical backdrop for wrestling with them.

The timing is propitious, but only with respect to academics and practitioners concerned with refugees, not with refugees themselves. They are doubly victimized, first by the warriors and ideologues that forced them to flee their homelands if they wanted to survive, and then, a second time, when persons in authority like the malignant narcissist and serial liar, Donald Trump, placed an indefinite ban[4] on Syrian refugees coming to the United States, and then a “temporary” 90-day ban on refugees coming to the United States from six other countries – Iraq, Iran,[5] Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen in his notorious executive order issued 27 January 2017, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

Visas will not be issued to anyone from those countries. Even those traveling with valid visas may be and were turned back or detained. Many others, including, initially, those with Green Cards, were not allowed to take their seats on airplanes on which they had booked travel.

It just happens that these seven dangerous “Muslim” countries are all ones which the U.S. has waged war against and even actually bombed, but does not include Saudi Arabia, the source of the majority of the 9/11 terrorists and a country in which Donald Trump has financial interests, nor Pakistan, the home country of one of the very few Islamicist terrorists who committed heinous crimes within the United States in the last eight years.[6] It also just happens that not one of those seven countries nurtured a single terrorist who committed a terrorist act on American soil.

Of the relatively small number of refugees that the U.S. planned to take in during 2017, 10,000 slots targeted for Syrians were recently increased to approximately 20,000 by the outgoing Obama administration.[7] All 20,000 will probably now go unfilled even though the original executive order on migrants was stopped in its implementation by American courts.

In contrast, in 2015 even under the Harper regime, Syrians constituted the group of refugees with the highest numbers coming to Canada. For ten years, Canada’s average intake of refugees had been about 25,000 annually, about 10% of the overall immigrant intake. In 2015, almost 60% came as asylum seekers with their family members, over 40% as either government or privately sponsored refugees, the latter making up about one-third of that 40%.

In 2016, the Harper government had planned an intake of 10,000 refugees.  When the Liberal Justin Trudeau Government was elected, it immediately announced some ambitious plans for the intake of Syrian refugees. As indicated above, by the end of 2016, Canada took in almost 40,000 refugees under this new initiative, twice that even planned by the Obama government and now literally infinitely more than will be allowed entry by the Trump administration

The breakdown was as follows:

Data as of 2 January 2017

Refugee category                                                              Number of refugees

Government-Assisted Refugee                                                        21,751

Blended Visa Office-Referred Refugee (BVOR)                             3,923

Privately-Sponsored Refugee                                                           13,997

TOTAL                                                                                                  39,671

The number estimated for 2017 is expected to be about 23,500, the reduction coming overwhelmingly from the government-sponsored class. Just after ‘The Donald’ issued his executive order, an initiative was begun almost immediately for Canada to admit 20,000 more Syrian refugees than planned for 2017 on a matching formula whereby the government will take in the same number of government-sponsored Syrian refugees, up to 10,000 in 2017, as the number of Syrian refugees sponsored by the private sector. There need not be any deliberate explicit connection to Trump’s embargo. The day after Donald Trump issued his executive order, Justin Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” He walked that fine line by praising Canadian values rather than criticizing current American policy. At the same time, an influx of refugees from the United States began arriving on Canadian soil to claim refugee status. For example, some crossed from Minnesota into Manitoba at Emerson after trekking for miles in freezing weather through deep snow drifts.[8] When the weather improves, the numbers are expected to dramatically increase.

The current Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, who himself fled war-torn Somalia at the age of 16, under the plain reading of the Trump executive order would not be allowed entry to the United States if he were not traveling on a diplomatic passport. Hussen issued a policy directive in response to the Trump decree that Canada would issue temporary residency permits to those stranded because of Trump’s order, but that would do nothing for Canadian citizens and permanent residents born in those seven countries. Later, the State Department, in apparent direct contravention of the wording of Trump’s executive order, declared that the ban would NOT apply to Canadian citizens with dual passports or to Canadian permanent residents with passports from those countries.

What has happened to the carefully constructed international refugee system developed in the aftermath of World War II that has enabled millions of refugees in every region to find safety in other countries? What has happened to the country that for decades welcomed refugees, that until very recently resettled millions of refugees, from regions in turmoil and led initiatives in inspiring other countries to engage in responsibility-sharing?[9] That country has now fallen into the hands of a president governed by a radical nationalist ideology who builds policy on paranoia and prejudice rather than any analysis of data or of consequences. Make no mistake about it; his policy has as little to do with the threat of terrorism as the connection between drinking Coca-Cola and a healthy lifestyle. Though couched in security concerns, the Trump policy is rooted in cultural identity politics with virtually no reference to either rational economic policy or genuine dangers.

It is not as if Trump is alone. Stephen Harper for almost ten years offered a polite and non-demagogic perspective that was suspicious of Islamic refugees from the Middle East, but is now perceived as an extremely faint shadow of Trump’s position. However, in today’s world, Trump’s blatant extremist position is not rare. Look at Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a “defender of Western Christendom” built a wall to keep out the Islamic hordes. Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister, Robert Fico, insisted that Islam had “no place in Slovakia.” And in Western Europe, France and Holland, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, are rising populist stars who have been building support based on their anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Part II

If you think the current wave of negative attitudes towards refugees is a monopoly of nationalist populist extremists, it is not. On 27 January 2017, I participated in an international webinar,[10] “European Union third-country partnerships: Where do we go from here?” The discussion centered on current refugee policy in Europe with participants in Brussels, Berlin, Madrid, Washington, etc. Those who led the discussion moderated by Elizabeth Collett, Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, included four very distinguished and knowledgeable, as well as liberal, leaders and academicians very intimately involved in the formulation of those European laws and policies.[11]

I will not even attempt a summary of the discussion. But I do want to communicate its predominant theme. That theme was not refugee asylum policy or issues of integration. This was not simply because of the topic. For the title of the webinar itself had been chosen because the prime approach in Europe these days to refugee issues, from those sympathetic to refugees, is refugee return. The prime issue is how to link return with development in partnership with the states from which the irregular migrants are fleeing. The primary challenge is now re-migration and reintegration, taking into consideration the country of return’s capacities and the skills the returnees bring with them on their return.

This focus was based on the conclusion that there was no solution to the refugee issue if the primary reliance was on law and the individual rights of refugees. As one person put it, “THERE IS NO LEGAL WAY OUT.” Instead, the focus was on knowledge gaps, on evaluations of past practices, on leadership in the face of the humanitarian disaster producing so many millions of refugees and pushing them to seek very unsafe passageways to the West.  Further, the not-so-hidden problem is that humanitarian aid funds are primarily used to hold refugees in place rather than return them, using a more vulgar but colourful language, to warehouse them. But reintegration poses its own set of problems – competition among those who stayed behind, IDPs returning and refugee returnees. The latter may be the ones who are best off given skills acquired in camps and when abroad, and given their better access to aid funding.

Money tells the story. The EU recently pledged $2 billion in development aid to assist refugee return and reintegration.[12] Thus, the policy of an enlightened refugee-receiving country like Denmark now is to focus on linking development aid both to refugee return and to inducing people to stay. Instead of the right to claim asylum, the emphasis is placed on the “right to stay” that, of course, went far beyond issues of governance and transportation. In the webinar, sensible slogans were thrown about, such as a “broad approach,” the linkage between peace and local stability[13], the need for coordination among like-minded countries, the absolute requirement that climate change and climate change policy be integrated into any solution, that there would have to be a primary reliance on civil society rather than government. Thus, humanitarian policies and rights had to be examined within the larger political, social cultural and primarily economic contexts. So why call them rights at all? And what was humanitarian about such a program?

The application of such efforts has some dire consequences on the right to leave. On 3 February 2017, at the same time as this talk, European Union leaders met in Malta to try to extend the initial deal made with Turkey to a contract with the countries in North Africa. The gist of the deal to reduce crossings, primarily to Italy now that the efforts to reach Greece have been largely stopped, entails a deal where the North African countries assume the responsibilities for search-and-rescue, hence avoiding the problem of warehousing the refugees on European soil and giving those refugees access to the refugee asylum system in Europe. On 2 February 2017, Libya signed the first deal, the EU-Libya Framework Agreement, to accept monies in return for assuming these responsibilities. The problem is, given the past record, North African countries may not be as effective in saving people given their capacity limitations and their disincentives to save illegal migrants.[14]

What we also need to keep in mind is that migration has always been used for families to manage risks, as demonstrated in the role that management of that risk played in getting the refugees to different places in the first place.[15] Yet the focus of the discussion was overwhelmingly about individuals.

However, my goal in this paper, issued initially as a series, is not to undertake an analysis of the United States or of Europe. Nor is my focus on contemporary policy, though I hope I will throw some light on the current situation. Rather, I want to use the trajectory of the development of that refugee (and migration) policy in the twentieth century in Canada to provide some understanding of where we find ourselves today with respect to the issue of refugees within Canada and within a global context. Because the material is so vast, I will use my personal involvement with refugees as a totally non-objective selective guide to offer a constructed narrative of what took place.

Further, even using my selective mechanism, it is not possible to cover the whole story of the development of Canada as an outlier country in the West with respect to refugee policy. But by covering three-quarters of the period, I can, I believe, unpack the tensions involved in the development of that policy and the fundamental contradictions that are at the base of the problems. That basic tension exists between rights refugees and needs refugees, between Convention versus humanitarian refugees, and, within Canada, between asylum claimants and refugees admitted under relaxed immigration criteria.

In 1943, two years before I start my tale, Hannah Arendt wrote a seminal essay, “We Refugees.”[16] She began by stating that “we” refugees avoided that designation and preferred to be called newcomers or immigrants. At that time, she defined the term refugee in terms of needs rather than rights. Refugees “are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.” (110) In resettling, “We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine,” avoiding any allusion to concentration camps (by enemies) or internment camps (by friends). Recall that Emil Fackenheim and Gregory Baum were interned in Canada as “enemy aliens.”

Arendt then went on to discuss PTSD as it is known now, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffered by many of the refugees, with some of them to taking their own lives. This was a pattern that began, not in the camps, but with the rise of fascist power accompanied by a massive inversion from optimism to pessimism. Captives and slaves rarely commit suicide. Those about to lose their freedom, those whose freedoms are haunted by memories and traumas, do. Their own sense of personal failure, combined with the lack of recognition of themselves as human beings, not political oppression, does them in.

Most fundamentally, we must recognize that refugees are people who do not want to be refugees, who do not want that as their identifier. At once, they want to be accepted and recognized as one of us while being induced often to forget that they are, behind the mask, one of them. One way to forget, ironically, is to “Never Forget,” to pass forward and help new refugees.

Let me end this section with a story that I have told often. It really took place. It was 1979. We were in what used to be the Cecil Street Synagogue (not its Jewish name) where my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah and was then and remains to this day a Chinese-Canadian community centre. We were greeting and offering some orientation to the first group of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam who had been privately sponsored and arrived in Toronto.

I belonged to a group of people introduced in Chinese as VIPs. We may have been very important people in their eyes, but each one of us lacked the ability to give a speech from the heart. Instead, all four of us, without any coordination whatsoever, gave the same speech – of course using different words and different situations for illustration – but the same speech in terms of the theme. ‘You are us,’ we told them. Except for the indigenous people, all the rest of us Canadians came as immigrants and refugees. We are you and you are us. And, they had lots of time to think about what we said because our words were being translated.

The speeches of Chinese community leaders followed. Those speeches too were all the same – again different words and depictions, but, according to what I heard from the translator beside me, offered a radically different message than the one we had. “You are NOT one of them. You are not yet even one of us. If you are staying in a private sponsor’s home or in a private sponsor’s apartment, do not cook with fish oil. They [mostly Caucasians] hate the smell of cooking with fish oil. Always remember that you are representatives of the Chinese-Canadian community in Toronto. Do not shame us. Do not disgrace us.”

If they were not torn between bewilderment, the need to feel appreciation and the desperate desire to get on with their lives, they might have been able to wonder. “Weren’t those white guys (there was one woman among the four of us) liars? We did not speak their language. We did not look like them. But they told us we are the same because their parents or grandparents or great grandparents came to Canada as immigrants and refugees? What do they personally know about the risks, the death of loved ones? At least 1 in 10 of us died in the flight. Their smiling welcome is obviously a false front.”

Perhaps they were bothered even more by the local ethnic Chinese who said the refugees represented them. “We held their reputations in our hands, or, more accurately, in how we cooked. They were so condescending in letting us know that we had a long way to go before we became hyphenated Canadians. For though they looked like me and spoke my language, they not only were not us, but they made sure that we knew, in their superego instructions to us, that we had a long way to go before we became them.”

While I offer this long historical talk on the development of refugee policy in Canada, a talk that only covers half the period since WWII, let’s not forget those who are at the centre of this story, refugees, refugees who for the most part do not even aspire to be human beings, as Hannah Arendt did. They just once again want to be themselves. And that requires that they be recognized. Hannah Arendt ended her essay, “The community of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest members to be excluded and persecuted.” Behind my paper is the question, “How can Canada not go down that path? How can we help reverse the direction of the path on which our American cousins are racing?

An even larger question: why are security concerns linked with the rejection of refugees? Why are refugees increasingly seen as barnacles on the body-politic of the nation-state that show that the human rights commitments of these states are a sham?  And even when those rights are used for protection, they protect so very few and conceptually omit offering any rights to the tens of millions of refugees who simply flee war and may not be individually targeted for persecution? Why are these refugees given no rights but are declared to be humanitarian refugees, refugees only with needs? From another perspective, why does a predominant conception of sovereignty in the end reject refugee claims based on universal right, since the prime right of a sovereign state is to protect its members and determine its new ones? And, in the ultimate end of this madness, why are those least likely to be security threats branded as a prime security threat?

Part III

I Refugee Policy After World War II – 1945 to 1965

  1. 1945-1947

It is often forgotten that Canada’s refugee policy in the immediate aftermath of WWII was pretty dreadful, characterized still by exclusion and xenophobia.[17] Before WWII, it was even worse. Canada had a terrible reputation as a receiving country for refugees. Canada would not admit any of the hundreds of thousands of refugees left in the aftermath of WWI because there was no provision that they could be returned, though, in the 1920s, the government admitted over a million selected immigrants. In contrast to immigrants, refugees might not be able to be sent back home.

