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Yes, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is intended to censor political expression

Eleven examples showing how the IHRA definition poses a threat to free speech and aims to silence Palestinian solidarity

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastMedia Human Rights

A Palestinian woman holds a poster during a solidarity rally in London. Photo courtesy of ZUMA Press.

Much has already been written about the dangers posed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and its illustrative examples. The definition, which has been adopted by the Canadian government, the province of Ontario, and several cities, conflates antisemitism with many forms of criticism and protest of Israel, thereby posing a threat to free speech and amounting to anti-Palestinian discrimination.

However, supporters of the IHRA (many of whom are also pro-Israel lobby groups) are quick to reject the claim that it silences speech, usually pointing to a sentence on the IHRA website which promises that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Canada’s most prominent pro-Israel organization, even suggested that to make such an accusation amounts to an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory or “classic antisemitism.” On the other hand, the liberal Zionist group JSpaceCanada recognizes the danger that the IHRA definition could be “misused” to attack speech about Israel, but nonetheless dismisses most objections to the definition and has given its strong (though “cautious”) support.

This is to ignore reality. As journalist Ben White recently explained, key supporters of the IHRA in the United States and the United Kingdom specifically intend that it will be used to crush Palestinian advocacy. He notes: “Those promoting the [IHRA definition] stress that the definition allows for ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel. Yet the…evidence demonstrates that what constitutes ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ is determined by individuals who believe the BDS Movement and discussion of Israeli apartheid to be beyond the pale.”

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) came to a similar conclusion in its submission to Ontario’s Bill 168, which would have adopted the IHRA definition as Ontario legislation (the bill was replaced with a unilateral Order in Council).

In this article, I will expand on this analysis to show the censorious motivations driving the push to adopt the definition.

Solidarity with Palestine is threatened by the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates speech critical of Israel with bigotry against Jews. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ActiveStills.

IHRA: In their own words

It is important that we closely examine what Canada’s supporters of the IHRA definition are actually saying. In their public statements, IHRA supporters have already applied the definition in ways that deem many activities to be anti-Semitic: student events on Israeli “apartheid,” the grassroots movement to boycott Israel, Canada’s vote on Palestinian self-determination at the United Nations, humanitarian funding to Palestinian NGOs, and even the writings of eminent public intellectual Noam Chomsky.

Even more troubling, IHRA supporters understand the definition as a tool that can empower public authorities to take action to stop, disallow, or to defund many forms of pro-Palestinian political expression.

Below is a sample of just 11 recent examples in which Canada’s proponents of the IHRA definition have openly declared its purpose: to censor and stigmatize political expression about Israel, and to disallow Palestinian activism.

Example 1: Anti-Zionism and harsh criticism of Israel

Most supporters of the IHRA definition see it as applying to anti-Zionism and harsh criticism of Israel. In a press release applauding Canada’s support for it in 2019, the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said:

The IHRA definition also explicitly recognizes that anti-Zionism—that is the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state—is a clear and unequivocal expression of antisemitism.

In a related web post titled “Why is the IHRA Definition Important?,” CIJA claimed that “The IHRA definition clearly exposes how the demonization of Israel is antisemitism, pure and simple.”

It is worth noting that, in historical terms, Zionism is a recent political ideology, and its opponents include most Palestinians and a minority of Jews. In fact, various demands for justice—including the right to return for Palestinian refugees or a single binational democratic state in Palestine-Israel—are usually characterized as anti-Zionist.

Evidently, there are major implications for free speech and academic freedom if we define such views as anti-Semitic. Further, accusations about “delegitimization,” “demonization,” and “double standards” against Israel are entirely subjective claims about criticism, and in practice these terms are used to describe virtually any statement about Israel that its supporters do not like.

Example 2: Student union support for Palestinian campus activities

In February 2020, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) each endorsed and circulated an open letter to the president of the University of Toronto, which argued that adopting the IHRA definition would give the administration the “obligation” to intervene in the internal affairs of student associations if they allowed protests of Israel to take place, such as advocacy for a boycott, sanctions and divestment campaign (BDS) against Israel, or Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events:

We put to you, and to the University of Toronto administration, that the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in full and as policy would be a necessary first concrete step forward. Flowing from this, the university would have every right, if not the obligation, to face down the UTGSU’s support for BDS as well as its holding of the annual “Israel Apartheid Week.”

