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How the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is shielding Israel from criticism

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman Rights

Protest against Israel’s land confiscation to make way for a separation wall in the Cremisan Valley, located on the seam line between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Photo courtesy the Catholic Church of England and Wales/Flickr.

After a war monument was vandalized in Ottawa last year, the Ontario government moved to adopt the following working definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.


The government first adopted this definition by introducing Bill 168, or the Combating Antisemitism Act, and then through an order in council 1450/2020 on October 26. Though the rise of hate crimes against Jewish people have led many to call for such legislation, the main issue critics raise with the IHRA’s 38-word definition of anti-Semitism is its use of the following seven illustrative examples:

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • 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.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener-Centre, joins many critics around the world who are concerned that this definition does not adequately address the real sources of anti-Semitism (white supremacy) and that its proponents seem more intent on using it to censor criticism of Israel. At its heart, the IHRA definition and these seven examples equate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Lindo said that when Bill 168 was first introduced, it included all of the IHRA’s illustrative examples. Then, the day before committee hearings were to be held to gather public input on the bill, the Ontario government issued an order in council and canceled all committee meetings as a result.

An order in council can be used by the province to bring laws or parts of laws into effect. Lindo said that there is a lot of confusion, even among legal experts, about what this specific order can and cannot do. She also said it remains unclear whether the examples are included with the order, what the province’s plans are for Bill 168 (which hasn’t been replaced with the order in council), and what resources the province will dedicate to addressing anti-Semitism.

“There is clearly no desire on the part of the government to invest in what’s needed to address racism in any of its forms, including anti-Semitism,” Lindo said, citing the provincial government’s dismantling of the anti-racism directorate after taking office as evidence.

“Trying to create this order in council rather than listening to the community was a prime example of their discomfort with criticism,” Lindo said. “This particular government is uncomfortable with the idea that not everybody is going to agree with them, so they would prefer to just do whatever, for whatever their reasons.”

The circumvention of public consultation on the bill via the order in council is reminiscent of the creeping illiberalism of governments around the world. Lindo, who also serves as the NDP’s anti-racism critic, raised the point that the IHRA definition and examples do not make any reference to white supremacy at all.

“We don’t have clarity on what we’re actually going to do to address white supremacy here,” Lindo said. “We don’t even talk about it, and I don’t know how you can have any kind of discussion around racism or anti-Semitism at all and not talk about white supremacy.”

The adoption of the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism by governments has been highly controversial internationally, and has been openly challenged by Palestinian and Arab academics and journalists. Many Canadian critics and groups, such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, have publicly expressed worries that the adoption of the definition by governments will “chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights.”

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, including the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association, have all opposed the use of the IHRA definition. David Seljak, president of St. Jerome’s University Academic Staff Association, released a statement in October 2020 calling Bill 168 ill-advised, and that he “cannot accept a law that violates university autonomy and effectively criminalizes legitimate research and debate.”

Protest against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in London, September 4, 2018. Photo courtesy Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

One of the original draftees of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has spoken up about the weaponization of the IHRA definition to silence or attack harsh critique of Israeli policies and practices. One recent example was when NDP MP Charlie Angus retweeted an article with the hashtag #apartheidstate to criticize Israel’s decision not to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians living under its occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

B’nai Brith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs quickly responded, calling the language used morally repugnant—and according to a new working definition of anti-Semitism, Angus’s tweet could feasibly be interpreted as an anti-Semitic statement. Pro-IHRA proponents would likely try to argue that it contravenes the following illustrative example in the IHRA definition: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Greg Bird, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor, said that the IHRA definition is designed to limit the scope of such criticism of Israel. Light criticism is allowed, but nothing that addresses Israel’s foundational structures, ethno-nationalist ideologies, and larger settler colonial project.

Bird is one of over 450 Canadian academics who signed a letter to oppose the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. He also noted that the short definition lacks an anti-racist and decolonial framework.