In the 1920s, Canada refused to recognize the Nansen passports. A 1923 Order in Council specifically prohibited the entry of “Asiatics.” In the 1930’s, a racist immigration policy was the order of the day and immigration in terms of numbers was also very restrictive.

When the Deputy Minister Frederick Charles Blair, who headed Immigration, Mines and Resources, was asked how many Jewish refugees could be admitted, he replied, “None Is Too Many.”[18] Blair retired in 1943, but even after the war, Canada only admitted 8,000 Jews between 1945 and 1948. When Canada had one of the 11 seats on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine occupied by Ivan Rand, he supported the position of partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, not because of any guilt about the Holocaust[19] – that influenced none of the members in their recommendation – but primarily because 250,000 Jewish refugees were still languishing in European refugee camps and countries, including Canada, would not offer to resettle them. A Jewish state seemed to provide an opportune answer.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King certainly opposed admission of anyone as a fundamental right. Despite previous reservations about admitting refugees even based on Canadian self interest married to humanitarian concerns, this position shifted, in good part motivated by the need for manpower in a rapidly industrializing country and the availability of people from Europe. The shift was not motivated by a concern with rights.

Changes were underway. Parliament in 1946 began to consider the possibility of admitting refugees as immigrants under relaxed admission criteria, though it would be ten years before any large program was implemented. French immigrants were finally treated equally with American and British applicants. And, in 1946, Canada also made provision for Canadians to be citizens and not just British subjects.

In June of 1947, Louis St. Laurent became Prime Minister of Canada (1948-1957). Finally, in that month, Canada opened its doors, a bit and then wider and wider for the admission of Eastern Europeans – Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians – initially only 5,000 and then only if they were privately sponsored. The arrival of over 1,500, mostly Estonians, in 1948 marked the real beginning of the program.[20] One quarter of a million European “refugees” as well as almost two million immigrants were eventually admitted over the next 14 years.

  1. 1948-1955

The shift in 1948 was quite radical for Canada at the time. In 1950, Leslie Chance, a Canadian, took the role of Chair of a United Nations Ad Hoc Committee on Refugees and Stateless Persons Special Committee to draft a new refugee convention. Up until that time, refugees had been dealt with on a case-by-case basis focused on providing humanitarian aid on a temporary basis until they could return to their homes or be settled in the regions or countries to which they had fled. This was the case with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which focused on both Arab and Jewish refugees displaced from the war in Palestine. It was also the case with The United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) (1950-1958) established in 1950 to provide relief and rehabilitation on behalf of the United Nations in South Korea.

The minutes of the debates in developing the Refugee and Stateless Persons Report during 1950 make for fascinating reading, if only because the issues sound so familiar 67 years later. For example, the beginning discussions at the Lake Success 13 February 1950 initial meeting largely focused on ending statelessness based on a report of the Israeli delegation. One issue was the nationality of a child born of a refugee claimant on the soil of a country in which the woman was not a national. Based on lex sanguinis, should children born of refugee applicants be denied citizenship because the mother was only in the country temporarily, an issue still alive today? What if the child remained in the country until he or she was an adult? Or should ius soli be applied and such children automatically be granted citizenship? Discussion of granting refugee status based on rights would never prove straightforward, especially since rights, supposedly universal, were interpreted so differently by different countries.

The minutes of the final meetings between 14-25 August in Geneva considering the report and the final recommendations are especially instructive.[21] Canada was represented in the latter meeting by Ross W. Winter and N.F.H. Berlis. (Leslie Chance was unable to attend that meeting.) John Humphrey was also present as a representative of the UN Secretary-General. The report was drafted by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and amended in response to various government inputs. Since it is 26 pages, let me just quote some germane passages, beginning with the preamble:


  1. Consideringthat the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establish the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination;
  2. Consideringthat the United Nations has, on various occasions, and most recently in General Assembly Resolution 319 A (IV), manifested its profound concern for refugees and endeavored to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of these fundamental rights and freedoms;
  3. Consideringthat, in the light of experience, the adoption of an international convention would appear to be one of the most effective ways of guaranteeing refugees the exercise of such rights[22];
  4. Consideringfurther that it is desirable to revise and consolidate previous international agreements relating to the protection of refugees, to extend the scope of such agreements to additional groups of refugees, and to increase the protection accorded by these instruments;
  5. Considering, however, that the exercise of the right of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation;
  6. Consideringthat the High Commissioner for Refugees will be called upon to supervise the application of this Convention, and that the effective implementation of this Convention depends on the full co-operation of States with the High Commissioner and on a wide measure of international co-operation.
  7. Expressing the hopefinally that this Convention will be regarded as having a value as an example exceeding its contractual scope, and that without prejudice to any recommendations the General Assembly may be led to make in order to invite the High Contracting Parties to extend to other categories of persons the benefits of this Convention, all nations will be guided by it in granting to persons who might come to be present in their territory in the capacity of refugees and who would not be covered by the following provisions, treatment affording the same rights and advantages.”

This was a radical change. Instead of a refugee being regarded as a national outside the borders of his nation, and sometimes even within, as a person with humanitarian needs, the report recognized refugees as members of humanity first and foremost with inalienable rights. The refugee convention was to be designed to both recognize and protect those rights.

But what was that right? Was it to be guaranteed membership in a nation-state that protected all other rights. But if the nation-state was the instrument recognized as the protector of rights, who or what would protect the right to be a member? As it turned out, refugees were not really given rights, only those refugees who could establish that they had been targeted for persecution were given rights. And then, only if they were on the soil of a nation-state that signed the Convention.

Further, and even more telling, there was a caveat inserted because of pressures from some countries – clause 5. If a country determined that a refugee exercising his or her rights placed “unduly heavy burdens” on the country of asylum, the granting of those rights would depend on international cooperation or what later became known as “burden sharing.” However, the report, and then the Convention based on it, allowed a refugee on the territory of a nation that was a signatory to the Convention, to claim those rights as a refugee. (Clause 7)

It is no wonder that in the history of human rights, refugee rights are viewed as ersatz rights when sovereignty and security so easily trump those rights. It should be no surprise that refugee rights are rarely placed among the pantheon of fundamental rights even though no other right can be enjoyed unless one is a member of a nation-state that protects such rights.

Though the refugee convention was initially restricted in both time covered and geographical region, the refugee in section A was defined as a person outside of his country of nationality and unwilling to avail himself or herself of its protection and required to have a “well-founded fear of being the victim of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion” to claim refugee status. But could such persons be later expelled if found to be detrimental to the life of that nation – an issue that continually stymied Canada from accepting the Convention for years.

There was also the issue of non-refoulement, that a claimant not be sent back to a country where they would be at risk. But what if they did not satisfy the criteria for being a refugee? One principle would deny their admission. Non-refoulement would prevent expulsion. Claimants could become de facto landed even if they were not granted refugee status.

Does not the following ring familiar?

Mr. ORDONNEAU (France) pointed out that article 24 as originally drafted by the Secretariat had covered both expulsion and non-admittance. The reference to non-admittance at the frontier (refoulement) had been omitted from the new draft, which was thus incomplete.

In reply to a question by Mr. ORDONNEAU (France), Mr. GIRAUD (Secretariat explained that the original draft of article 24 had been based on article 3 of the 1933 Convention. The reference to non-admittance at the frontier (refoulement) in paragraph 1 applied only to refugees who had already been authorized to reside in the territory in question. The practice known as refoulement in French did not exist in the English-speaking countries. In France and Belgium, however, there was a definite distinction between expulsion, which could only be carried out in pursuance of the decision of a judicial authority, and refoulement, which meant either deportation as a police measure or non-admittance at the frontier.

Mr. CUVELIER (Belgium) agreed with that explanation and added that the term “expulsion” was used when the refugee concerned had committed some criminal offence, whereas the term “refoulement” was used in cases when the refugee was deported or refused admittance because his presence in the country was considered undesirable, even though he was a person of good character.

Sir Leslie BRASS (United Kingdom) concluded from the discussion that the notion of “refoulement” could apply to (a) refugees seeking admission, (b) refugees illegally present in a country, and (c) refugees admitted temporarily or conditionally. Referring to the practice followed in his own country, Sir Leslie stated that refugees who had been allowed to enter the United Kingdom could be sent out of the country only by expulsion or deportation.

The effort of Mr. Henkin from the U.S. to speak on behalf of the French but attempt to mediate the debate in the direction of the British also sounds familiar. But the main point is that wherever you probe, the definition of rights expected to be universal, in their application proved to be anything but; they varied from nation to nation.

In the larger picture, we had two different streams for defining refugees, one as persons in need to be admitted to Canada as a humanitarian determination solely at the discretion of the Canadian government, and a rights definition whereby a refugee claimant on Canadian soil could make a claim as a matter of right for Canadian protection.[23] Of course, Canada could also then choose to admit a person determined to be a refugee by UNHCR under the Convention, and, in that case, sovereign choice would be wedded to rights.

In due course, when Canada eventually signed the Convention in 1969, this was the method used initially. Subsequently, Canada developed its own capacity to make such decisions. Within the rights perspective, rights were always presumed to be universal, but, as soon as the process was domesticated, they varied depending on how the state balanced its self-interest, humanitarianism and principles of sovereignty against those rights. The historical process kept hitting the wall of the nation-state which subsumed refugee law within its own national framework.

In the interim, the Canadian Cabinet opted NOT to sign the Refugee Convention, finalized in 1951. Why? The old fear that Canada would be restrained from deporting refugee claimants if, for example, they turned out to be subversive communists. (Canada did not become a signatory to the Convention until 1969.)  Ministers were concerned that the Convention would impede Canada’s ability to deport persons they considered a security risk, especially communists. Further, the cabinet even then recognized that rights were not just abstract under Canadian law, but conferred rights to representation and rights to a hearing where the claimant was present.  Canadian officials were reluctant to grant refugees such rights, including “the right to be represented in the hearing of his appeal against deportation.”

This period of development ended with a unique contribution by Canada that would be one factor that led to Canada being appointed to gavel the refugee talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s.[24] Major-General (ret’d) Howard Kennedy from Canada had been the first UNRWA Director from 1950-1951. In 1955, in the summer, Canada offered to admit refugees that were not from Europe for the first time, adumbrating a policy change that would take place only a few years later. The Canadian government offered to admit 100 Palestinian refugees and their families who possessed skills that Canada could use. I n addition to acquiring migrants with needed skills, the program was intended to relieve the economic burden of countries in the region who were hosting a population that had grown to almost a million. The effort was also intended to contribute to facilitating peace in the region. That goal faltered as the Arab and Palestinian leadership raised a hue and cry and accused Canada of siding with Israel and, in today’s language, helping Israel ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from the Middle East.[25]

Part IV

  1. 1956-1957

Given my later extensive research on Palestinian refugees[26], one might expect that this last initiative would have been my first real foray into the refugee issue. But it was not. I first became involved with refugees in 1957, sixty years ago. I was then the General Manager of the Campus Cooperative Residences at the University of Toronto. The previous fall, in November, I had been one of the young romantic students who met on campus to join a group who were going to volunteer to go overseas to fight and defend the “democratic” Hungarian regime in its efforts to throw off the yoke of Moscow. With the arrival of Russian tanks, the attempt of Hungary to break away from the Soviet bloc was crushed as were the impossible romantic notions of young students dreaming of recreating the “glory” days of the Front in the war in Spain in the 1930s.

My chance to play a part arose the following spring when the Canadian government was searching for temporary housing for the Hungarian refugees arriving in Canada. Of the over 200,000 Hungarians who fled following the crushing of the revolt, under the leadership of the unstoppable Jack Pickersgill (Liberal – Bonavista-Twillingate, Newfoundland), Minister for Citizenship and Immigration 1954-1957, Canada ended up taking in just over 37,000 Hungarian refugees under the humanitarian provisions of relaxed immigration criteria[27], an initiative even supported by John Diefenbaker, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party that won the election in 1957. Jack personally flew overseas to organize the processing of the applicants.[28]

That does not mean there was not opposition to the intake, even from within the Liberal cabinet. Worries were expressed that the refugees would be infiltrated with communist spies and hence the movement represented a security threat to Canada. After all, the Igor Gouzenko security crisis had taken place after the end of WWII, just 12 years earlier.[29] But Pickersgill was such a powerful personality. Further, he was backed by a tremendous upsurge of vocal support from civil society. He was unstoppable. And so was the Canadian initiative.

Though the movement was considered one of the great triumphs of Canadian humanitarian initiative, it was not without its problems. Among the brilliant businessmen, scientists, academic, artists, theatre directors and filmmakers who came to Canada were a significant criminal element, for the prisons were opened to allow inmates to flee with the refugees. I know of no estimate of how large that group was – some estimate as high as 10% of the intake – but I was personally acquainted with one group who operated a Hungarian restaurant on the north side of Bloor just west of Spadina. They were colourful racketeers who also melded into Canadian society without any significant incident.

Though “Jumping Jack,” as he was often called, was widely recognized as getting Prime Minister St. Laurent in 1956 to agree to waiving the requirement that the refugees take out loans to fly to Canada – 200 air flights had been chartered – what is less known is that he discovered an old nineteenth century provision in Canadian law that allowed the Prime Minister to, in effect, print script and thereby spend money without Parliamentary or even Cabinet approval. Jack directed the processing of refugee applicants before monies had been allocated for the task which, provided he worked fast enough, would allow him to take into Canada in the end one-sixth of the refugees before a lid was placed on the numbers we accepted. The only country that took more, and it had ten times the population of Canada, was the United States, and it only took about a thousand extra. Suddenly, Canada had leapt to the head of the line in resettling humanitarian refugees, but still showed no indication that it was willing to sign the Convention and recognize refugee rights. I am proud that I played a very minor role in helping a small group of them with temporary housing.[30]

  1. 1958 – 1965

Canada continued to apply its race-based immigration policies even when applied to refugees accepted only through humanitarian programs. In the United States, the 1965 Immigration Act made major changes in immigration policy by amending the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Quota systems were abolished as were preference system and labour clearances for certain classes of immigrants. These changes immediately affected the country of origin of migrants. Southern European, Asian and Caribbean immigrants made up increasingly larger proportions of migrants. There were also increased volumes.[31]

In Canada, a 1962 Order-in-Council accomplished most of the same goals by substituting skill criteria and eliminating overt racial discrimination through the designation of only specific countries of origin from Canadian immigration policy. All Canadian citizens and permanent residents could sponsor relatives. Racism, however, still left its residue. Only Canadian immigrants from preferred nations in Europe, the Americas and select countries in the Middle East could sponsor children over the age of 21, married children and other members of their extended family. Canadians with respect to immigrant sponsorship were divided into two types of citizens in the first effort to get around the racism built into Canadian immigration and refugee policy up until that time.