As reported by Canadian Jewish News: the “professors want the university to adopt the IHRA definition and to apply it to end BDS efforts on campus and abolish the IAW campaign.” In another article, one of the academics behind the letter further specified that the goal of the IHRA definition is to censor protests of Israel:

Discussions about Israeli policies are fine. IAW and BDS are not about that. We feel these are sinister anti-Semitic events,” he said. With the IHRA definition in its toolbox, the university administration can move to “disallow these activities on campus,” he added.

Example 3: BDS, IAW, and anti-Israel rhetoric

In an op-ed published by the Canadian Jewish News, Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt (now the President of the FSWC) argued that the IHRA definition is necessary because it applies to protests of Israel:

And crucially, [IHRA] includes instances where antisemitism is masked as criticism of Israel or Zionism. While criticism of Israeli government policy is legitimate, holding Israel to a different standard than other countries, questioning its right to exist or calling for its destruction, like Israel Apartheid Week on university campuses, denies the only Jewish state the rights afforded to every other country […] Too often, anti-Israel rhetoric, like that employed by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, is marked by delegitimization, demonization and double standards—aspects of discourse that clearly cross the line into antisemitism.

Example 4: Voting for Palestinian self-determination at the United Nations

In late 2020, Canada voted yes on a motion for Palestinian self-determination at the United Nations General Assembly, while voting no on many other motions about Palestinian human rights. However, several commentators have interpreted this single bland vote as a violation of the IHRA definition.

In a column for the National Post, Avi Benlolo (until recently the CEO of FSWC), wrote:

Still, that resolution, if you subscribe to the IHRA definition of antisemitism—and Canada says it does—is anti-Semitic.

Benlolo’s argument was echoed by the Montreal-based Suburban in an editorial:

Canada is one of 35 major industrialized democracies to have formally accepted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. That definition, in one of its eleven guidelines, states that, “denying the Jewish people their right of self-determination” falls into the category of antisemitism. This resolution that Canada voted for can certainly be interpreted as denying Jewish self-determination. We leave the logical conclusion of this statement for yourselves—and your sense of justice—to determine.

Similarly, according to the right-wing Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation (CAEF):

Anti-Zionism is, within the IHRA definition which you accepted, the inclusion of demonizing Israel and holding it to a double standard. Isn’t Canada’s vote at the UN an example of that double standard?

Example 5: Voting for Palestinian health at the World Health Organization

In November 2020, Canada voted no on a motion at the World Health Organization condemning the impact of the Israeli occupation on the health conditions of Palestinians. In a tweet, CIJA congratulated Canada on its vote, and described the resolution in the following terms:

CIJA’s absurd characterization of the resolution is clearly meant to connect it to one of the IHRA’s illustrative examples, which reads: “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Example 6: ‘Anti-Israel’ scholarship in universities

B’nai Brith Canada points to the IHRA definition as a tool which can obligate universities to disqualify “anti-Israel” academics from potential appointments. Specifically, B’nai Brith has been petitioning the University of Toronto to reject the candidacy of Dr. Valentina Azarova for directorship of its law school’s International Human Rights Program due to her scholarship critical of Israel’s occupation. B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn wrote in the Toronto Sun that Azarova’s “anti-Israel obsessions” should have disqualified her from consideration in the first place.

In a submission to the external reviewer hired to investigate this incident, B’nai Brith repeats this assertion:

B’nai Brith Canada takes the position that the Search Committee should not have recommended Ms. Azarova for the position of the Director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto because she was an unsuitable candidate. She was, we say, unsuitable because of her long past history of focus on Israel virtually alone, her extreme, one-sided published criticisms of alleged human rights violations by Israel and her prolonged professional, active, visible association with a variety of anti-Zionist organizations.

B’nai Brith then goes further to recommend that the university should adopt the IHRA definition, “to assist the University in addressing situations of the sort the candidacy of Ms. Azarova presented.”

Relatedly, B’nai Brith has also been petitioning York University to have a lecturer be “disqualified from teaching a human-rights course” due to his academic criticism of Zionism.

Protesters mark the Nakba anniversary in downtown Cairo, May 15, 2010. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr.

Example 7: Criticism of Israel using human rights language

Daniel Korn, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, claims the IHRA definition determines “BDS and anti-Israel activism” to be anti-Semitic, saying:

[The IHRA definition] would help administrations understand the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and campaigns that seek to isolate, demonize and delegitimize it
The time has come to put a stop to deceitful and pernicious campaigns that usurp the language of human rights to promote a biased political agenda. Adopting the IHRA definition will help college and university administrations bring that principled goal to fruition.

Aside from the implication that universities should rely on the IHRA to ban campus protests of Israel, the claim that the language of human rights is being “usurped” to hide anti-Semitic goals is extremely troubling and dangerous. Such an interpretation could basically prohibit (or at least make suspect) any criticism of Israel based on human rights law.

