On October 25, Doug Ford’s Conservative government, through an order-in-council, adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “working definition of anti-Semitism.”
Not only is this unilateral move in keeping with the Ford government’s anti-democratic tendencies, the IHRA definition poses a direct threat to freedom of expression. It also fails, as David Feldman has written in The Guardian, to “make any ethical and political connections between the struggle against anti-Semitism and other sorts of prejudice.”
Worryingly, the order-in-council only addresses racism and bigotry directed against Jews and implicitly relegates to a lesser status the discrimination experienced by other racial and religious minorities in Ontario.
An Ipsos poll in May 2019 revealed that almost half of Canadians admit to having racist thoughts, and more feel comfortable expressing them today than in year’s past. The poll found that 26 percent of Canadians believe it has become more acceptable to be prejudiced against Muslims and Arabs.
A different report released in June 2020 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a United Kingdom-based think tank, concluded that Canada has a well-established network of right-wing extremists very much comparable to those in the United States and Britain. The study claimed to have found over 6,000 “right-wing extremist channels, pages and accounts on social media linked to Canadians which have reached more than 11 million users globally.”
According to the ISD report, on Facebook, “Muslims were the most widely discussed minority community, and the most common target of posts containing explicit hate speech (23%), with anti-Semitism being the second largest grouping of hate speech (16%).”
A poll conducted by Mainstreet Research in June 2020, reveals that a majority of Canadians believe Black and Indigenous people are treated less fairly than white folks when dealing with police, the criminal justice system, and within the workplace.
Elsewhere, a July 2020 Ipsos poll for Global News found that 60 percent of Canadians agree there is systemic racism in Canada, up 13 percent since last year. A further 48 percent agree that institutions like the government, police forces, courts, the education system, and media organizations tolerate racism.
Most recently, an Angus Reid poll found that 43 percent of Chinese Canadians said they have been personally threatened or intimidated at least once, and close to 10 percent said they have frequently been physically attacked by strangers.
These studies indicate that many groups including Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians, Muslims and Jews face racism in various forms across this country. Clearly, then, Ontario needs comprehensive tools to combat all forms of hatred and bigotry, not a vague definition that has been widely criticized for conflating legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its military as anti-Semitic. At minimum, the provincial government should act on the shocking statistics confirming prejudice against various minorities in Canada, and introduce legislation targeting far-right hate groups.
While it goes without saying that fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression is essential, by adopting the IHRA definition the Ontario government is implicitly creating a hierarchy of victimhood and, by extension, downgrading the urgency with which other targets of racism must be protected.
The IHRA definition is problematic in a number of ways. Not only does it render Jewish identity and Zionism—the ideology of Jewish supremacy advanced by the State of Israel—inseparable, it treats those who take part in the struggle for emancipation from colonial rule as nothing but bigots and racists. As Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, has written, the IHRA definition “exclude[s] criticism of Israel from the bounds of acceptable discourse.”
In fact, seven of the 11 illustrative examples provided by the IHRA conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
In July 2018, the Jewish majority in the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (informally known as the Nation-State Bill) which stipulates that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” This blatantly racist piece of legislation subordinates the rights of 22 percent of its citizens who are Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
One of the IHRA’s illustrative examples claims that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is anti-Semitic. This is a tacit endorsement of the Nation-State Bill, as it dismisses any historical account concluding that the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 was accomplished through violent processes of dispossession and ethnic cleansing.
This example could be used by the Israel lobby to target anyone supporting the rights of the Palestinian people for self-determination or anyone advocating for equality in a democratic non-sectarian country instead of an explicitly “Jewish state”—one that grants superior rights to Jews (as Israel is currently constituted). This is tantamount to punishing genuine calls for racial and ethnic equality in the name of stopping the spread of anti-Semitism.
The Ford government’s adoption of the IHRA definition is troubling, because it gives license to those who would like to paper over the institutionalized discrimination faced by nearly two million Palestinian citizens of Israel. It also harms other anti-racist initiatives by setting a troubling standard for freedom of expression while also threatening academic freedom, as has been pointed out by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
Ontarians must stand up to anti-Semitism and all instances of racism and discrimination wherever they appear, but the IHRA definition is flawed and, at worst, limits society’s ability to fight oppression in all its forms.
Khaled Mouammar is a Christian Palestinian Canadian who was forced to flee his hometown Nazareth in 1948. He is one of the founders of the Canadian Arab Federation and a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Award from the Governor General of Canada in 1977.