Michael Shenstone joined External Affairs in 1952 and within a year, was sent off to Lebanon to learn Arabic. He eventually rose to be Canadian ambassador to several mid-east countries. He retired from the foreign service 40 years later. He continues to be a strong advocate for fairness towards the Palestinians and for balance in Canada’s relations with Israel and the Arab world. “A stance”, he notes wryly, “that, until recently, was central to Canada’s policy.” – Read my interview here.
On a sunny winter day Michael Shenstone and his wife Susan received me in their spacious Ottawa home. Home is one word for it – perhaps “library” or “museum” would be more appropriate. The walls are covered with maps, there are books everywhere – on book shelves, on tables, even on the floor.
I asked Michael how it was that he first got interested in the Middle East.
“About six months after joining the department, I asked the Director of Personnel where my first posting might be”, said Shenstone. “He smiled and asked me if I would like to learn Arabic. I gulped and nodded. That shaped my career”.
At the time, the Canadian Foreign Service did not have any officers who spoke Arabic and no mid-east missions apart from some small trade offices in Egypt and Lebanon.
Shenstone sought advice from Elizabeth MacCallum, who was the department’s sole Middle East expert at the time. McCallum had been the main departmental advisor to Lester Pearson on our delegation to the UN at the time of the vote on partition. “She served Pearson loyally despite her profound misgivings about the partition plan and its probable consequences,” remembers Shenstone.
“Elizabeth gave me two books that she insisted I read,” he recalls. “One was the biography of Chaim Weizman, the British Zionist who became the first President of Israel. The other was a recent book called Nisi Dominus: a survey of the Palestine Controversy”. The author, Nevill Barbour, was highly critical of the Zionist plan of creating a Jewish State.
“Very soon thereafter Shenstone found himself enrolled in an Arab language school run by the British Foreign Office in the tiny Lebanese village of Shemlan, a few kilometres from Beirut. He admits that until that time he had never heard of Beirut, let alone Shemlan. “I was the only Canadian at the school,” remembers Shenstone, “Most of the others were British”.
He and his wife Susan quickly made themselves at home with the help of Canadian Trade Commissioner Gerry Hughes and his wife Mary. Hughes, who passed away last year, was much later head of post in Malaysia and Turkey. His widow still lives in Ottawa.
Michael Shenstone (front row far right) in 1954 at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. The French and later the Syrians, called the institution a “British spy school”. “All I learned from our mostly Palestinian instructors was about Arabic irregular verbs and suchlike,” says Shenstone. “Not even any skills in invisible ink”.
It did not take Shenstone long after his arrival to see for himself evidence of the disastrous consequences of the UN partition plan and the subsequent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
In Lebanon, the Shenstones met many Palestinians who were still in shock over what had happened to them only 4 or 5 years previously. Some were well educated, but almost all were desperately looking for work. His wife Susan hired a Palestinian Bedouin woman to take in the Shenstone’s laundry. She had been expelled from the Hula Valley in Northern Galilee (where today Israel has created the “Stephen J. Harper Bird Sanctuary”). Her son also fetched water for them from the well, bringing it in a pot balanced on his head.
The next year (1954), Ottawa decided to create 3 new diplomatic posts in the Middle East – one in Cairo, one in Beirut and one in Tel Aviv. Immediately on finishing his Arabic language course, Shenstone was posted to the new Canadian mission in Beirut, to work under Elizabeth MacCallum now there as Canada’s first ever female head of a diplomatic mission.
“A lot of our time and energy in Beirut was focused on the issue of the Palestinian refugees,” remembers Shenstone. “Elizabeth and I visited many refugee camps. It was clear that something terrible, and terribly unfair, had happened to the Palestinians. But at the time we thought of them as “displaced Arabs”, rather than as a people who had suffered a catastrophe and who were looking for their national rights”.
In 1955, Shenstone and his wife drove their car to see Israel for themselves. They were warmly welcomed by Jewish Israelis. But driving through the Israeli countryside, evidence of destruction was quite widespread. At one point, they were given a guided tour of a kibbutz. “The new agricultural development on the kibbutz was significant and impressive. However, we also saw many well-established orange groves which appeared to have been taken from the Palestinians by the Israelis.”
Shenstone and his wife returned to Canada in 1957, but have never forgotten the experiences of those first 4 years in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.
Many years later, in 1981, while still a Canadian diplomat, he was criticized for a statement he gave to the press at a conference on the Israel/Palestine situation:
“Israel and its partisans refuse to recognize, or to feel in their bones, the appalling historical experience of the Palestinian people, one of the tragedies of our time, especially since they too are a dispossessed people. Or perhaps they don’t want to feel it.”
Does he still have the same opinion? “Yes” replies Shenstone, “the statement was accurate then, and still is, in my view.”