Example 8: UN database of settlement businesses

Early in 2020, the right-wing group Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation (CAEF) launched a campaign arguing that the United Nations database of businesses related to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory had violated the IHRA definition:

According to the accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, this action most certainly represents another day of antisemitism at the United Nations—treating Israel differently than any other country for similar circumstances. Even worse, since there is no illegal occupation, the treatment is nothing more than overt Anti-Zionism which is Antisemitism.

Example 9: Humanitarian funding to Palestinian NGOs

In a report from 2019, pro-Israel group NGO Monitor accused the United Church of Canada and humanitarian NGO Kairos Canada of violating the IHRA definition, due to their partnership with Palestinian women’s group Wi’am, which had joined a 2005 statement from Palestinian civil society in support of boycotting Israel. As the report explained:

BDS campaigns targeting Israel are considered antisemitic, according to the IHRA definition of antisemitism (officially recognized by Global Affairs Canada) as they attempt to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and apply “double standards.”

Relatedly, a tweet by NGO Monitor (and retweeted by CIJA) claimed that that NGOs who “single out and attack Israel” are anti-Semitic, and that the Canadian government should implement the IHRA definition against them. The implication was that Canada should eliminate their development aid funding:

Pro-Israel group Honest Reporting Canada also picked up on this issue to argue that supporting a boycott violates the IHRA definition, and that NGOs should lose their federal funding if they have connections to pro-boycott groups:

Indeed, BDS campaigns, such as those promoted by the United Church of Canada’s Palestinian partner Wi’am, meet the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as they attempt to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and apply “double standards.” Wi’am is receiving 20 per cent of the grant to Kairos Canada … Canada should investigate this incident and consider rescinding any funds that clearly contradict Canadian values and policies.

Example 10: Reporting of anti-Zionist views in media outlets

Pro-Israel group Honest Reporting Canada says that media organizations should adopt the IHRA definition, which would mandate news editors to censor anti-Zionist opinions and possibly even reporting that is unfavourable to Israel:

With this definition of antisemitism so widely accepted, it thus becomes imperative for media outlets in Canada to use it as a working definition in their own reporting of Israel. Legitimate criticism of Israel is acceptable and welcome in a country with a free and vibrant press such as Canada, and while the open expression of hatred against Jews is rare in mainstream society today, it continues to exist under the guise of anti-Zionism. It becomes incumbent, therefore, for media outlets to not allow expressions of antisemitism masquerading as political positions to have a seat at the proverbial table.

This recommendation is alarming. If the IHRA definition was applied in this way, it could potentially mean that newspapers would not even be able to accurately report on events in Israel. It is not difficult to imagine that, as per this suggestion, media should not interview, or include the opinions of parties that are critical of Israel.

Example 11: Noam Chomsky

In a letter to the Prince George Citizen, Robert Walker of the pro-Israel group Honest Reporting Canada complains about a columnist who praised the Jewish intellectual Noam Chomsky. The letter argues that Chomsky’s views violate the IHRA definition and constitute “antisemitism,” and that “views like Chomsky’s” should be “rejected as dangerous and unhelpful.”

Conclusion: Everything violates IHRA

Plainly, the biggest supporters of the IHRA definition of antisemitism see it as a vehicle for shutting down political expression about Israel, and want to apply it to various activities, including anti-Zionist scholarship, a student boycott of Israel, or even a vote to support Palestinians at the United Nations. In the eyes of pro-Israel advocacy groups, everything they don’t like can be said to violate the IHRA definition. This is not a hypothetical threat to free speech, but a very real and tangible one.

To be clear, the adoption of the IHRA definition by governments does not itself automatically silence speech. Instead, it leaves it up to institutions, administrators and public officials to adjudicate claims about whether specific forms of political expression violate the definition. The individuals who will be put in this difficult position are not properly equipped to evaluate speech on Israel or Zionism, nor should they be expected to perform such a task. Pro-Israel groups have long tried to shut down Palestine activism in the name of false antisemitism charges, but they hope that by implementing IHRA, institutions will be obliged to comply with their demands.

If the IHRA definition is indeed enforced in a way that silences critics of Israel, this will not be ‘distortion,’ a ‘misapplication,’ or even a ‘weaponization’ of the definition—it will be the definition’s intended outcome, the very thing it was built to do.

Michael Bueckert is Vice President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). He has a PhD in Sociology and Political Economy from Carleton University. Follow him on Twitter @mbueckert.


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