What a difference new thinking on migrants and refugees makes! It began with the 1962 Order-in-Council and culminated in the 1966 White Paper on Immigration originally commissioned by Mike Pearson’s Liberal government to recommend restructuring the whole immigration process. The big change – choose immigrants based on their skills and potential contribution to the Canadian economy and not based on the source country. The other big change was on refugees. The White paper insisted that the time had come to sign the Convention. Secondly, finally specific legislation should be introduced to deal with refugees.

These changes are widely known. Less known, and of much greater relevance to the present, were the security provisions. Enhanced protections against the admissions of criminals and homosexuals or, indeed, chronic alcoholics, labeled security risks, were deleted from the Immigration Act. No longer would these types of people be rejected because they were defined as presenting a danger to the country. Whether a potential immigrant (or refugee) was a security threat would be determined on a case-by-case basis. Until Trump, that had also been the modus operandi in the U.S. for over fifty years.

You might believe that these more impartial and fairer provisions would have been broadly welcomed. Instead, they stirred up a hornet’s nest of complaints from labour unions and from immigrants who arrived recently and wanted preference to be given to their family members, both immediate and more distant. Churches and synagogues wanted to continue the process of sponsorship that left more decisions in their hands, but would, in effect, reinforce a preference for immigrants who were reflections of who they were.[32]

Nevertheless, the 1967 regulations that followed in launching the point system to replace country of origin criteria, leveled the playing field for family sponsorship with the introduction of both the Sponsored and the Nominated Categories. Universality had become the order of the day. The basic premise of the new immigration system was to be based on the premise of treating everyone as an economic actor and assessing the degree that individual who applied to Canada would be useful to the Canadian nation-state in advancing its economic prospects.

Internationally, universality had also been applied to refugees as the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention removed the geographic restrictions in defining refugees. When Canada signed both the Convention and the Protocol two years later in 1969, refugees became, initially only formally, a problem of rights as well as needs. If needs, they were to be given humanitarian aid overseas and were not issues of Canadian self-interest unless the refugees were viewed as benefiting the Canadian economy, in which case they could be admitted under relaxed immigration criteria. In terms of rights, there was a conflict between the sovereignty of the nation-state to determine its own members and the right of the refugee to belong to a nation-state which could and would protect his/her rights.

But human rights law was about the obligation of the nation-state to guarantee those rights, so how could that obligation be internationalized to become a responsibility of the whole world community? Only with the introduction of the Convention. In that Convention, nation-states surrendered part of their sovereignty to allow certain individuals, those who could establish that they were in fear of persecution on grounds considered to be abuses of human rights, to come (and, later, stay) in Canada and claim membership as a matter of right. There were fundamental contradictions among three different poles: a) between the conception of a nation-state and its sovereignty; b) the conception of the nation-state as the instrument for protecting the rights of its own citizens; and c) the new notion that the sovereignty must be qualified and the obligation of the state to serve and protect was to be extended to those who were not citizens.

Hannah Arendt had pointed out the real core flaw in the international system in her seminal paper on persons who do not have membership in a state that protects their rights, either because they are stateless or because the state to which they belong is an abuser rather than a protector of their rights. Michael Walzer had pointed out that the most important decision a state makes is who to accept as a member and that is the essence and core of sovereignty.[29] A White paper premised on serving self-interests fairly with respect to the intake of immigrant was not the best place to adjudicate how refugees would be protected. The first statutory provision for protecting refugees only took place in 1973 with an amendment to the Immigration Act about allowing refugees to remain in Canada if they claimed to be refugees.

In the meanwhile, Canada introduced practices and procedures to make this principle of universality, initially only with respect to immigrants, operational. Area Offices were created staffed by Canadian officials – subsequently called visa officers. Within a year, they were interviewing people in one hundred countries and territories. This would turn into the operational foundation for selecting humanitarian refugees under relaxed criteria.

  1. d) 1968-1975

The basic premise of the new system was to be based on the premise of treating everyone as an economic actor and assessing the degree that individual who applied to Canada would be useful to the Canadian nation-state in advancing its economic prospects. But refugees were either a problem of needs or of rights. If needs, they were to be given humanitarian aid overseas and were not issues of Canadian self-interest unless the refugees were viewed as benefitting the Canadian economy. In terms of rights, there was a conflict between the sovereignty of the nation-state to determine its own members and the right of the refugee to belong to a nation-state which could and would protect his/her rights.

But human rights law was about the obligation of the nation-state to guarantee those rights, so how could that obligation be internationalized to become a responsibility of the whole world community? Only with the introduction of the Convention. In that Convention, nation-states surrendered part of their sovereignty to allow certain individuals, those who could establish that they were in fear of persecution on grounds considered to be abuses of human rights, to come (and, later, stay) in Canada and claim membership as a matter of right.

There were fundamental contradictions among three different poles: a) between the conception of a nation-state and its sovereignty; b) the conception of the nation-state as the instrument for protecting the rights of its own citizens; and c) the new notion that the sovereignty must be qualified and the obligation of the state to serve and protect was to be extended to those who were not citizens.

Canada was now on a roll, not vis-à-vis refugees with rights, but with refugees with needs, with humanitarian refugees. For another fifteen years, the issue of rights refugees would sit as a shadow in the background. The issue of rights refugees would grow slowly and emerge out of the darkness to become the predominant issue in refugee policy in the 1980s.

In the meanwhile, Canada admitted almost 11,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia between 20 August 1968 and 28 February 1969 when once again Russian-led Warsaw pact troops crushed a thrust for independence by one of its most western satellites. However, if public support from civil society proved telling in backing the government initiative, in the initiative in fostering the intake of the largest refugee intake into Canada, civil society was in the lead to allow entry of American draft dodgers and, later, deserters into this country.

Of course, Americans were not called refugees. The use of that term would have insulted both them and the American government, our big bully partner to the south. The Americans came as immigrants and were quickly processed for admission. Some were genuine immigrants who came because they did not want their children to fight in Vietnam. However, the clear majority, perhaps up to 180,000,[33] came to escape participating in the Vietnam War. If they had come from any other country, they would have been labeled refugees. That was evident in the lobbying that we had to do to facilitate quick entry approval, easy initially for draft dodgers, much more difficult but eventually successful for deserters.

On the path of rights refugees as distinct from humanitarian ones, after the signing of the Convention and Protocol, problems of principle and subsequently operations would also arise. On 27 July 1970, the Federal Cabinet noted that, “while Canada’s immigration policy was placed on a universal basis with the introduction of the new immigration regulations in 1967, the selection of refugees continued to favour persons of European origin.” How could the principle of universality be applied to refugees? Only if the European geographical bias was removed.

Canada dropped the Euro-centred refugee definition and adopted the Convention universal one. At the same time, in terms of needs refugees, discretion could be applied to selection. As a result, a number of humanitarian classes of refugees would be created, including the oppressed minority policy that allowed entry to Canada for persons who had not fled their country of origin., a measure that would subsequently benefit refugees from Russia, Uganda, Chile and other Central American countries.

The foundations began to be constructed also of a refugee rights regime. An Immigration Department Operations Memorandum on 17 January 1971 led to the creation of an “Interdepartmental Refugee Eligibility Committee. This was the precursor to the independent stream of refugee adjudicators eventually developed. Tibetan refugees constituted the next group of needs refugees permitted entry under relaxed immigration criteria. However, their numbers were small.

The first large group of non-European sourced refugees were the Ugandan Asians who came in 1972. When Idi Amin decreed that Ugandan Asians were no longer wanted in that country, Canada, with only the slightest pressure from Britain because they were British subjects, stepped up to the plate and allowed the entry of 20% of those expelled, just over 7,000 by the end of 1973. It helped, of course, that these were largely prosperous professionals and business people. The principle of accepting humanitarian refugees as immigrants under relaxed criteria designated for that class seemed to be working very well. That should have set a precedent for the Canadian response to a refugee crisis originating in Latin America when Pinochet overthrew the Allende government in Chile in a coup, but this proved more difficult. Our department of philosophy at Atkinson College (I was the chair at that time) was successful in getting Claudio Durán, his wife and children into Canada by offering Claudio a faculty position in the department, but for many others without job offers, the gates were closed. I regard it as a disgrace that by February 1975, less than 1,200 Chilean refugees had managed to escape to Canada. 3,000 Chileans “disappeared” in the ruthless Pinochet coup.[34]

However, the foundations were in place for a much larger group of humanitarian refugees. The experiences above, as well as with people fleeing the Soviet Union, bequeathed to the department an enormous experiential treasure that was used in writing the 1976 Immigration Act and its promulgation in 1978 as well as dealing with the first wave of Indochinese refugees. It is through these experiences that the designated classes and the idea of private sponsorship emerged that would be so influential in the intake of subsequent waves of refugees.

These initiatives also took place with respect to rights refugees. The Immigration Department not only developed specialized units focused on refugees, but cooperated with External Affairs and CIDA by assigning specialists to the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva to connect with UNHCR, ICEM (IOM), the Red Cross organization, the World Council of Churches and an ever-increasing number of international refugee-centred NGOs. With this foundation in place, the Canadian regime with respect to both needs refugees and rights refugees was ready to expand and develop, initially primarily in dealing with humanitarian refugees and the creative response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.

Part V

 1976 – 1982

The largest recognized[35] movement of refugees into Canada began in the same year the Chilean movement ended. But one would not have known this from the start. When Americans left Vietnam in such a humiliating way, Canada was asked by the State Department to take some of the refugees. The Canadian government at the time was reluctant. These refugees were perceived as America’s problem. For the vast majority of Canadians, the Americans should not have been involved in the Indochinese wars at all.  Further, some once again expressed fears that the refugee stream would be used as a route into Canada of communist spies from Southeast Asia. To mollify its American partner to the south, Canada did agree to take in the three years after the conquest of the south by the north a total of 8,000 persons, a relatively token number given the demand and the size of the movement.

That attitude changed in 1978. Canadian diplomats concluded that the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing Vietnam, though also Laos and Cambodia, were not the result of the war because the refugees had been allied with the Americans. They were fleeing repression and ethnic cleansing of Chinese in Vietnam at the same time as the ethnic Vietnamese were being cleansed in Cambodia. The issue came to a head in 1978 with the Hai Hang, a large and ancient freighter packed with over 2,500 refugees from Vietnam. Local countries were unwilling to admit them fearing they would be followed by a flood which they were reluctant to absorb. The Canadian government stepped forward and instead of the usual international implicit norm of Canada taking 10% of a refugee movement, Canada offered to take 25% of those on board to induce the Hong Kong government to allow the boat to dock and other countries to rally and join with Canada to resettle the refugees. The situation was repeated with a second boatload.

By the beginning of 1979, Bud Cullen, the then Minister of Immigration in the Liberal government, had convinced the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues to establish a special program for Indochinese refugees to be admitted under relaxed immigration criteria and set a target of 5,000 for that year.[36] When the Joe Clark Conservatives won the election in the Spring and when Ron Atkey, who had been named as the new Minister of Immigration, sat down and had a talk with Bud, Bud convinced Ron that the most important issue on his desk would be the movement of Indochinese refugees and that Ron should be prepared to take a lead in increasing the numbers of refugees.

One of the first initiatives the Joe Clark government took, after the fiasco over moving the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem[37], was to increase the intake of Indochinese refugees into Canada, 8,000 to be government-sponsored refugees and 4,000 to be privately sponsored. Private sponsorship was a novelty. A little-known clause had been introduced into the new 1976 Immigration Act that had been promulgated in 1978. The change was made to accommodate the Jewish community that wanted small groups of Canadian Jews to sponsor Jews from the Soviet Union. Only 200-300 refugees were expected to come via this route.

The provision allowed a group of five or more sponsors, or a church, synagogue or other organization involved with refugees, to initiate the sponsorship of humanitarian refugees from designated classes determined by the Minister by means of regulations. In 1979, there were three designated classes: the Indochinese, the Latin American Political Prisoners and Oppressed Persons and the East European Self-Exiled Persons. The first would become by far the source of the largest intake.

By the time the government of Joe Clark took office in June and the refugee crisis in the South China seas had reached dramatic proportions, senior government civil servants had only been able to convince two groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Dutch (Christian) Reformed Church to sign an umbrella agreement that would permit small groups of its members to initiate sponsorships under the guarantee of the larger church body. There is a myth that the government was forced by public pressure to increase the Indochinese intake. Evidence supports the interpretation that the opposite was the case. In this instance, the government was always the lead player.

The situation changed dramatically in June of 1979. Part of the reason was that a new government had taken over and wanted to demonstrate it was in charge and initiating policy, but it was policy that had support from all sides of Parliament. A second major reason was the dedication of senior policy staff in the Immigration Department; they worked assiduously to get the government to take a lead in dealing with this problem. A third instigator was the media that provided non-stop coverage of the issue as front page news that was critical in arousing the compassion of Canadians. In contrast to the incident of the Hai Hong, where there was much speculation about the gold bars the refugees had used to pay their way out and questions about whether we were helping refugees in need or just wealthy families to escape, that whole concern had been shoved overboard and disappeared into the choppy ocean waves.

A fourth element now entered the equation – the involvement of secular civil society at large rather than just special religious groups with a record of commitment to assisting refugees. Operation Lifeline was part of that upsurge. Though it turned out to be the name of the major initiative that spread across Canada, there were other worthy local initiatives, the most noteworthy being the initiative of Mayor Marion Dewar in Ottawa with Project 4,000.

Operation Lifeline in some form was inevitable, but it developed from a serendipitous combination of factors.[39] Let me speak of my role first. I had been up north working on my book on Hegel and the Problem of Recognition. I was on an island cut off from the media. I had been up there for six weeks and only returned to Toronto because I had a prior commitment to running a workshop for the Canadian Friends (the Quakers) on the island they owned; the topic was the Israeli-Arab conflict. The group consisted of supporters of each position, but each group was required to take up and defend the position of the other side. It also happened to be the case that I had written a review essay on a spate of books and articles that had recently been published, each having been written about the way various nation-states had turned their backs on Jewish refugees in the 1930s. As I was inundated with the media coverage that everyone had been reading for weeks, I became determined that this should not happen again.

