Proponents of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance insists that its working definition of antisemitism (IHRA-WDA) is aspirational, meant only to rally opposition to hatred of Jews, and is not legally binding. But the fallout from an event hosted in Winnipeg several years ago is emblematic of how the definition represents a direct threat to freedom of expression about Israel and Palestine.
On February 28, 2018 several Winnipeg-based organizations held an event in the wake of then American President Donald Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, with a meeting at the University of Winnipeg entitled “My Jerusalem.” Panelists from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds reflected on their connections to the beleaguered city.
Working from a well-worn playbook, the pro-Israel group B’nai Brith Canada (BBC), set to work to smear the event. Unable to shut down the meeting in advance or to force the organizers to accept one of its own speakers, BBC complained to the university that the meeting was held on a Jewish holiday and included anti-Semitic statements.
I call this particular scheme in the pro-Israel playbook “throw mud and hope that something sticks.” In this case, the mud stuck.
The university’s human rights and equity officer investigated the complaints using the framework of the IHRA-WDA and its illustrative examples and reported that, “certain statements made at the event could be considered anti‐Semitic.”
When meeting sponsors asked precisely which statements were bigoted, the officer declined to answer.
The definition has been roundly condemned as an exercise meant not to combat anti-Semitism, but to protect Israel from criticism. It has recently been challenged by the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, signed by over 300 of the world’s top scholars on Jewish studies, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.
Yet, as the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
In the wake of the event and the controversy stirred up by BBC, the University of Winnipeg ended up issuing a fulsome apology to Winnipeg’s Jewish community.
Further event on Israel-Palestine frustrated
When the organizers of the maligned event attempted later that same year to organize a teach-in about Israel and Palestine, they ran up against a duly-chastened and uncooperative university and had to hold it elsewhere.
The university’s response is a classic example of the nightmare scenario that critics of the IHRA-WDA have been warning about. Using the IHRA’s bizarre definition, even mild criticism of Israel is punished, sanctioned and discouraged, if not shut down entirely.
Readers who are interested can judge for themselves as a recording of the meeting is available.
This reading reveals an event so anodyne, so polite, so full of good will, that one wonders if the detractors were at the same meeting. If the IHRA definition succeeds in becoming the benchmark, and many future meetings fall afoul of its criteria, then we are in deep trouble and can kiss reasoned debate and academic freedom goodbye.
The Winnipeg meeting was sponsored by an impressive and diverse array of community organizations, including Independent Jewish Voices, the Canadian Arab Association of Manitoba, the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario United Church of Canada, and the University of Winnipeg’s Global College.
Speakers included Esther Epp-Tiessen of the Mennonite Central Committee, Independent Jewish Voices member Rabbi David Mivasair, Palestinian Muslim Canadian activist Idris Elbakri (born and raised in Jerusalem), and Fadi Ennab, a Palestinian Christian Canadian, born and raised in the Middle East.
So, what specific complaints did BBC make about the meeting?
B’nai Brith’s complaints
B’nai Brith’s Campus Advocacy Coordinator Aidan Fishman claimed the meeting was held on a Jewish holiday and thereby precluded participation of Winnipeg Jews. The “holiday” was Purim, a largely non-religious celebration, unlike the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover. On Purim, as on Chanukah, Jews are not religiously enjoined against working or attending to business or going to political meetings.
Fishman also complained that the meeting should have chosen a different Jew than Rabbi David Mivasair, demanding “an authentic Jewish perspective.” Granted, Mivasair is not an authentic apologist of Israel, insofar as B’nai Brith defines authenticity.
As for an “authentic Jewish perspective,” the claim by B’nai Brith and the other Jewish establishment organizations that they alone represent Canadian Jews ignores the deep divisions within the Jewish community on the question of Israel and Palestine.
Fishman made only three specific allegations about the supposedly anti-Semitic content of the meeting. He claimed that “Ennab falsely accused Israel of committing a ‘genocide’ against Palestinians,” that Elbakri tarred indigenous Israeli Jews as “European settlers,” and claimed the speakers argued there is no space for a “Jewish ethnic enclave” in the “Arab Middle East.”
With regard to the first allegation, Ennab responded with the following:
So 1948 for my dad and his family, it wasn’t good. Whether you call it ethnic cleansing, or whether you call it colonialism, whether you call it genocide, cultural, social, genocide… You don’t have to just kill the physical body. The Holocaust genocide experience [of the Jews] is really enlightening. The limitation is that people start thinking that when you say genocide, you just start thinking of bodies physically dying, but you can kill a whole whack of people through culture. It’s called ‘Kill the Indian in the child, but save the child.’ So, we’re kind of killing the Palestinian and saving their bodies.
If using the word “genocide” is indeed hate speech, then the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (otherwise known as the Genocide Convention) stands guilty. It defines five characteristics of genocide. Besides mass murder, it includes: causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Likewise, cast the line further and reel in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called the system of Indigenous residential schools “cultural genocide.” A recent poll shows over half of Canadians agree. It is well-accepted in human rights parlance that genocide is a broad term encompassing far more than mass killings.
