On June 25, 2019, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, as part of Canada’s anti-racism strategy. Widely proposed around the world, the definition has evoked fierce debate.
In Canada, the NDP will consider a resolution against the definition at its national convention this month, one penned by B.C. former MPs Libby Davies and Svend Robinson. Meanwhile, a coalition of 100 Canadian Jewish organizations has objected to the NDP resolution.
Wherein lies the controversy with the IHRA definition?
The definition, though vague, is not, in itself, controversial: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” IHRA has promoted it as a “non-legally binding working definition.”
As is so often the case, the devil is in the details, and the details here are found in the 11 examples of what the definition considers actionable antisemitism: seven of them concern the state of Israel.
Those who defend the definition argue that Israel is treated unfairly in the media and in international political discourse and see antisemitism as the root of this discriminatory treatment. Yet Israel is a country whose founding wars and subsequent military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have meant displacement of millions of Palestinians followed by the occupation and policing of that same population. The circumstances of the displacement and occupation are such that even the most generous interpretation of Israeli actions should recognize that an ongoing critical scrutiny of the Israeli state is a moral duty. Voices within and without Israel – and especially the voices of Palestinians and their allies – must be free to speak their experience and, yes, their accusations.
This is exactly the freedom that the IHRA definition would curtail. The burden should not be on those who criticize the Israeli state to prove that their statements are not antisemitic. Rather, the Israeli state, like any other, should bear the burden of demonstrating that criticisms of it are discriminatory, made in bad faith and nonfactual.
The definition’s history
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was initiated in 1998. In 2016, it adopted a definition drafted by Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, to aid in the collection and sorting of possible instances of antisemitism. Stern has acknowledged that the definition has been misappropriated and is being “weaponized” against critics of Israel and has warned against the definition “being employed in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech.”
In Canada, the adoption of the definition has been opposed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Ontario Civil Liberties Association. More than 450 Canadian academics have signed on to an open letter opposing its adoption by governing bodies. In 2021, the New Israel Fund Canada, which had previously urged Ontario to adopt the definition, reversed its position, citing concerns over free speech and academic freedom.
There have already been unjust consequences. Lives, livelihoods and reputations have been damaged, particularly in universities where academics have been harassed, censured and dismissed for teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or scheduling speakers on that topic – instances where the definition is acknowledged to be in play. The definition also has created what some argue is a limiting of speech critical of the Israeli state on social media platforms like Zoom or Facebook.
In one example, law professor Faisal Bhabha was accused of antisemitism by B’nai Brith Canada for his remarks in a debate that was sponsored by the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. A petition was launched using the IHRA definition, calling for Bhabha to no longer teach human rights classes. The professor’s allegedly antisemitic act was to argue that Zionism as practised today in Israel amounts to “Jewish supremacy,” an opinion shared not only by many human rights organizations and Palestinian activists, but also by many Jews. Yet for those wielders of the definition the question cannot even be debated.
Similar incidents have been reported in the United States. To get a sense of the extreme rhetoric involved, consider that, in 2020, the U.S. State Department announced its intentions to declare the advocacy groups Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch antisemitic and to withdraw U.S. support for these groups. If only advocacy groups in Canada and the United States could find a way to declare criticism of the genocidal actions of the Burmese state to be merely anti-Asian prejudice, what a coup for Myanmar’s military junta that would be.
Not only is the speech of Jews not immune to these accusations, but even Jewish Holocaust survivors are not immune. When survivor Marika Sherwood attempted to give a talk at Manchester University called You’re Doing to the Palestinians What the Nazis Did to Me, Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, intervened. The embassy claimed the title breached the definition and accused the Holocaust survivor of hate speech towards Jews.
Incredibly, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre listed the European Union’s insistence that products made in Israeli settlements must be so labeled as the third most serious antisemitic incident in 2015.
These examples, which are only a sample of many more, should be enough to convince anyone that there are few limits to the measures that Israel’s absolute defenders will take to use the IHRA definition to silence criticism of the Israeli state.
Opinions in Canada
Can the centuries-old hatred of Jews be redefined as criticism of the state of Israel or is this an unacceptable slippage of meaning? A recent (2020) poll indicated that a strong majority of Canadians believe that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Considering the importance of holding the state of Israel up to criticism, it must be demonstrated that said criticism is rooted in antisemitism, not assumed.
One of the examples in the IHRA definition states that referring to Israel as a “racist endeavour” is antisemitic, because it denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination. But surely there are methods of national self-determination that can be judged to be racist.
The definition claims that holding Israel to a higher moral standard than other countries is antisemitic. Considering the fact that every government on the planet receives vitriolic criticism, together with the previous claim that calling Israel a “racist endeavour” is antisemitic, one gets the sense that what is sought for Israel is a higher level of exemption from criticism than any other nation receives. We are perfectly free to call Canada a “racist endeavour,” after all. This happens frequently, often by the main victims of Canada’s very real history of racism, Indigenous peoples. Would we want to criminalize such speech in Canada as somehow a form of racism against Anglo-Saxons, or the French? Obviously not, yet our prime minister is willing to penalize the speech of Palestinians calling out Israel’s structural racism.
Most Jews live outside of Israel. Some are not Zionists or do not identify with the Israeli state as part of their Jewish identity. Yet, since Israel was founded as a reclamation of the ancient Jewish homeland and seeks to identify itself as “the Jewish state,” obviously those who hate Jews may hate the Israeli state and attempt to attack it. Yet states are prone, by their very nature, to all kinds of ethical challenges and must be held open to free and vociferous criticism. Again, the burden should be on the Israeli state to demonstrate that criticism of its actions is unfair and rooted in antisemitism. The claim that criticism of Israel is antisemitic should not be the first assumption but rather the last, after the criticisms – or, in the case of the recent investigation of Israel launched by the International Criminal Court, the legal allegations – have been fairly assessed.
Matthew Gindin is an independent journalist, writer and teacher of Jewish studies. You can follow his writing at matthewgindin.substack.com. Marty Roth is a retired professor of American literature and film studies, a freelance writer and member of Independent Jewish Voices.