When I finished the retreat, I decided to stay in Toronto a few days longer to write Ron Atkey, my member of Parliament and a former colleague at York University where he previously taught at the Osgoode Faculty of Law. I wanted to exert pressure on him to enlarge his initiative. I organized a meeting at my house on a Sunday, 26 June 1979, after church was out at 1:00 p.m. Representatives of the Catholic church up the street, an Anglican minister whom I knew from the area, rabbis from Holy Blossom Temple and Beth Tzedec Synagogue as well as the local alderman and some friends were invited to draft a letter to Ron asking the government to take a larger initiative. Not one who was invited failed to come or send a representative.

Just after 1:00 when the meeting was just beginning, there was a knock on the door. I went to answer presuming it was just some late comers who I had not been expecting. It was, but from a source I would never have guessed. The Director of Settlement for Ontario in the Immigration Department as well as the head of public relations for that department, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, were at the front door. They said that they had heard about the meeting and wondered if I would mind if they were permitted to attend and listen in.

I had to overcome being flabbergasted that senior civil servants had heard about the meeting, that they took time on a Sunday to come to a private home of someone they did not know. They did not even know if they would be welcome. I invited them in to join the group. We wrangled over the wording of the proposed letter for perhaps half an hour when our visitors from that strange land, the government, intervened. They asked if they could offer a suggestion. We easily acquiesced, if only to get relief from fifteen or so people trying to write a letter together. They informed us of this small provision in the Immigration Act. They asked if, perhaps in addition to writing a letter, we might want to make use of that provision and initiate some sponsorships as a form of witnessing.

Within a few minutes, we agreed to abandon our letter drafting and took up the idea of private sponsorship. We quickly determined that among the religious institutions in the riding as well as local community groups, we could organize at least 50 sponsorships. We divided up responsibilities with each of us agreeing to contact others to arrange for sponsorships. Within two weeks, we had overshot our target. We could never arrive at an accurate figure, but we certainly organized over 150 sponsorships in our riding.

Serendipity, once again, entered. It so happened that I had invited one of my graduate students to attend the meeting, on the assumption he might be interested, as well as to save time so we could work on his thesis immediately after the meeting was over and before I headed north again. He had never told me that he was a stringer for our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. The next morning, when I was sitting at my desk, at 5:45 the phone rang. It was a lady from Marystown, Newfoundland. She had read about Operation Lifeline in the Globe and wanted to know how she could help. Startled, I asked her what Operation Lifeline was? She then read me Dick Beddoes’ page length column in the newspaper that has described myself as abandoning my book on Haekel (sic!) to return to Toronto to save the Boat People and to organize Operation Lifeline. At the bottom of the page, he had printed my name and number and suggested that if others wanted to help, they could contact me.

I laughed at the enormous lie, but then responded that she should organize a chapter of Operation Lifeline in her riding. I appointed her chair of the Marystown Chapter of Operation Lifeline. She protested, insisted that she was only a housewife and did not know how to go about this. I told her to contact her friends, her local clergy of any denomination, local politicians to form a local chapter of Operation Lifeline in her federal riding. I said I would send her an express package describing in detail how to go about sponsoring, even though at the time I had no clue. Reluctantly she agreed, and she performed admirably as she promised to keep me notified of her success.

Delighted, I hung up the phone and no sooner had I done so, it rang again. By the end of two weeks, 66 chapters of Operation Lifeline had been organized across Canada. By the end of the week, my house was overrun with volunteers – it was great that the family were now up at the island and that school was over. Also by the end of the week, the target of 50 sponsorships had been reached in our riding and would soon be greatly exceeded. In that morning, people began showing up at the door to volunteer since they were unable to reach me on the phone. One of these was Wendy Schelew, an expert in hospital administration who was between jobs and volunteered her services. She became the managing head of Operation Lifeline. Another was Dr. Joseph Wong who had organized a similar initiative among his friends who had immigrated from Hong Kong and he merged his organization with ours and became a stalwart. A third was Elaine Slater who brought us a pile of office supplies; she would become chair of the Board.

Another was a former fellow graduate student in philosophy who was then a practicing lawyer. He had gathered an enormous body of material on private sponsorship when he had tried – unsuccessfully – to get his United Church in April to initiate a sponsorship group. By Tuesday morning, after the two of us worked all night, we had a manual on private sponsorship that we could send out to chapters of Operation Lifeline that were mushrooming up all over.

There are many stories to tell about the exhilarating days that followed, how, for example, Flora MacDonald, Foreign Minister, got her cabinet to raise the target from 12,000 to 50,000, with 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector. (The private sector by the end of the period of 18 months had almost doubled that target.) But I will end this story of the beginning of the Indochinese private sponsorship movement with one tale, that of Operation Intellectual Kneecapping. (It turned out to be a stupid name, but that is what we called it.) The National Citizens Coalition (NCC), then headed by Colin Brown, though subsequently by Stephen Harper, published within weeks of each other in August and September full page ads in Canadian newspapers. The first said that each refugee brought in would eventually bring in another 16 family members on average. The result: according to the NCC, almost a million Indochinese would be allowed to enter Canada.

Setting aside whether that would be a problem in the first place, setting aside that the numbers projected were based on early forms of family sponsorship practices no longer possible under the 1976 Immigration Act, the ads stank of racism and the fears of the “Yellow Peril.” Sometimes the bogeymen are communists. At other times, they are Islamic terrorists.[40] That time, race was the spectre.

That initial ad was followed by a second based on a survey the NCC had taken. Based on that survey, most Canadians were opposed to the intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. Only about a third of the population supported the expanded initiative. At the time, we denounced the way the survey had been carried out and the leading questions asked. But we later learned that secret surveys of public attitudes had been undertaken about the same time, but based on more scientifically stringent questions and methods. The results were not significantly different. Though virtually every professional organization, business association, business leaders, along with the parties in parliament, had endorsed the initiative, the NCC was tapping into a racist vein that ran through the heart of Canada. Quite aside from its effects on the sponsorship movement and on the political process, an NCC anti-refugee campaign would be very detrimental to the process of resettling refugees. They already had more than enough insecurities. We would be welcoming refugees against a background noise that said that they were not welcome.

Dr. Joseph Wong and I huddled together and he came up with an idea to contact one of the financial supporters of the NCC whom he knew to be a very good guy, though a fiscal and financial conservative. Joseph contacted him and he agreed to meet with us for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. the next day at what was then called the Prince Hotel on University Avenue. We told him the problem. He said he understood and sympathized. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m. Before noon, he phoned Joseph and told him that we could set our concerns aside. The NCC would not be publishing anything more on the issue.

He had phoned seventeen of his friends and acquaintances who were donors to the NCC and received permission to speak on their behalf. He phoned Colin Brown and told him to stick to financial issues and abandon the campaign against the sponsorship of the Indochinese refugees otherwise not only would he and his friends withdraw their support, but he would personally phone people he knew across Canada, who were supporters and contributors to the NCC, to withdraw their support unless he received an immediate commitment to stick to financial issues.

We never heard another peep from the NCC. The danger of organizing a racist backlash had been diverted. However, when the President of the United States holds such views rooted in invented fears of terrorists slipping into the U.S. through the refugee door, when he is ostensibly a billionaire in his own right, the problem is raised to a totally different dimension.

Reflections and Adumbration

In the 1980s, the mouse that eventually roared was that sleepy issue of rights refugees. At the beginning of the Indochinese refugee movement that would eventually bring 160,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, rights refugees were a sliver in the refugee movement. In 1982, there were approximately 300 files that were reviewed by the Minister to determine whether a refugee claimant should be allowed to stay or whether a refugee referred to by UNHCR for protection status could be approved for admission by the Canadian government. But the signs were becoming ominous. The number of files had doubled from the year before. By the end of the decade, refugee claimants on Canadian soil had reached over 50,000 applicants per year with a backlog of over one hundred thousand. The story of rights refugee claimants had moved from the back burner to a front firestorm.

“Unprecedented in the history of Canadian immigration legislation, the Immigration Act, 1976 attempted to codify the procedures dealing with the entrance of individual refugees to Canada. “That coding would undergo many revisions over the years,”[41] initially in the eighties to give “the benefit of the doubt” to refugee claimants on Canadian soil, but over the longer term in practice, to set in motion procedures which would make it increasingly difficult to arrive in Canada to make a refugee asylum claim in the first place. Other scholars concentrate on the glass half full argument in tracing the application of refugee law in general in procedures and practices to make that law more precise.[42]

However, refugee rights regimes never escaped the net of the primacy of sovereignty[43] – we will accept refugee rights but only so long as the sovereign right to select members is only incidentally compromised. Refugee rights are inevitably caught up in security issue, often as indicated at the very beginning, to put in place a nativist agenda that had nothing to do with either refugees or security, except insofar as the former offer a convenient target and the latter offer a convenient even if irrelevant excuse. The security issue is often about cultural security and effects, not simply on the nation-state, but in a federal system like Canada’s, on the policies of provinces, such as those of Quebec.[44]

Politics has always been at the centre of refugee issues and rarely at the periphery. And that is completely understandable. As I have said above, the principle of the sovereign to decide for itself and its own interests is sacrosanct, even as it takes into consideration the rights, interests and needs of others. Those considerations can be shaped to serve the interests of the nation-state.[45]

In a subsequent article, I will try to describe the impact of human rights refugee law and its development on humanitarian refugee policy and the boomerang effect the former had on limiting the latter. At the same time, I will try to clarify several historical questions, all of which have an impact on the debate of whether it is preferable to view refugees primarily through a needs window or whether refugee policy should be subsumed under human rights law.

How did the crisis in El Salvador and the creation of special measures for admitting Salvadorans into Canada in 1981, including those who were already in the U.S., impact on this question? When the Solidarity movement in Poland was repressed, why did we add Poland to the countries included in the Political Prisoners and Oppressed Person Class, a direct and clear case of people targeted for persecution and presumably eligible to be taken in as Convention refugees, but, in fact, allowed entry without having to prove they had a well-established fear of persecution? In 1983, how and why did the government expand the intake of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka from those simply affected by the riots in Colombo to include all Tamils throughout Sri Lanka affected by the war in the north. And what did this tell us about the rivalry between the primacy of rights versus needs, Convention versus humanitarian refugees?

The big shift took place in 1985 with the Singh decision. If you recall, at the very beginning of the development of the Convention, there had been a debate. If refugees were defined in terms of rights, then, as a concomitant of those rights, there would have to be other rights – rights to be heard, that is, to have an oral hearing and the application not simply processed by the Minister and/or her appointees, but the asylum claimant to be present at the hearing, to be assessed by persons of independent judgment, to have the right of counsel and to have the right of appeal. The Supreme Court of Canada in the Singh case in 1985 ruled that these connections anticipated in 1950 had to be implemented in Canadian refugee law.

Just after the Canadian people were awarded the Nansen medal in 1986 – an event commemorated by all of the Indochinese ethnic groups in Canada in Ottawa last year – for the tremendous leadership and work on behalf of humanitarian refugees performed by Canadian citizens on behalf of refugees, specifically the Indochinese, what followed was that the movement of humanitarian refugees in Canada shifted back into the shadow of an overwhelming focus on rights refugees and the creating of large institutionalized systems for hearing and adjudicating claims, for arranging counsel, for educating supposedly independent assessors. An administrative review system was initiated for refugees who had arrived before 21 May 1986, at the same time as Bill C-55 was passed to provide an adjudication system based on a combination of recommendations from the Robinson Report (1981), the Ratushny Report (1984) and mostly the Plaut Report (1985).

No sooner had rights refugees come to the fore than the reaction and pushback started. In 1987, refugees from the U.S. were forced to turn back and await a hearing date in the U.S. For only the second time in its history, parliament was recalled out of its summer recess in 1987 when a group of Sikhs arrived off the shores of Nova Scotia and, upon landing, requested refugee status. Very quickly, the government tabled Bill-84, the Refugee Deterrents and Detention Bill that was finally passed in 1988.

These steps to undermine the possibility of landing in Canada to claim refugee status were compounded by carrier sanctions, by expanding the number of countries where its citizens were required to obtain visas before they came to Canada as well as other deterrent measures. By 1988, where there had once been 150 and then 300 applications, the backlog alone of refugee claimants was over 100,000. By the end of the 1980s, the cost of the whole system just in Canada was estimated at over one billion dollars, equivalent to the entire budget then of UNHCR to deal with 35 million refugees.

The humanitarian designated class system, now relegated to a back seat, continued to function and was applied to overstayers from China following the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989 and, following the disintegration of the iron curtain that same year, to a European self-exiled class. By 1992, the accumulated methods for deterring the arrival of refugee claimants were expanded even more and given legislative authority in Bill C-86, including more scientific methods of identification – fingerprints originally – and expanding the detention system, though never as broadly or as cruelly as in Australia. Further, refugee claimants who traveled to Canada had to have the proper documents, in total contradiction to both reality and to the principle that the persecuted had rights independent of their membership in a state.

At the very same time, Canada opened the definition to include those persecuted because of gender. But the key shift took place even before the United States when immigration responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Public Security. The message was very clear – much harder to get in and much quicker to be kicked out. The newly elected Chretien government simply reversed that step and shortly after that, modified the requirements on documentation.

By 1987, initiatives were taken to bring the humanitarian process and the asylum or rights process into closer alignment with the creation of a Humanitarian Designated Class applied to applications from those persecuted who were still in their home countries – the Source Country Class. A Country of Asylum Class for Convention refugees from overseas who would be sponsored was created.

The dialectic between humanitarian and rights refugees continued into the twenty-first century, leaving the tensions between sovereignty and rights, between security and humanitarianism, between prejudice and generosity, unresolved and leaving the field open for a demagogue to play on fears and ignorance, lies and misrepresentation to advance a populist lowest denominator appeal that would transform an open polity into a closed and paranoid one.

To rephrase Judge Rosalie Abella, with the doctrine of civil liberties we gained the universal right to be equally free from an intrusive state regardless of group identity; with the doctrine of human rights, we gained the universal right to be equally free from discrimination based on group identity. But what about refugee rights? What about the right to belong to a state that protects your rights? For only if we are members of a state can we have both civil and human rights.