With regard to the second complaint lodged by Fishman, Elbakri used the term “settlers” only twice. The first time he referred to European settlers in Canada. The second time he mentioned “settlers” as follows:
…there are different narratives of land without people for people without a land, the narrative of the Jewish immigrants and settlers going there to make a desert bloom, and so on.
As for the third complaint, Elbakri said that the moving of the US embassy and the whole process of forcing or inducing Palestinians to leave is leading to an unfortunate outcome, and that people of good will should ask themselves:
Do we want an ethnic enclave? What’s being called for is basically an ethnic enclave in the middle of the Arab Middle East for Jews only.
These are the examples Fishman used to make accusations of anti-Semitism against the speakers. Are these examples so horrendous that the meeting should not have been allowed to go forward, or deplorable enough that the university needed to apologize to Winnipeg’s Jewish community? Or were they, at worst, debatable?
The longer version of this article scours the transcript of the meeting to find anything provocative and finds several uses of the words “colonial,” “settler,” “dispossession,” and “occupation.” The phrase “ethnic cleansing” and “boycott, divestment and sanctions” are used precisely once each.
Using the ‘A’ word: Apartheid
The word “apartheid” was used three times during the event. We note that its use has become well-accepted. A recent report by the respected Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem concluded that Israel was practising apartheid from “the river to the sea.” Shortly afterward, the prominent international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, which has usually refrained from provocative language, also decided to use the term apartheid.
This then is the entire extent of the allegedly “anti-Semitic” terminology employed by the speakers that could possibly be discomfiting, unless the very notion of a meeting criticizing Israel, even mildly, is to be forbidden.
As for the allegedly bigoted words and phrases, we must ask “discomfiting to whom?” Given what we will see in the EKOS poll below, we cannot assume that it is discomfiting to all Canadian Jews, only to those who do not wish to see Israel accused of misdeeds.
But let us even assume that some of the remarks made at the meeting were not innocuous, but rather actually hurtful to some supporters of Israel. Setting the question of the actions of the State of Israel and the Zionist movement aside for a moment, did any of the comments express hatred toward or disparagement of Jews? No, there was not one example of that in the entire meeting. None of the speakers engaged in toxic stereotypes of Jews, or suggested that Jews in general are responsible or even answerable for Israel’s actions.
One of the tropes we often hear accompanying the IHRA definition is that only Jews themselves can tell us if something is anti-Semitic. The problem is: which Jews? Jewish communities have long been divided on the question of Zionism and Israel. Prominent Jewish intellectual icons, including Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, all rejected political Zionism.
Jews remain strongly divided on Israel-Palestine
Despite 73 years of communal indoctrination since the founding of the State of Israel, Jews are divided still.
In a 2020 survey released by EKOS, only half of those in the 18-29 age group “feel very/somewhat attached to Israel,” while only 58 percent of American Jews of all ages feel this attachment.
The recent attacks by the Israeli military upon Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza has further estranged Jews from Israel.
Indeed, the evidence of this estrangement is mounting. According to a 2018 EKOS poll of Canadian Jews:
- 44 percent say Israel is not making sincere efforts to reach peace with the Palestinians
- 37 percent have a negative opinion of the Israeli government
- 30 percent think boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel are reasonable
- 48 percent agree that “Accusations of antisemitism are often used to silence legitimate criticisms of Israel”
Proponents of the IHRA definition insist that they are not seeking to have contraveners criminalized. But with the concept of legal pluralism, legal scholars have long recognized that there is formal law, and informal law. In formal, or state law, various levels of the state explicitly set out prohibitions on our actions. For example, it is against the law to cross the road on a red light or to physically harm another person outside of self-defence. If we contravene these prohibitions, we can expect sanctions to follow.
But our society is full of examples of informal law. Universities and schools have rules and norms of comportment which carry consequences. And this last is precisely what we saw at the University of Winnipeg.
The purpose and threat of the IHRA definition need not be its power to formally criminalize alleged transgressors or to impose state-initiated punishment or restraint upon them (although that has happened in some places, notably Europe). It need only to be adopted into informal law to change the discourse so that rigorous critique of Israeli policies and practices is considered beyond the pale and thus invites censure and the withdrawal of privileges.
Independent Jewish Voices Canada has compiled a catalogue of instances from around the world of the IHRA definition being used to cancel events or silence Palestine solidarity movements.
Finally, and most importantly for a university, the worst that could be said about the comments made by the panelists at the “My Jerusalem” event is that they are “debatable.” So where better than a university to have an ongoing debate? I hold an event to present my findings and my view. And you present your view. But don’t you dare shut me down.
Larry Haiven is professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s University and a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.
An expanded version of this article originally appeared on SocialistProject.ca.