The City of Richmond on Feb. 13 adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, though not without controversy. Several members of the public expressed opposition to the motion, which eventually passed 6-3.
In many, if not most jurisdictions where this definition has been adopted, there has been opposition contending that free expression is threatened by the definition. In some cases, the motions to adopt have been defeated. Vancouver city council initially opted not to adopt the definition and only when a new council was elected last year did it pass – and, again, not unanimously, like one might expect a statement against bigotry to pass in a Canadian city.
Overwhelmingly, the criticisms are not about the definition itself, but about the fact that, of the 11 examples accompanying the definition, seven explicitly mention the state of Israel. But, if the examples are a problem, why aren’t we examining the examples on their merits? It is hardly an argument to say that the examples reference Israel and, therefore, make the definition insupportable. Let’s demand answers: which ones threaten free expression – by which we mean the right to criticize Israel?
The first Israel-related example offered is: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Is this the problematic example? Are critics of Israel afraid that they will not be able to make their case against Israel without resorting to Holocaust denial?
The second example is “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.” The “dual loyalty” canard has been a mainstay of anti-Jewish rhetoric for centuries, positing that “the Jew” is always an alien whose collective, tribal instincts trump their citizenship. Are opponents of the IHRA definition afraid of losing the right to invoke this age-old slander?
The third example is “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.” Is this the key phrase? Understanding the role that Jewish statelessness played in almost 2,000 years of tragic history is crucial to appreciating the connection of Jewish people to the land and the state of Israel – and it is one motivation of allies to ensure Israel’s continued existence. Is it the wish of IHRA definition opponents to make the Jews of Israel stateless people again? (Spoiler alert: Personally, if there is a single example that rankles, I think this is the one.)
The fourth example offered is “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Is opposition based on the fact that, after practically ignoring the state-sanctioned mass murder next door in Syria, the genocide against Uyghurs in Western China, the almost countless instances of human-created and natural catastrophes worldwide that are overlooked or eclipsed due to condemnation of Israel at the United Nations, opponents – in activist groups and churches, in social justice movements and academic committees – will be called out for their compulsive approbation of the one Jewish state? Is the problem that they do not want to have a spotlight shone on their gross hypocrisy?
Or is it example number five?: “Using the symbols and images associated with classical antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” Are critics of Israel afraid that their effectiveness will be enfeebled if they cannot plumb the depths of the ancient and deadly accusation of deicide or killing babies?
Is it number six?: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Is it the right to deface an Israeli flag by painting a swastika over the Star of David that opponents of the definition fear, the right to accuse Israeli soldiers of behaving like Gestapo?
The final Israel-related example is “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” Is opposition to the definition founded on the fear that critics will not be able to pin blame on their Jewish neighbours for the actions of a government half a world away? Are they afraid that spray-painting “Free Palestine” on North American synagogues or kicking over Jewish headstones will be met with a condemnation these acts do not now evoke?
While critics are correct that seven of the 11 examples included with the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism reference the state of Israel, there is not one of these examples that should be problematic to any person of goodwill. Not one infringes on any right to engage in free and fair criticism of Israel or of anything else. Any doubts about this are negated by the fact that the definition itself explicitly states that it is “legally non-binding.”
Opposition to the IHRA definition is the indignation of bullies being called out as bullies, their belligerent tactics itemized, and their only response being to claim that they are the ones being bullied. It is a self-righteous ploy we have seen since the dawn of the anti-racist movement, now applied to antisemitism.
The adoption of the IHRA definition is a victory for the fight against bigotry and antisemitism. The opposition to the adoption shows us just how far we have left to go.