This brief historical sketch points to a claim that rights language cannot produce the transcendental conditions that are the preconditions of any rights in the first place. The existence of a sovereign nation-state is a precondition of both civil and human rights and membership in a state that protects such rights in the first place. A nation-state that goes beyond its sovereign and democratic responsibilities to guarantee rights to non-members has a problem. Further, it stimulates a fear that globalizing rights will take away a nation’s primary interest in self-preservation and open the way for exploitation by populist demagogues. In any case, refugee rights are redundant. Once a foreigner is on the soil of such a sovereign state, they too must be guaranteed both civil and human rights. There are no separate refugee rights. Further, I suggest much more can be done for refugees and more will be granted membership in a democratic nation-state when the threat to sovereignty is removed.

But this argument requires a full essay on its own.


[1] Of almost 64 million refugees and persons of concern to UNHCR in 2015, only 3,219,941 were asylum seekers and many if not most did not qualify as Convention refugees. In contrast, there were over 16 million humanitarian refugees, though IDPs were more than double that number. (

[2] For example, government assisted refugees (GARs) and Blended Visa Office-referred Refugees (BVORs) are Convention refugees referred to Canada for resettlement by UNHCR, while privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) may be Convention refugees or Country of Asylum refugees, that is, refugees seriously and personally affected by civil war or armed conflict.

[3] Thus, of 40,081 Syrian refugees who arrived since 4 November 2015 to the end of 2016, GAR and BVORs made up over 25,000 of the total while under 15,000 were PSRs. Some of these were Convention refugees referred to Canada and private sponsors by UNHCR. ( In addition, within Canada over 16,000 individuals claimed Convention refugee status in 2015. If even only 40% of those end up being accepted as Convention refugees, and even if all PSRs were non-Convention refugees, Convention refugees would outnumber humanitarian refugees admitted to Canada by approximately a 2:1 ratio.

[4] Though Trump and members of his administration repeatedly used the word “ban,” they subsequently blamed the media for calling what they were doing a ban. It was only a “pause,” they asserted. How can a pause be “indefinite”?

[5] Shargh, the Reformist Iranian newspaper on 26 January 2017 wrote, “Donald Trump … has taken a hold of a pen, and is fulfilling every one of his electoral promises, and is scaring thousands of people across the world by every decision he is making. The United States of America, the country which is founded on immigration and racial diversity, is now witnessing one of its most anti-immigrant presidents of its history in the White House.” The prominent Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who stars in Asghar Farhadi’s film, The Salesman, decided to boycott the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony in protest.”

[6] Not one of the perpetrators of terror attacks on U.S. soil in the twenty-first century came from any one of these countries. Most perpetrators of terrorism are home-grown. Though three of the major terrorist attacks during the Obama regime were perpetrated ostensibly by Muslim terrorists, all three were cases of psychological disturbance. Only two of the sixteen major terrorist cases were clearly ideological, based on Islamicism. In the San Bernardino terrorist attack in which 14 were killed, one perpetrator was born in the U.S. of Pakistani descent while the other was a legal resident of the U.S. of Pakistani descent. Any reasonably objective study would conclude that there is virtually no linkage between domestic terrorism and refugees.  Trump’s whole policy was based on a lie, and, unlike the fraud of weapons of mass destruction that took the Americans into Iraq, this is a case of a blatant lie, not simply one of questionable evidence but of no evidence.

[7] The U.S. under the Obama administration admitted about 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. For 2017, it planned to increase the overall target of admitted refugees to 110,000 for 2017, a 30% increase over 2016. The single largest increase, by an additional 10,000, was expected to go to Syrian refugees.

[8] The Globe and Mail on 12 February 2017 (“Quebec and Manitoba see influx of asylum seekers crossing U.S. border”) reported that on the previous weekend, 42 people crossed illegally into Quebec and 21 into Manitoba. Most were Somalis. Thus far in 2016 into 2017, 400 had crossed, an increase from 68 in the previous 2014-2015 fiscal year.

[9] For a historical comparison of the development of refugee policy in the two countries, Canada and the U.S., see Howard Adelman (ed.) (1991) Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, Toronto: York Lanes Press Ltd.


[11] Jean-Louis de Brouwer, Director, Humanitarian and Civil Protection Operations, DG ECHO, European Commission; Laura Hammond, Reader, Development Studies, and Team Leader, Research and Evidence Facility, EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, SOAS University of London; Nassim Majidi, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Samuel Hall and the Migration Pillar Lead; Affiliate Researcher, Sciences Po Paris / CERI, France; and Affiliate Researcher, Wits University / ACMS, South Africa; Mia Steninge,
Chief Advisor, Migration and Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.

[12] See, for example, the following: Charlotte Alfred (2016) “How the EU Is Trying To Stop Africans Boarding Boats To Europe,” Worldpost, 9 June; James Traub (2016) “Europe Wishes to Inform You That the Refugee Crisis is Over,” Foreign Affairs, 18 October; Patryk Kugiel (2016) “Can Development Assistance Solve the Refugee Crisis?” The Polish Institute for International Affairs, 87 (937), 14 December. The effort is attacked as far more expensive to implement than estimated, far more difficult to get cooperation on the ground in real terms, while incurring political and moral costs. The Turkish agreement is an example where the EU said it would continue to consider asylum claims from within countries of first asylum, but, with the pressure off, is, in fact, doing very little to process claimants.

[13] To understand how refugee return can be a destabilizing factor and contribute to a renewal of war, cf. Howard Adelman (2002), “Repatriation of Refugees Following the Signing of Peace Agreements: A Comparative Study of the Aftermath of Peace in Fourteen Civil Wars,” in Stephen Stedman et al Thematic Issues in Peace Agreements Following Civil Wars. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[14] Cf. Elizabeth Collett (2017) “New EU Partnerships in North Africa: Potential to Backfire?”, Migration Policy Institute, 2 February

[15] The pioneer work to underpin migration movements, not in individual choice, but in family survival strategies, was initially put forth by Oded Stark (with D. Bloom) (1985) “The new economics of labor migration.” American Economic Review75, 173–178. The family, not the individual is the crucial agent in the vast majority of cases of migration. This applies to integration as well as emigration. In both, the family constitutes a crucial actor in the process of human mobility. Given this family risk management framework, it is often the case that family reunification may not be the ideal goal in dealing with migrants. Cf. Laura Zanfrini (2012) “Family Migration: Fulfilling the Gap between Law and Social Processes,” Societies 2:3, 63-74.

[16] The essay was published in, Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson, London: Faber and Faber, 110-119.

[17] Cf. Howard Adelman (1991) “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Period: An Analysis,” Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, ed. by Howard Adelman, Toronto: York Lanes Press, 173-223.

[18] See Irving Abella and Harold Troper (1982; 2012), None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys and revised edition, University of Toronto Press.

[19] For a more general argument about this thesis and its influence on the development of human rights laws in general, cf. Mark Mazower (2004) “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950,” The Historical Journal 47:2, June, 379-398.

[20] The documents on their arrival can be found in the archives of Tartu College at 310 Bloor St. W. in Toronto.


[22] This supposed “international constitutional moment” (Anne-Marie Slaughter and William Burke-White, (2002) “An International Constitutional Moment,” 43:1), in which refugee law was built into human rights law, is under dispute from many directions. Some argue that the moment existed, but not at birth, but only when these rights were first really institutionalized – in human rights law in the 1970s and in refugee law in the 1980s. Others argue that all three types of rights, general human rights born with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (along with the subsequent International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)), Refugee Rights in the Convention and the rights of a group not be attacked for their culture, beliefs and way of life in the Genocide Convention, are triplets, born at about the same time out of the same seed, even if one of the triplets, human rights law, emerged first from the womb. Still others argue that the legacy is much older than the aftermath of WWII. Human rights and refugee rights are as old as Methuselah. And primogeniture belongs to refugee rights expressed deeply in all three major religions that arose in the Middle East and possibly Far East religions as well. Cf. Jill I. Goldenziel (2016) “The Curse of the Nation-State: Refugees, Migration, and Security in International Law,” Arizona State Law Journal 48: 579-636, 581-2. Goldenziel argues that, in the contemporary world, refugee rights not only emerged from a very much older tradition, but coalesced in the 1940’s because of national interests as well as abstract principles. (There is a sense in which each of these positions is correct, but that is for another discussion. The real debate is whether refugee law should be primarily understood in terms of human rights law as my colleagues Guy Goodwin-Gill and James Hathaway have argued. (For the latter, see his 1991 article, “Reconceiving Refugee Law as Human Rights Protection,” Journal of Refugee Studies 113: 113-131 and the many other articles and books he has published to advance that argument.) The argument proceeds by concentrating on the Convention and its aftermath and largely ignores humanitarian law applied to refugees. Or, for that matter, to actual genocides. Cf. Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke (1996) Early Warning and Conflict Management, Volume 2 of The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Copenhagen: DANIDA; Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke (eds.) (1999) The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books; Howard Adelman, with Frank Chalk, Alexandre Kiss, William A. Schabas and Dinah L. Shelton (co-eds.) (2004) Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 3 volumes, New York: Macmillan USA.  The interaction between the issue of genocide and refugee flows is discussed in Howard Adelman (2005) “Rwanda and Refugees,” Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen (eds.) Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present, Oxford: ABC Clio 2, 542-547.

[23] Cf.. Goldenziel, Jill I., (2016) “The Curse of the Nation-State: Refugees, Migration, and Security in International Law (July 10). Arizona State Law Journal, 48. SSRN:; see also , François Créepeau and Michael Barutciski (1995) ““Refugee Rights in Canada and the 1951 Geneva Convention,” Journal of Refugee Studies, 7, 239-248.

[24] A major concern was the right of refugee return, not discussed in this article. For an extensive analysis, cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press. For an analysis, most germane to the thesis of this essay, cf.  Howard Adelman (1994) “Refugees: The Right of Return” in Group Rights, ed. Judith Baker, University of Toronto Press, 164-185, and Howard Adelman (1987) Palestinian Refugees and Durable Solutions, Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme. When applied to refugees in the Far East, cf. Howard Adelman (ed) (2008) Protracted Displacement in Asia: No Place to Call Home, London: Ashgate, and, more generally, Howard Adelman, (2013) “The Law of Return and the Right of Return,” in M Rafiqul Islam, Azizur Rahman Chowdhury and Jahid Hossain Bhuiyan (eds.) An Introduction to International Refugee Law, Leiden: BRILL, Netherlands, 291-318, and Howard Adelman (2010) “Refugee Return: By Right and By Law,” in Dan Avnon and Yotam Benziman (eds.) Plurality and Citizenship in Israel: Moving Beyond the Jewish/Palestinian Civil Divide, London: Routledge, 31-52.

[25] Cf. Jan Raska  (2015) “Forgotten Experiment: Canada’s Resettlement of Palestinian Refugees, 1955-1956,” Histoire sociale/Social History, November, 48:97

[26] See, for example, Howard Adelman (1986), Guest Editor, Palestinian Refugees, Middle East Focus, 9:2.

[27] For an overview of these developments, cf. Howard Adelman, editor-in-chief (2002) Immigration Policy and Practice in Canada. Ottawa: Metropolis Institute.

[28] Howard Adelman (ed.) (1994) Hungarian Refugees, Toronto: York Lanes Press and “Genesis,” in The Genesis of a Domestic Refugee Regime: The Case of Hungary, Toronto: York Lanes Press.

[29] The Gouzenko Affair marked not only the beginning of the Cold War, but an unprecedented abuse of human rights in the name of national security by the Federal Government of Canada with the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the arrest and trial of many, and with the reputations of many others ruined in the process.

[30] For a more thorough discussion, cf. Howard Adelman (1991) “”Humanitarianism and Self-Interest: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Hungarian Refugees,” Studie- en Informatiecentrum Mensenrechten Special 11 Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, 98-108.

[31] Charles B. Keely (1971) “Effects of the immigration act of 1965 on selected population characteristics of immigrants to the United States,” Demography 8:2, 157-169.


[32] Cf. Harold Troper (1993) “Canada’s Immigration Policy since 1945,” International Journal 48:2, Spring; Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock (1998) The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Valerie Knowles (2000) Forging our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900-1977, Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada.


[33] Precise figures are not available because Canada diplomatically never announced a special program for American refugees. We did not have to go overseas to get them. They arrived in Canada on their own, often with the help of Canadians in what was termed the Vietnam underground railroad. I then lived in Rosedale and cannot count the number of draft dodgers and deserters who came to the terminus of that railroad to sleep in our third floor.

[34] Steve J. Stern (2004) Remembering Pinochet’s Chile, Duke University Press.

[35] Only the American refugee movement during the Vietnam War was larger, but it was not recognized as a distinct movement.

[36] For a more detailed discussion and depiction of these developments, cf. Howard Adelman (ed.) (1980) The Indochinese Refugee Movement into Canada, Toronto: Copp Clark, and Howard Adelman (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: Weigl Educational Publishers.

[37] Howard Adelman (1980) “Clark, and the Canadian Embassy in Israel,” Middle East Focus, March 2:6, p. 6-18.

[38] The source of this false news is not only the media, which has a propensity to view government initiatives as only passive responses to the voice and will of the people. One source of this misleading information is the otherwise extremely reliable Canadian Council for Refugees. On its website summarizing the history and development of refugee policy in Canada, it is written that, “Popular pressure forced the government to adjust upwards its initial commitment to resettling the refugees.” This is just incorrect.

[39] For a journalist’s account, see Peter Goodspeed (2014) “Can Canada duplicate its boat people rescue with Syrian refugees?” Toronto Star, 26 September.

[40] For a discussion of the interaction between terrorist threats and Canadian refugee policy, cf. Howard Adelman (2008) “Canada’s Balancing Act: Protecting Human Rights and Countering Terrorist Threats”, in Alison Brysk and Gershon Shafir (eds.) National Insecurity and Human Rights: Democracies Debate Counterterrorism, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 137-156.

[41] Cf. Christopher J. Wydrzynski (1979) “Refugees and the Immigration Act,” Montreal: McGill Law Journal, 154-190. This article outlines “the immigration system established to process refugee claims, and will comment on the legislative steps Parliament has taken to ensure that Canada meets her international obligations and provides a system whereby the individual refugee applicant is treated with procedural and substantive fairness.”

[42] Cf. Alexander Betts (2009) Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, and Alexander Betts, Gil Loescher and James Milner (eds.) (2012) UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection, London: Routledge.

