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Why the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger to academic freedom

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman Rights

Adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism weakens our collective fight against racism while posing a direct threat to academic freedom in Canada. Image by Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr.

Over the last few years, many leading international and Canadian scholars and experts, including Palestinian and Jewish scholars, have argued that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism poses a serious threat to academic freedom and to intersectional anti-racist and decolonial initiatives across educational institutions.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism misconstrues the term to include a broad range of criticism of the State of Israel, particularly targeting decolonial and anti-racist critiques of the policies, structures, and practices of the Israeli state. Such targeted attacks, which primarily impact racialized faculty and students, will have a negative effect on the academic freedom of faculty in the classroom, in their research, and in campus politics more broadly.

The Canadian federal government has already adopted the IHRA definition along with its illustrative examples. In October 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued Order in Council 1450/2020 which declared that the provincial government would adopt and recognize the definition.

Though much is unclear about the inclusion of the illustrative examples, this indeterminacy synchronizes perfectly well with the imprecise and vague nature of the IHRA document itself. As we have seen in the United Kingdom, the government’s adoption of the IHRA definition resulted in universities following the definition with its illustrative examples even though they were not legally obliged to do so.

We face a similar situation in Canada. To counter this dangerous trend, five Canadian university professors have formed the Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, Racism, Colonialism and Censorship in Canada (ARC).

ARC’s mission is to educate faculty associations and unions across Canada on the IHRA definition, and we request that each association or union pass a motion opposing its adoption. It is our firm conviction that educational institutions across Canada must react to already ongoing attacks against academic freedom and be proactive against the inevitable intensification of that attack should we fail to collectively act now. There are four reasons that explain the urgency of this issue, briefly summarized here.

First, the IHRA definition thrives in a space of legal indeterminacy, where ambiguity about the inclusion of the illustrative examples works in its favour. For example, proponents of the IHRA definition have argued that the order in council does include the illustrative examples. While some legal experts believe that proponents would lose that battle in court, the very fact that it can be taken to court to debate the question already creates self-censorship, fear, and a hostile environment.

Second, the federal government has already adopted the definition with its illustrative examples, and this carries a serious threat to funding and research grants. It can impact federal academic grants (including SSHRC and CIHR) and funding for projects that are seen to conflict with the IHRA definition’s political mandate for protecting Israel from charges of racism. This is no longer a potential threat. It is a real and existing one.

Third, there are already many documented incidents of harassment and censorship that precede the adoption of the IHRA definition, and this in fact provides the proper context for understanding the issue: the adoption of the IHRA definition on the federal level, vague adoption in Ontario, and the ongoing campaign across numerous municipalities and provincial governments to adopt it, has created an increasingly hostile environment for the academic freedom of especially racialized minorities. The IHRA definition is making an already hostile environment worse.

Fourth, the threat posed by the IHRA definition is not like other challenges to academic freedom for two reasons: it is a systemic threat which is being brought into legislation in provinces like Ontario and has been adopted federally with a special envoy appointed; and it is a challenge to anti-racism and anti-colonial research and scholarship where mostly racialized faculty are being targeted and silenced.

The existing committees and policies addressing academic freedom are not likely able to address the intersectional concerns posed by the IHRA definition and this will not serve racialized scholars who are being differentially impacted.

A critical aspect of ongoing work to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action is to combat the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and the dominance of Euro-Canadian knowledge and analytical paradigms. Decolonial and anti-racist paradigms are critical in advancing this much needed transformation, and Canadian universities and colleges must be committed to opposing all efforts to restrict these intersectional critiques of social, cultural, and political institutions, and that includes any and all nation states.

Canadian universities and colleges should unequivocally support the academic freedom of their members. We can and should oppose anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and all forms of religious discrimination, racism and hatred, at the same time that we protect academic freedom.

We are proud that as of April 1, 21 faculty associations and academic unions in Canada have passed motions against the IHRA definition. We look forward to adding many more to this growing list.

Mark Ayyash is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University. He is the author of A Hermeneutics of Violence (UTP, 2019). He teaches and writes in the areas of social and political theory, postcolonial theory, the study of violence, exiling writing, Canada-Palestine relations, and decolonial movements, particularly focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. He has published several academic articles in journals such as Interventions, the European Journal of International Relations, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the European Journal of Social Theory. He also has a co-edited book on Protests and Generations in the MENA and the Mediterranean, and has written opinion pieces for Middle East Monitor, Middle East Eye, and Al-Jazeera. He is currently writing a book on settler colonial sovereignty.

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