“Anti-Semitism is abhorrent, and we must tackle it in our society. The problem with this definition, however, is that it’s not grounded in the broader struggles against racism and colonialism… It treats anti-Semitism as if it occurs within a vacuum, it is too narrow in its focus. Its main source in our society is far-right white supremacy,” Bird said.

Rabbi Moshe Goldman, leader of the Rohr Chabad Centre for Jewish Life in Waterloo argued that this recent bill and contention around it is the “latest move in a long history of lawfare between the Jews and their opponents; that is, trying to resolve issues in courts of law or public opinion.

“Those who disagree with this definition are welcome to suggest a replacement, and I would hope that they would do so with the same vigour and courage that they employ in the fight for equality and human rights for other minorities. Fighting over language is a tired hobby of our virtue-signalling times; I’d much rather spend my time building bridges.”

Goldman wrote in an email that he can accept criticism from friends, but rather that “it’s the obtuse judgment of those who wish to fundamentally delegitimize and ‘cancel’ us totally that we cannot accept. That is what this definition aims to prevent.”

The creation of Israel, which was the outcome of the efforts of the Zionist movement took place in 1948 and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands—the “Nakba” or catastrophe for Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have drawn international criticism for Israel’s de jure annexation of Palestinian territory, and experts worry that persistent violent incidents in Gaza and the West Bank make the possibility of a two-state outcome increasingly unlikely.

“The IHRA definition undermines anti-racism and decolonization initiatives because it prevents us from actually criticizing another settler colonial state,” Bird said.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Palestinian Youth Movement, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, and several other organizations have all opposed the definition. Corey Balsam, national coordinator of the Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, recently stated that “it is critical that provincial and municipal governments, university administrations, and other institutions take a firm stand against the IHRA definition now.”

“Anti-Semitism must be fought, but it cannot be done at the expense of legitimate criticism and protest of Israeli human rights violations,” Balsam said. Students of Jewish descent are also challenging this definition. Ellis Furman, Ph.D student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said that they do not feel that the bill or order in council protects them as a Jewish student.

“There are a lot of people who are Jewish who might appreciate this gesture, but it should not come at the expense of other people who are going to be marginalized by this bill,” Furman said.

Students for Palestinian Rights, a University of Waterloo group, wrote in a statement that they condemn the bill and order in council, and that students of Palestinian or Jordanian descent are already “actively discouraged, if not systematically denied, from accessing opportunities with Israeli universities.”

Moe Alqasem, member of the Palestinian Youth Movement in Canada, said that the issues Palestinians in Canada face, “such as smears, defamation, lawsuits, intimidation, death threats” will likely increase if Ontario codifies the definition into law.

“What this does is not only to shut down the discourse on Palestine and shut down Palestinians and our allies, it also completely tilts the balance of power in favour of the pro-Israel side,” Alqasem said.

Shawky Fahel, a Palestine-Canadian and Waterloo-based entrepreneur who hopes to gain the Liberal MP nomination in Kitchener-South Hespeler, believes the Ontario legislation and IHRA definition are too broad and vague.

“It seems to be a highly politicized effort to stamp out criticism of Israel,” Fahel said.

***

Author’s note: Angela Davis, who gave a lecture I attended at the University of Guelph in 2019, made educated critiques of the state of Israel. One thing that stuck with me was her note about how Palestinian activists on the ground in Palestine generated solidarity for Black protestors in Ferguson. It is alarming to consider that if the IHRA definition was law at that time, she might have been prohibited from speaking on campus; this is not an unfounded speculation, as this has already happened to academics elsewhere.

I had previously tried to publish an earlier version of this article with the Waterloo Region Record; however, my editor killed the story and said he was concerned the piece was anti-Semitic. Ironically, this decision reflects the kind of censorship that happens with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism—it is being used to censor and silence critical voices speaking up about injustices. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to challenge and restructure our communities, we must expand our scope to engage in global solidarity and understand that Black liberation is tied up with Palestinian liberation.

Fitsum Areguy is a journalist, activist, and freelance writer. His background as a community worker and youth advocate guide his interest in how race, culture, power, and difference structures our identities and relationships. He is the co-founder and project director of Textile, a literary publication and mentorship program based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.

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