[43] Howard Adelman (2008) “Sovereignty in the Twenty-First Century: Security, Immigration and Refugees,” Ch. 8 in Trudy Jacobsen, Charles Sampford and Ramesh Thakur (eds.) Re-envisioning Sovereignty: The End of Westphalia? Aldershot: Ashgate, 129-150. See also Jack Donnelly (2014) “State Sovereignty and International Human Rights,” Ethics and International Affairs, 225.

[44] Cf. Howard Adelman (1995) “Canada, Quebec and Refugee Claimants,” in Is Quebec Nationalism Just: Perspectives from Anglophone Canada, ed. Joseph Carens, McGill-Queens University Press, 82-96.

[45] Thus, the effort to get nations to intervene in other states where there were gross abuses of human rights – Government of Canada and U.N. Secretary-General, Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response, 1, U.N. Doc. A/66/874-S/2012/578 (July 25, 2012). For the more ambitious issue of humanitarian intervention, cf. Canadian Government Responsibility to Protect and a critique in terms of practice, Howard Adelman and Govind C. Rao (eds.) (2003) War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention 1996-1997, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press as well as a more extensive effort to salvage the disasters in application, see U.N. Secretary-General (2012) Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response, U.N. Doc. A/66/874-S/2012/578, 25 July. Refugee movements are also used as a propaganda tool and an instrument of war. Cf. Howard Adelman (2003) “The Use and Abuse of Refugees in Zaire,” Chapter 4, Stephen John Stedman and Fred Tanner (eds.) Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 95-134. For a more theoretical examination that preceded the publication of the Responsibility to Protect, cf. Howard Adelman (2001) “Theory and Humanitarian Intervention,” Chapter 1, Michael Keren and Donald A. Sylvan (eds.) International Intervention: Sovereignty versus Responsibility. London: Frank Cass & Co., 3-24.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Son of Saul III

Son of Saul III


Howard Adelman

Three blogs on the same film! What more is there to say? I begin with one tardy response that I received after the second blog was sent out.

I imagine that you waited so long to see Son of Saul for the same reason I did. It seemed inconceivable that the film industry would have anything ne to say about the Holocaust; why throw myself into a needless depression? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? I finally saw it at the TIFF a while after it opened and found that it took us into a new layer of evil and raised new questions.
Son of Saul takes us into the horror that other films only allude to – the engine room of the CAPOs and SonderKommando, the gas chambers themselves, the heart of darkness, and the diabolical method of forcing Jews to be collaborators in their own destruction.

If I were to write a philosophical essay on Son of Saul, I would stress two themes.
1. The director’s reversal of Arendt’s” banality of evil”. Arendt, who invented this concept, uses it (wrongly, I believe) to dehumanize the perpetrators. In Son of Saul, it is the victims who are engulfed in it. Saul goes through his routines as though he were a factory labourer. He seems slightly bored, shoving bodies into gas chambers and then retrieving them. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are normal brutes, sadists and tyrants. No profundities are necessary to describe them.
2. He illustrates the concept of resistance, as the determination to rescue the human from the anti-human This is the meaning of the main story line of the film, Saul’s determination to give his son a proper burial. a concept that is at the heart of Emil Fackenheim’s account of the Holocaust. Your German correspondent illustrates these moments of resistance very beautifully. But there is an ambiguity. He chooses his act of spiritual resistance against the possibility of joining a scheme of armed resistance. What are we to make of this?
Much to think about.

This comment is in line with the first pro-humanism interpretation of the film that I sent out by my Hungarian correspondent currently living in Germany, but probes the issue on a deeper, more philosophical level. Second, it assumes that the boy was Saul’s real son. Is there a connection between taking the son to be a constructed fantasy and a pessimistic perspective on the assertion of humanity in the face of utility versus the assumption of a real son and viewing the film as a statement of hope for the human spirit?

Before probing both those questions, I now want to include a series of reviews of the film in Germany, most viewing the movie as kitsch rather than a great piece of art. Again, these were forwarded to me by my Hungarian reader living in Germany.

Népszabadság is a major left-leaning Hungarian newspaper, 50% owned by Bertelsmann AG (Germany). In its online version I found an article written in Hungarian by Hanna Ongierth, published March 14, 2016, that summarizes some of the write-ups by critics of major German newspapers about the movie Son of Saul. I do not have time to read all the original articles she is summarizing here, but I thought you might be interested in learning what the leading media in Germany wrote about the movie, so I translated it for you. At the end of my translation of her article I included links to the original write-ups, if someone wants to read them. The title of her article, a quote from one of the write-ups, summarizes the overall judgement of German critics:

“The Son of Saul: nauseating”

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning film, The Son of Saul, opened March 10 in Germany. It has been hotly anticipated; every major newspaper wrote about it. They did not mince words: “lager-kitsch”, “ghost train”, “pornography” were some of the opinions it received. But there was also a critic who considered it a “poignantly great work of art”.

Verena Lueken, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung film critic, wore a darkly gleaming gray suit talking about the film on the paper’s online video. Her outfit was to underline her sharp features and stern judgment. Whenever she likes a movie, she wears bright colours. In an unwavering tone, she explained the traditional manner Holocaust themes are to be dealt with. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoa issued a tacit ban on the pictorial representations of death camps. And since this circle of fire has not faded at all during the last 30 years, Auschwitz-Birkenau is still not to serve as a venue for fictional works.

“László Nemes is trying to be awfully clever” – Lueken interprets the imagery of Son of Saul – “by showing and not showing things explicitly. Nauseating: Exploitative violence, pornography” – she sputters her curses darkly. “Lurid – all just calculated for effect,” she says. In the columns of her paper, she calls the director an arrogant creep, and this because he knows that he is touching on taboos, but decides not to knock them down. The Son of Saul fuels the same lies as Schindler’s List when it claims that, even in horror, there is room for humanity, and in hell for dignity, and that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria. This one is the same old lager-kitsch as Steven Spielberg’s film. But at least – Geza Röhrig is a great actor.

Jan Schulz Ojala, the Tagesspiegel critic would agree with those who say it would have been better for Nemes to shoot a movie about the Battle at the Don River [the Hungarian army suffered terrible losses on behalf of Germany due to the overwhelming power of the Soviets in 1942-43; BG], or anything else, as long as he left the Holocaust well alone. Ojala’s greatest problem is not that he does not think The Son of Saul is a good movie, but that Claude Lanzmann thinks it is so. “This movie is nothing but a series of dramatic scenes, typical for an action movie – otherwise it is an average thriller. Not like the Shoah, where the silences between the phrases uttered by the survivors are the most dramatic. In comparison, The Son of Saul is like a ghost train in an amusement park – by the end of the ride, the shivers stop.

According to Susan Vahabzadehnek, the Süddeutsche Zeitung critic, taking a quick ride through the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sitting in your comfy armchair is like getting your picture taken with the starving children of Africa on a cruise. The viewer cannot be more than a rubbernecking bystander – a thoroughly passive tourist. Therefore, The Son of Saul is no more than a pornography of pain. Besides the horrors of the KZ are impossible to portray, so why even try it?

The Feuilleton editor of Die Welt, Elmar Krekeler has a wholly different opinion. He intensely dislikes the 107 minutes spent on watching the movie. Not because he does not consider it a good movie. But it hurts as much as to even think about it as it was painful to watch it. He disagrees with the label “ghost train” as on that he would love to take another ride. This film, however, engulfed and crushed him. And in the end it vomited him out as a different person. “We all should watch it – he writes – so that we know our task: to shape the world in such a way that there is no need in it for such works as The Son of Saul “.

“How can one demand realism from a feature film? And, anyway, what’s the point of comparing it to a documentary film?”- asks Hannah Pilarczyk, in Spiegel Online. Rather, one should ask whether The Son of Saul adds anything new to the cinematic narrative built around the Holocaust. “It certainly does!” she writes, by breaking the well-known cliché of the “passive Jew” and by complementing the best possible way the existing series of works. In her view, it would be a big mistake to label it as “lager-kitsch” and then yet another time end up with Lanzmann’s work as the only solution.

Anti-Schindler’s List
Claude Lanzmann, the now 90-year-old French director, created the alpha and omega of Holocaust films in 1985, the Shoa. In his nine-and-a-half-hour long work, he let survivors talk, showing locations; however, none of the corpses. “No; I did not use archival materials. Firstly, because this sort of thing is not my thing, and, secondly, because such materials do not exist. And if they did, and I had stumbled upon them, I would have burned them,” he declared in 1994 in Le Monde. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List is a feature film, considered by many as the “Hollywoodification” of the Holocaust. Lanzmann has also had a low opinion of him; he thought Spielberg’s work “trivialized the Jewish tragedy”. But Lanzmann is pleased to note that Nemes “does not try to show death”. Although Lanzmann missed the first 20 minutes of the movie, yet he thinks of it as the “anti-Schindler’s List,” and he is satisfied that “the director did not want to put the Holocaust on the screen, just the short story of the Sonderkommando.”

Original articles:
Spiegel online:

So there you have it. Is the film an anti-Schindler anti-Hollywood movie that does not trivialize the Holocaust because it does not focus on death, or does it do the very opposite of Lanzmann’s dictum by tacitly breaking the ban on the pictorial representations of death? Does it break the cliché of the “passive Jew,” invert Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” and engulf and crush you so that you emerge after watching it a different person.? Or, on the other hand, is the film just an average thriller based on a series of dramatic scenes like an action movie, a nauseating and lurid film of violence as an exercise in exploiting the pornography of pain, that, even in horror, claims that there is room in hell for humanity and dignity? Is the movie an exercise in lager-kitsch expressing the shallow sentiment that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria? Or is the film great art because it can elicit such a wide variety of reactions?

I think the movie is indeed a great piece of art, but not because there are so many varied and often opposite reactions. It does NOT deal with shallow sentiment, and if some find that it expresses the view than even in hell there can be human dignity, this is far from shallow sentimentality. I myself thought the film had as dour a view about the world as the actor/poet who plays Saul, that in a crushing authoritarian environment of mass murder, rebellion, witnessing and escaping into a fantasy longing for religious nostalgia in trying even to giver youthful hope a decent burial, all may be of equal value and equally futile as different exercises in resistance.

But the film is definitely not lurid; it is not a thriller – I was never on the edge of my seat and there were none of the superbly choreographed crash scenes of cheating death that make good action films a thrill to watch. The message is the reverse. Death cannot be cheated. The film is not about the pornography of pain. It is not pornographic or voyeuristic at all, for it is through Saul’s blank and stolid vision that we see what takes place as the camera focuses in close-ups on him or follows him around. I agree with Lanzmann that the film avoids the pornography of death. I can differ from some critics, but respect them. Other critics are just stupid.

I disagree with the conviction that the film breaks the stereotype of the passive Jew, not because that is not a theme in the film, but because it is in a minor key. The resistance is there, but is not the focus of the movie. The film certainly breaks the cliché about the Sonderkommando as willing, selfish opportunistic collaborators of the Nazis. In that sense, my reader is entirely correct. For that alone, the film will be an important addition to the Holocaust genre.

The movie does certainly overturn a major theme of Hannah Arendt, an idol of my young intellectual life, her view of the “banality of evil” when in the Eichmann trial she totally and naively bought into Eichmann’s planned posturing that he was just a normal bureaucrat carrying out orders. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” For Arendt, evil was considered banal because it was carried out by normal individuals, “people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In the film, though mainly background figures, except in the scene of the Nazi doctors watching as another Nazi officer taunts and ridicules dancing at a Jewish wedding, Nazis are brutes and enforcers, bullies and murderers. Nazis are not ordinary in the least.

Evil is banal, not because it is carried out by ordinary people rather than brutes, but because such extraordinary evil reduces life to such a banal level – questing for a piece of bread and becoming to a greater and greater degrees totally banal, an automaton, in the process. It is not that Eichmann was “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” but that totalitarianism reduces life to obedience. While Arendt claimed that, “normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together” she was purveying, not a great insight, but utter nonsense. The ultimate goal of atrocities is to make that realm of atrocity the norm.

The film is, in some sense, a beacon of hope because the Nazis never succeeded in destroying the capacity to think, to decide, to act, whether as preservers of the record of hostilities, resisters to it or even wanting to resurrect a ritual from which the protagonist himself had become detached, but one that required that life always be respected and dignified. Some sort of Christian forgiveness based on Arendt’s reading of St. Augustine was not “the key to action and freedom.” The resisters, those committed to witnessing or Saul obsessed with at least one proper ritual burial, all fought against their oppressors in different ways and did not forgive them. When Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1958 book The Human Condition, that it was “far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think,” the film demonstrates the opposite to be the case. Under conditions of tyranny, it is virtually impossible to engage in effective action, but the effort is necessary as is the exercise of thought.

Son of Saul is a love story of a conscripted Sonderkommando forced to do what is most abhorrent, more abhorrent than death itself and doomed as well to end up in death after four months of forced labour. Love is not a stranger, as Arendt wrote, a destructive force in partnership with hatred, but a source of opposition to hate and tyranny. We did not need the Nazis to understand the truly radical nature of evil. It has been ever present in the history of humanity. To create a love story in the midst of such evil is a work of great art.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

The movie was directed by Margarethe von Trotta and co-authored with Pam Katz


Howard Adelman

The movie is about love. It is about friendship. It is about the deliberate effort to connect the private and the public life that so characterizes all the films of Margarethe von Trotta. The character and role of Adolph Eichmann as interpreted by Hannah Arendt is the core of the film, but the larger issue is her concept and theory about the banality of evil. A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is her view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis. A glance in passing is also paid to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Underlying the whole biopic is Hannah Arendt`s conception of thought, not just philosophical thought, but thinking per se and the role of the intellectual. The movie commands that we reflect on the nature and role of biopics in general.

In my son Jeremy’s book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, he describes Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, at a period when he was seducing the minds of all his young followers and the bodies of his female ones in the thirties with his Marxist arguments. His conquests included Albert’s sister, Ursula. It was a habit that the movie suggests persisted when Blücher was in America married to Hannah Arendt. Another habit also persisted. Jeremy writes, “Many years later, Heinrich surfaced once more in New York as Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt; the years had passed, but the outward affection for didactic certainties had not. (my italics) In Paris, Blücher had succeeded in confirming many of Hirschmann’s (sic! – spelled in the original way) doubts about Communism; three decades later, it struck Hirschman that the air of conviction that hovered over Blücher and Arendt, and to which Americans were flocking in search of answers, had still not lifted.” (106) By then, of course, he was no longer a non-Stalinist communist or even a fellow traveller but, in fact, a staunch anti-communist supposedly critical of all essentialist thinking. But you would not know either from watching the film.

In Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa who had worked with von Trotta before and who played Lola in a Fassbinder flick and the good-hearted prostitute in Berlin Alexanderplatz, is brilliant in passionately portraying Arendt’s affection for didactic certainties held with a haughty air of intellectual conviction. Heinrich Blücher (HB), played by the tall and imposing Axel Milberg, is reduced to a turtle dove in relation to his queen, sometimes questioning at other times expanding on her judgements, decisions and ideas, but always out of concern for her well-being. While HB dotes like a love-struck devoted spouse, constantly cooing or rather “turring” in a deep vibrating sweet but mournful purr of affection, she responds with loving devotion to her dear “Stuts”. Their solid and unwavering union in a flame of love is best captured by some stanzas in William Shakespeare’s 1601 poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.

“Here the anthem doth commence:

Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded."
The poem concludes:
"Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer."

In their married chastity, in spite of his philandering, their children were their ideas that he, the turtle, expounded orally and at length and she, the phoenix, wrote about at equal length. HA`s PhD had been on Saint Augustine`s theory of love. Her conception and effort had been to realize perfect love in the union of persons in the Trinity in the medieval Catholic literary traditions of mystical union, spiritual friendship and spiritual marriage.  For Blücher, his Phoenix provided the entire world of intellectual pleasure and Arendt`s judgements shone as “Clear as a naked Vestal, / Closed in an orb of Crystal.”

But the Phoenix side of the two–in-one pair was also a sacrificial lamb akin to Jesus as the innocent Savior persecuted and sacrificed for those who were truly guilty. Jesus says to his disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Hannah Arendt is the wise serpent; Heinrich Blücher is the innocent dove. But he wears the tell-tale black and white striped patch on his neck that forever marks those who think only in simplistic dichotomous categories. While Blücher flew off to wander in the wilderness of Bard College to escape the windy storms and tempests of public issues (Psalm 55), his Phoenix flew into the eye of the storm.

But their ideas had merged. "Either was the other's mine." Margarethe Von Trotta captures that duality in unity in the film even though Alex Milberg who portrays Heinrich Blücher is tall in contrastto the squat 5' 4" barrel-chested historical figure who chain-smoked camel cigarettes and enchanted his students at great length in a heavy German accent at Bard College. While the film would lead you to believe that Hannah Arendt developed her idea of the banality of evil from observing Adolph Eichmann, it is quite apparent that she pays no attention to his pursed lips, twitches and grimaces picked up and replayed in the black and white excerpts from the film of the actual trial, but only sucks up his words as if they were truly revelations of his thinking while declaring him, though not stupid, a man incapable of thought. 

In modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure to think. Arendt accepted Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … never hated Jews.” “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth.” He was not a villain propelled by evil but a law-abiding citizen conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty “`with excellence recognized by his superiors.” Though his crimes were genuine and extraordinary, Eichmann was not; he was an ordinary man.

Determined to portray Eichmann as an ordinary man and neither demonic nor a monster, nicht einmal unheimlich, she came to the opposite position, that he demonstrated an authentic inability to think. He did not act out of conviction nor with pronounced intentions. He was eigentich dumm. According to Arendt, Eichmann was not a Nazi. Arendt claimed that Eichmann was totally unaware of Hitler`s program but was simply passively swept into membership in the party. He was essentially a modest man with no personal hatred for Jews. Theseextreme empirical statements, refuted both by historical evidence and even the trial proceedings, are largely omitted from the film.The abstraction of the idea of Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking is the focus of the film rather than the actual historical Eichmann. 
Ironically, we do not hear any thought in process, only strongly held opinions. We see Bukova lying on her divan presumably reflecting as she smokes. We see her standing and looking inwardly as a visual representation of thinking. But unlike the film A Beautiful Mind, we actually never get a glimpse of real thinking. That is, perhaps, because Trotta buys into Hannah Arendt`s conception of thinkingas the deviant thought set off against simplifications, clichés and conventions as the only antidote to conformist non-thought of a bureaucratic society, conformity that allows us to carry out the will of higher authorities without reflection. 
For Arendt, thinking and thinking alone as critical non-conformity allows us to retain and maintain human dignity and resist servility. The fact that Arendt was empirically incorrect, that those who resisted the Nazi machinations, that those who engaged in acts of sacrifice to save others, were very infrequently thinkers and most often people with a stronger institutionalized set of values that made them act otherwise and according to what they considered ordinary norms, is ignored in the film. Only the thesis that evil arises from mechanical obedience by people who fail to think critically, reflectively and against the grain is suggested, but not by our witnessing such an event, but because we are told that this is the case. And because Arendt and Blücher are presented as cases in point, though what we actually witness is a stubborn unwillingness to consider other positions and weigh them fairly. Instead strong opinion against the current is seen as the sole representation of authentic thought with no evidence that non-conformist thought is the precondition of dissident action against organized evil.  
In the clearest failure of the film, the flashbacks to her love affair with Martin Heidegger (played by Klaus Pohl) and her re-union with Heidegger after the war when he never answers the question she poses to him why he became a Nazi, but instead mouths the romantic cliché that thinking is a “lonely business” and such real pretentious philosophical banalities that “we think because we are thinking beings” when, in reality, thinking is neither a lonely enterprise nor an activity exclusively reserved for humans and incumbent on humans to express their humanity. Thinking is a communal task of give and take, empirical testing and assessing consistency and coherence. Given that von Trotta buys into the Heideggerian conceit, thinking becomes identified with puffing endlessly on cigarettes and blowing smoke, with silent intensity and staring inwardly. We are not propelled into thinking with her but thrown into the illusion of thought. We are not forced to confront our own rigid beliefs but to accept hers as the only authentic ones in contrast to the dogmas and sentiments of those around her even though, ironically, her thoughts are just expressed as opinions and never as conclusions to the evidence before her or the results of arguments in which she was engaged. We only get the bottom line and the illusion of a process. Thinking is portrayed as arrogant assertion in the face of opposition. In this view, those who profess to believe in aliens visiting earth, as long as they accompany such expressions of belief with staring emptily, lying on a bed and blowing smoke, will be granted the status of great thinkers.
The conception of Eichmann as a man incapable of thought is translated into the idea of the "banality of evil". It is not clear whether the idea came from Carl Jaspers, her mentor and old friend, who for some inexplicable reason is not in the film, or whether her husband planted the idea in her head. Carl Jaspers first raised the idea of the banality of evil before Eichmann was even captured. As he wrote in a letter to her at then end of 1960, "we have to see these things (the murders by the Nazis) in their total banality (Banalitat), in their prosaic triviality, because that's what truly characterizes them." Arendt, in turn, suggested to Jaspers that her husband had characterized the type of evil perpetrated by the Nazis as a superficial phenomenon and that he had inspired her to adopt that as the sub-title of her Eichmann book. (Young-Bruehl, 1982, 330) But just as Hannah Arendt did, Margarethe Von Trotta ignores any references to the actual historical record.
Hannah Arendt had dedicated her book The Origins of Totalitarianism to her husband, often expressing the opinion that it was to him she owed a huge debt, not merely for his support but for his ideas. "The banality of evil" was a very enchanting but a terrible idea, but you would never know it from the film where the enemies who assault her, the New York intellectuals (Lionel Abel in his review in the Partisan Review and Norman Podhoretz in "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A study in the Perversity of Brilliance," 1963 in Commentary) in a presumable re-enactment of the famous meeting sponsored by the magazine Dissent at the Hotel Diplomat are turned into blithering idiots mouthing clichés. (See also Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” in the Fall 1963 issue of New Politics and the correspondence between Lionel Abel and Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books.) Many of her academic colleagues turn against her, not because they find the concept as empty as its literal meaning, but are portrayed as stiff-necked dogmatic rednecks that make Adolph Eichmann look like the epitome of flexibility and litheness as they simply respond to the negative vituperation of the organized Jewish community.  (For an historical account and explication of that reaction, see Peter Novick (2000) The Holocaust in American Life.) Even her long term oldest friends and fellow "yekkes", Hans Jonas in New York (played with great heart and craft by Ulrich Noethen) and Kurt Blumenfeld (played with even greater sympathy by Michael Degen), finally literally turn their backs on her as she is accused of being a self-hating Jew. For the biopic, Hannah Arendt, is a portrait of betrayal, not Eichmann`s and the Nazi`s, but of the betrayal of Hannah Arendt by those intolerant of original thought in their desire to protect Jewish sensibilities. In that sense, von Trotta follows totally into the footprints of her main protagonist.
In the penultimate powerful grand finale scene where Hannah Arendt defends her interpretation with passion, vigour and intellectual acuity, the mindblinded academic colleagues walk out and even Kurt Blumenfeld insists that this time she went too far, but the rapt students in the audience applaud with mesmerized entranced looks. I watched that scene and asked how could I have been one of those students fifty years ago? If I had been there, I would certainly have applauded with even more energy than they even demonstrated. After all, in 1962, I had visited the New School with a view of possibly studying with her as a PhD student only to learn that she was not available. I did not learn until later that she was on leave working on the Eichmann book. 

Why was I even more enchanted by the idea of the “banality of evil” than the idea of “radical evil” she had propounded in The Origins of Totalitarianism? In Religion within the Limits of Reason, Immanuel Kant had depicted radical evil as a “natural propensity”, based on imperatives that dictate maxims that run contrary to law. But Adolph Eichmann repeated and repeated the claim that he performed his deeds because he was obeying the law with no special animus towards the Jews whatsoever. In the last frames, we see Hannah Arendt muttering to herself that her critics were not only wrong, but failed to note her one intellectual error, the recognition that evil could not be radical but was just so ordinary and puerile. As Hannah Arendt had written to Gershon Scholem, “It is indeed my opinion that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the entire world precisely because it is spread like a fungus on the surface or, in the metaphor Blücher bequeathed to her, like a bacterium. It is ‘thought defying’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. (Young-Breul, 1982, 369) In other words, not only was Eichmann’s actions banal, not only was the execution of the Shoah by all the Nazis banal, but evil itself was banal precisely because it was characterized by Arendt as being without thought.

To grasp what she means, go see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing which portrays the militia leaders, the politicians, the military leaders, but primarily the ‘gangsters’ (translated by them as meaning free men) who perpetrated the genocide of one million ethnic Chinese identified with the communist opposition to the Sukarno dictatorship in Indonesia. These genocidaires make a film re-enacting their acts of murder as well as their fantasies of freedom and happiness all based on borrowed Hollywood images filtered through an Indonesian sensibility. Told from the perspective of the victimizers who willingly re-enact their ruthless crusade of torture and murder, the film is unique. These mass murderers engage in rhapsodic fantasies of colour and pleasure and sensuous richness on an immense but totally amateurish scale that stand in such contrast to the black and white horror of the murders in the Lodz ghetto or their own massacres of the ethnic Chinese. Like Schindler’s List, in which Ralph Fiennes plays the Nazi war criminal, Amon Goeth, with such intensity and villainy as he cold bloodily shoots Jews from his balcony overlooking the Lodz ghetto, this is not the evil of ogres of villainy nor the banality of evil as the mechanical workings of a thoughtless bureaucracy supposedly epitomized by Eichmann, but the escape from boredom of fantasists addicted to hedonist pleasures.

The theory that evil portrayed as an absence of self-reflection and thought characterizes not only these three versions of genocidal behaviour, but all genocidal actions and even all evil acts, is obscured in the film where the common interpretation is adopted that only the mechanical and bureaucratic production of death as epitomized ostensibly by Eichmann is characterized as banal, an understandable confusion given Hannah Arendt’s own conflicting writing on the subject.

This interpretation is reinforced by Adolph Eichmann’s effort to portray himself in his trial, at least those parts of the trial that Hannah Arendt actually sat through. He was just a part of a bureaucratic system in which he followed orders. In 1963, Jacob Robinson prepared a six-page summary for his journal, Facts for B’nai Brith documenting Hannah Arendt’s errors and omissions. Later, as Deborah Lipstadt documented in The Eichmann Trial with much greater thoroughness and scholarship, Arendt missed those parts of the trial where Eichmann bared his fangs, revealed his deep-seated anti-Semitism and the tremendous initiatives he took in ensuring that Jews were dispatched to their death with as much efficiency as he could muster. Historical scholarship has established beyond a doubt that Adolph Eichmann was a vicious anti-Semite and a relentless and enthusiastic advocate of Jewish extermination who expressed the opinion in Argentina that his only regret was that he failed to kill even more Jews. But, of course, for Hannah Arendt, in the spirit of her mentor, Martin Heidegger, this is not by definition “thought”. Thought is not hypothetical and instrumental, but categorical and concerned only with itself. Thought is defined as intellectual masturbation without any need to have intercourse with the world to test its consistency and empirical grounds.

Facts! Who needs facts? Once Hannah Arendt conceived an idea, that was the fact. She might assert at one point her most controversial claim that the cooperation of the Jewish Councils with the Nazis in the bureaucratic organization of the death squads that took place with very few exceptions was the worst sin of the Holocaust or, in one extreme interpretation of the sentences from Arendt, even of Jewish history, or later that this was the action of a minority without pausing to note the contradiction, but when challenged whether by her critics or by William Shawn himself (Nicholas Woodeson) when he sat in awe of Hannah Arendt and challenged the verity of such an assertion, he was summarily put in his place for this was not an interpretation but a fact. Why? Because she asserted it!

The New Yorker bits offer the one humorous relief in the film when the editors are considering Hannah Arendt’s offer to cover the trial. William Shawn’s assistant, Francis, (Megan Gay) is unimpressed by the offer – “Philosophers don’t make deadlines,” she quips – but the young intern in the office, who turns out was Jonathan Schell, pipes up in youthful intellectual awe, “But she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism“. The movie could have used a bit more comic relief.

For Hannah Arendt, the two great evils of the modern age were racism (and its kissing cousin, nationalism) and bureaucracy. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination. Without race as a substitute for the nation, the scramble for Africa and the investment fever might well have remained the purposeless ‘dance of death and trade’ (Joseph Conrad) of all gold rushes. Without bureaucracy as a substitute for government, the British possession of India might well have been left to the recklessness of the ‘breakers of law in India’ (Burke) without changing the political climate of an entire era.” Arendt went on to charge the pairing of racism with bureaucracy as responsible for the genocide of the Hottentots and Leopold II of Belgium’s responsibility for the crime against humanity in the Congo.

The “fact” that neither Leopold II’s international benevolent committee for the propagation of civilization among the people’s of Central Africa (the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA) or the African International Association) that so informed George Orwell’s understanding of doublespeak, and that Leopold quickly transformed into his personal exploitive development company as he was named by the 1884 Conference of Berlin as the Roi-Souverain of the newly formed Congo Free State or État Indépendant du Congo allowed Leopold to rule by decree (such as making all unregistered private property or vacant land as his personal domain or introducing the Force Publique to enforce “order” ostensibly to stifle the Arab trade in slaves but constituting a private mercenary militia to recruit and control corvée laborers), Congolese workers were now reduced to serfs, an event captured so creatively in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 classic Heart of Darkness. Sir Robert Casement in his 1900 report to the British Foreign Office did not mince words. The exploitation and suffering and mass killing of the Congolese was not the result of an Indian-like bureaucracy or thoughtless behaviour, but the deliberate product of greed reinforced by modern arms and a mercenary military regime. In his famous words, “The root of the evil [in the Congo] lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain.”

Not bureaucracy but greed uninhibited by the rule of law lay at the root of that exploitation, murder, death by disease and starvation that devastated the Congo. But Hannah Arendt was a political “thinker” in which thoughts and a grand idée fixée rather than a petite idée became incontrovertible facts rather than interpretations immune to refutation by picayune details or actual empirical data. (See Adam Hochschild (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.) Congo rule, in empirical fact, was not based on a bureaucratic hierarchical organization of trained professionals and specialized officials governed by administrative rules and the control of information whether efficient or byzantine. In empirical fact, Leopold’s organization never consisted of more than 200 officials. Arendt had bought into Blücher’s Marxist conviction that the bureaucracy is the state which has made itself into civil society.

The movie begins with a brief re-enactment of the capture of Adolph Eichmann on a rural road in Argentina as the Mossad agents pile Eichmann into the back of a large truck leaving only the lit flashlight he was using lying in the dirt. For a more or less accurate picture of the capture, a viewer could watch the documentary that mixes interviews and historical footage with re-enactments in the 2010 documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal and Death. The film, Hannah Arendt, is a biopic that leaves out interviews in favour of re-enactments or even imagined scenes that never took place. One would never know from the latter film, but could learn from the former, that Adolph Eichmann belonged to a group of unrepentant fanatic antisemitic Nazis who dreamed of vindication. Nor would one learn of the close collaboration between a Frankfurt prosecutor and the Israel's Mossad, as well as the chance flirtation between one of Eichmann's son and Silvia Hermann, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, enabled that capture. 
The false note also ends the film when in a wholly imagined scene, Israeli Mossad agents accost Hannah Arendt on an American country road and demand that she abandon her plans to publish her book on Eichmann because such a book would hurt the victims of the Nazi Holocaust a second time. Arendt rejects the plea and walks off, leaving totally unexplained why a team of Mossad agents would be needed to deliver such a plea and jump out of a car to do so except to portray the snake`s tail in the serpent`s own mouth to bring the end back to the beginning of the movie in a repetitious “walking my lonely road” scene. Except in Argentina, the men overpower Eichmann with physical force and violence. In America, Arendt overpowers the Mossad agents with the power of words and the impression of an argument. Unlike Eichmann, Arendt is not an ordinary unthinking being but an extraordinary female intellectual beneath whom men must grovel.  Here, she stands up to the Mossad agents and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth as Arendt quips that Israel must now be very rich since it could afford to send four men to deter her will to publish the book. The arc is completed but with a clear even if unintended anti-Semitic stench. 
The movie is an aesthetic circle and a tautological expression of a point of view. When Hannah Arendt was a Zionist in the thirties and worked for a German Zionist organization, she became close friends of Siegried Moses. As a member of the government at the time of the Eichmann trial, he did contact Hannah Arendt and even met her in Switzerland to try to convince her not to go ahead with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem as a book. But this scene went far beyond poetic license in recapitulating that meeting. It is a calumny that reinforces this brilliant film as philosophic porn and completely unjust, unfair, lacking in understanding and critical comprehension of the core intellectual issues.
But this film is not about Eichmann's betrayal and execution but about the loyalty of HA's close entourage including her husband and Mary McCarthy (played with extraordinary conviction by Janet McTeer) as an exemplification of von Trotta`s theme of sisterhood and Hannah Arendt`s intense sociability and loyalty to friends superimposed by a fusion of European superior worldliness  - you don`t have to marry all your lovers Arendt tells McCarthy. McCarthy and Arendt banter back and forth, not about ideas, but about husbands, lovers and infidelities. Though Alfred Kazan, Hans Morgenthau, Irving Howe, Robert Lowell, Bruno Bettleheim and Raul Hilberg (then the foremost scholar on the Holocaust who first offered the critical but more judicious and scholarly critical rather than moralistic and judgemental comments on the role of the Jewish Councils) stuck by and even defended her, I was unable to spot them in the film though I am sure some of them were there. But movies demand such economies and shorthand representations. The film has to be recognized as creatively bringing Hannah Arendt`s thinking and writing back into the mainstream and making it accessible, but only by following in the footsteps of her brilliant predecessor, Leni Riefenstahl, and producing a brilliant piece of hagiography. Margarethe von Trotta was the first woman since Riefenstahl to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl won for her 1938 film, Olympia.
A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is Arendt`s view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis although this, according to the film, was the central issue that alienated Arendt from the Jewish community, especially the charge made without any empirical evidence that more Jews would have been saved had the Jewish leadership refused to offer any cooperation. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For a far more insightful cinematic representation into that aspect of the issue, see Claude Lanzmann`s new film The Last of the Unjust as Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975 when he was beginning his project on Shoah. Lanzmann headed a Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto and was the only Jewish leader in such a position to survive the genocide. Ironically, he was also the only Jewish leader who sat next to and worked with Adolph Eichmann and who could have been used to test her hypothesis. Lanzmann reveals that characterizing these leaders as collaborators, whatever their failings, was a big lie. Unlike Eichmann who is portrayed by Arendt as being caught up in the wind of the Nazi process passively, Arendt portrayed these leaders as actively selling out their fellow Jews when they wanted to protect Jews and totally opposed the Nazi ideology. Unlike Eichmann, they were truly powerless to resist. But, unlike Arendt herself even after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Murmelstein was treated as a real pariah by the Jewish community because Hannah Arendt merely reflected the conventional but unarticulated and erroneous conviction of the Jewish community, especially the Yekke Jewish community, that these leaders had betrayed the Jewish people. 

Living in her grand apartment on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights in Manhattan well south of the Washington Heights community where the New York Yekkes congregated, Arendt nevertheless remained a cultural member of the Yekke community-in-exile who spoke German at home and remained faithful to German culture as the core of inherited civilization and the exemplification of intellectual virtue. Yekke is a Yiddish expression itself possibly derived from the Rheinish term for a mad fool, an intellectual court jester. (See Stephen M. Lowenstein (1989) Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1962, its Structure and Culture; the book ends with the period in which Hannah Arendt was writing her book.) Hannah Arendt was a Yekke to her core and arrogantly looked down upon the eastern Jews who she alleged exemplified servility in the face of the Nazi onslaught, forgetting that as a German Jew she was only saved because she could flee in 1933 and they could not in 1941, that she was saved by the efforts of those such as Albert Hirschman, Protestant activist bystanders and the Jewish community.

However, Hannah Arendt, while extolling the virtues of intellectual independence, turned her back on another Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, mending the world and actually serving and working for the marginalized and oppressed as she did in the thirties. As her friend, Gershom Scholem, who found her book on Eichmann “heartless” and “malicious”, wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.”

Von Trotta captures Arendt`s rebuttal to Scholem in her arguments with Jonas and Blumenthal when she expresses the feeling that she only feels for individuals and friends not for a people. Love for any collectivity is repudiated, even when that love leads to saving the lives of individuals who are strangers. The dictum to love the stranger as oneself is a foreign and alien concept to her even though it lay behind the effort to save her life in France and bring her to America. 
A glance in passing is also paid in the film to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Reference is made to her view (and that of Blücher) that criminal trials have to focus on the acts of individuals not on putting history on trial. Blücher states: "You can't put history on trial. You can only try one man." Justice is about the actions of singular individuals and hints are made, but it is not expanded upon, of her actual loathing for the Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. Arendt in her book discusses at length her contention that the trial should not have been used to bring to public consciousness the horrors of the Holocaust, thereby converting a trial about the crimes of one individual into a show trial. The fact that the trial achieved that purpose, the fact that this biopic does the same for her own ideas, is simply left unexamined. For after all, thinking is not about the examined life but about the intellectually expressed life. What we do get is Hannah Arendt wandering around Jerusalem dismayed and bewildered by witnesses fainting and by Israelis frozen listening to their radios as they follow the trial proceedings. For von Trotta, Arendt will be accused of arrogance and emotional indifference, but in the film this stupefaction is portrayed as an act of intellectual courage by a woman unwilling to be carried away by the emotion of the moment.

One of my favourite films of all times is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, even though the portrait of Oskar Schindler bears only a glancing overlap with the real historical figure whereas the Hannah Arendt of Von Trotta`s film bears a close resemblance to the real historical figure. Oskar Schindler, however, was not a Nazi business opportunist who underwent an epiphany as he witnessed the horrific clearing of the Lodz ghetto portrayed with such immaculate realism to become the saviour of 1400 or so Jews. His two best friends as a boy were the sons of the rabbi who lived next door. He was a spy for the Abswehr, the centre of anti-Nazi activity in the German admiralty. He was also a money runner for the Zionists who helped fund his business investments. He was always a philo-Semite. But you will learn none of this from watching the film which follows the tried and true format of Hollywood holocaust films that follow a Christian trope of villainy, revelation and redemption. Nevertheless, the film, in spite of its lack of reverence for anything but visual truth, offers a powerful portrayal of the Holocaust even if a very inaccurate portrait of a bystander who saved Jews.

This von Trotta film does the reverse, presenting a reasonably accurate portrayal of an individual as she appears (rather than as she thinks) while buying into her distortions and misconceptions about another individual, Adolph Eichmann, and her misunderstandings of the Holocaust. Both films have Hollywood endings, the survivors in Schindler’s List coming over the hill to arrive in the land of Israel. Hannah Arendt ends with Arendt’s triumphal speech at the New School defending her interpretation as her academic and perhaps too-Jewish looking enemies largely scurry away like intellectual cowards as her beautiful Aryan-appearing students applaud rapturously. Of course, von Trotta offered a similar Hollywood trope in her 2003 film, Rosenstrasse, where women save men from their intellectual folly. After all, the stuff of movies is made up of fantasies and not history and that is why, in the tension between aesthetics and truth, there is no recognition of how truth is betrayed in such films. In this failing, there is an even greater failure, the failure to connect the love of fantasy with the commission of crimes against humanity. 

Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a very different film, a biopic about a thinker, John Nash (played wonderfully by Russell Crowe), a Nobel Laureate and professor at Princeton renowned for his contributions to chaos theory and its application to cryptography and economics. It follows a standard trope of biopics in portraying creative brilliance as the protagonist wrestles with his inner demons, this time, not alcoholism or drugs but paranoid schizophrenia and the delusional episodes it often brought on. Like Schindler’s List, the movie was highly popular and won numerous academy awards – best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress as well as nominations for others. Further, Ron Howard’s movie was unique in actually providing an insight into the life of the mind of a creative mathematical genius even as it omitted key aspects of Nash’s personal life, especially his other family and his illegitimate son who are ignored in the film. Like Schindler’s List, whose epiphany takes place at the sight of the little girl in red in the midst of the clearing of the ghetto, an imaginary little girl, Marcee, who “never gets old”, provides the turning point for Nash to master and control his own delusions without the assistance of medication, a regimen that will help him live as normal a life as possible as he both lives with his delusions and imaginary foes to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to game theory. Like Schindler, this is a movie about a hero.

In Hannah Arendt as presented by von Trotta we are presented with an idea as if it emerges as an epiphany from watching the supposed ordinariness of Adolph Eichmann when in fact the idea was already a preconception she already possessed and projected onto Eichmann. If Arendt and Blücher railed against the absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought in which Hegel was purportedly its modern arch-enemy who inspired Stalin via Marx, there is no recognition either of the scholarly distortion of this interpretation just as there is no recognition that the ardent defence of an original idea and insight defended with passion as the most important expression of life was both at the core of the tradition they attacked without recognizing it and also a real betrayal of thinking where empirical falsification, attention to detail and contradictions are essential.

Here is how Blücher is portrayed in David Laskin’s book, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals: “Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture. In the words of Alfred Kazin, the close friend of both Hannah and her husband, Blücher, the fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, is described in his diary as an unstoppable mental creature (who) orates without stopping in his living room on any `great thinker` who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge.” Like Arendt, he was indifferent to the virtues of accuracy in scholarship. (See their letters in Within Four Walls.) In a film about thought as critical reflection, the style of the film is of unreflective naturalism captured best by beautiful period twin sweater sets that Arendt wears while the ideas are broadcast like titles on a marquee.

It is a wonderful movie that brilliantly captures an aspect of Hannah Arendt, but if that was who she was, then I am even more puzzled by my youthful enchantment with her intellect. Fortunately for me, any simple rereading of her works proves she was much more intellectually interesting even if her take on Eichmann was both foolish and wrong and even if her idea on the banality of evil left only a residue of truth that most genocidal actual murders are carried out by ordinary people and not by mad demons. On the sub-theme of the tension between Hannah Arendt and the Jewish community, I await Michael Marrus forthcoming book on the lessons from history, particularly the lessons from the Holocaust. Was Peter Novick correct that Americans after first refusing to come face-to-face with the Holocaust because of the Cold War and a refusal to identify with victims, only came to accept the Holocaust in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial to organize support for Israel as the Holocaust became the emblem of historical Jewish suffering in the competition for victimhood as the mode by which Jews bought into Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory? Are Jews pariahs because they are Jews (and Zionists) or because, as Hannah Arendt claimed, they happen to be intellectuals? Or is being a pariah – ideological, national or intellectual – just their contemporary shtick? Does the Holocaust have any lessons to teach us?

The only certitude that I have is that the certainties that Margarethe von Trotta projects onto the screen and Hannah Arendt espoused on the subject were incorrect.