On Nov. 16, Vancouver city council became the latest Canadian jurisdiction to adopt or commit to using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
The decision received support from organized Jewish community representatives, including both the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
“Defining antisemitism is an essential step towards recognizing its manifestations and being able to counteract it,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and chief executive officer, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Today’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism by Mayor Ken Sim and Vancouver city council is a clear stand against the rise in acts of hatred against members of the Jewish community.”
Developed by IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is grounded in the research of the international experts on antisemitism and the Holocaust. It is supported by the United Nations, the European Union and 30 countries, including the United States and Canada.
“History has repeatedly shown, what begins as hatred of Jews never ends as hatred of Jews. Canadians must stand united with the Jewish community in the fight against antisemitism,” said Fogel. “The decision made by Vancouver city council today is a victory for all who stand against hate – no matter which group is the immediate target.”
“Today, Mayor Sim and the vast majority of Vancouver city council sent a strong message that antisemitism has no place in society,” said Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “To combat antisemitism effectively, it must first be defined. The IHRA definition will help the people of Vancouver identify and combat antisemitism in all its forms. The rise of antisemitic hate crimes across the country has meant that fighting antisemitism must be a priority for all Vancouverites and Canadians, not just members of the Jewish community.”
Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung introduced the motion to adopt the IHRA definition.
“Nobody should have to live in fear because of who they are. It was an honour to bring this motion forward to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism,” she said. “We stand united with Vancouver’s Jewish community in the ongoing fight against antisemitism and the troubling rise of hate incidents in our city.
“The best means to combat hate is through education, and the IHRA definition can help foster a deeper level of understanding,” she said. “Education is more powerful than any punitive actions could ever be.”
“We are proud to stand with the Jewish community both in Vancouver and around the world,” said Sim. “Antisemitism has no place in our city, and today we take an important step towards building a more inclusive and safe society for all.”
In his weekly email message Nov. 18, Shanken wrote, “In 2019, when the IHRA working definition of antisemitism was first brought before council [by Kirby-Yung], thousands of you wrote letters and signed up to speak in favour of the motion. From community members and leaders to elected officials, clergy, partners agencies, and more, your words were powerful and you were heard by this council – even if your letter was from 2019.”
Shanken highlighted the work of several community leaders: Nico Slobinsky, senior director of CIJA-Pacific Region; Geoffrey Druker, chair of CIJA’s local partnership council; Candace Kwinter, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; Lana Marks Pulver, chair of the Federation annual campaign; Nina Krieger, executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (who has been a member of the Canadian delegation to the IHRA since 2012); and Corrine Zimmerman, president of VHEC.
Independent Jewish Voices Canada posted an open letter to Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim on their website before the Nov. 16 city council vote, expressing concern over the intention to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
While applauding council’s intention to fight antisemitism, Neil Naiman, chair, IJV Canada, Vancouver chapter, wrote, “We are of the view, however, that the IHRA definition serves to deflect attention from real antisemitism by focusing on criticisms of Israel. It does so by adding to the basic definition of antisemitism what it deems to be 11 ‘examples’ of antisemitism – seven of which relate to Israel.
“The existence of these examples and the focus on defending Israel have led IJV and a host of other organizations to oppose the IHRA definition. These include the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, 40 faculty associations, the Jewish Faculty Network, and many others. More than 650 Jewish academics across the country having signed a petition urging the rejection of the IHRA.”
The letter states, “The IHRA definition raises issues which have been debated in the Jewish community for more than 100 years, issues about which there is no community consensus. For example, many of IJV’s members join with Palestinians and others in condemning Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ (to use one of the IHRA examples). The basis for this charge is that 750,000 Palestinians were expelled when Israel was founded, that it subjugates the inhabitants of the Occupied Palestinian Territories under military rule and subjects Palestinian citizens of Israel to second class status. The IHRA definition would deem these IJV members to be ‘antisemitic.’ By adopting the IHRA definition Vancouver council will be condemning some of its citizens as racists and antisemites based on their legitimate political views of the situation in Israel-Palestine. This would be unconscionable.”
On April 20, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) voted in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The motion is in support of Palestinian liberation, which it defines as resistance against Israeli “settler-colonialism” and the occupation of historic Palestine – including the West Bank, Gaza and the present-day state of Israel.
The Hillel chapter at SFU issued a statement on April 20 denouncing the motion.
“Evidently, this motion, and the student council standing in support of it are not concerned with the safety of Jewish students on SFU campus,” reads the statement. “The adoption of the policy, which passed unanimously this evening, and which violates SFU, provincial and federal law, sets a dangerous precedent for Jewish safety, freedom of association and political mobilization on campus.”
The day after the SFSS vote, another campus group also voted on a motion related to debates over Israel.
On April 21, more than 60% of the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) voted in favour of a motion that opposed the adoption of the working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was adopted in May 2016, and states that 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.”
The document also lists many examples that could fall into the broader definition of antisemitism. Among the examples are statements about Jewish people and Israel, including “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.”
According to the QUFA motion, this definition threatens academic freedom and intersectional anti-racist and decolonial initiatives.
“The IHRA deﬁnition of antisemitism misconstrues antisemitism 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 Israel,” the motion reads. “Such targeted attacks, which primarily impact racialized faculty and students, will have a negative effect on the academic freedom of our members in the classroom, in their research and in campus politics more broadly.”
Jordan Morelli, QUFA president, said in an email that the motion was brought forward by individual members of the association, as is their right according to the association’s democratic processes. He also said the vote itself was preceded by a balanced discussion in which everybody who wanted to speak was given the opportunity to do so. Morelli further added that Queen’s recently revised policy on harassment and discrimination defines antisemitism in a manner consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code policies, and that other faculty organizations at other schools, as well as at federal and provincial levels, have expressed similar concerns with the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Before the vote, Queen’s Hillel published an open letter signed by more than 1,600 people – current Jewish and non-Jewish students, alumni, family members and community members – asking the faculty to vote against the motion.
“This statement contributes to the erasure of Jewish history, religiosity and values. To exclude the Jewish community from impacted ‘racialized faculty and students’ does harm to multi-racial, long-established Jewish communities. It overwrites our lived reality of centuries of constant displacement, colonization, conquest and migration,” the letter reads.
The letter also says that the fears about restricting criticism of Israel and academic freedom do not follow from a “fair” reading of the definition, as Israel is not mentioned in the definition itself, but only in the follow-up examples of what may constitute antisemitism. The letter also questioned why it does not fall to Jewish groups to define their own oppression.
“It is our understanding that a fundamental principle of anti-oppression work is allowing affected communities to define their own oppression,” reads the letter. “It is not the place of any organization external to our community…. It is the Jewish community, and the Jewish community alone, who get to decide this. This double-standard is antisemitic.”
The Hillel letter did note that some of the faculty who proposed the motion are Jewish, but said their views are out-of-sync with the vast majority of Canadian Jews.
After the motion passed, Queen’s Hillel published a statement that said they were “deeply saddened,” called the vote “an utter disgrace,” especially because no actionable steps were suggested in the motion to combat growing antisemitism on campus. However, the statement also said they were “immensely proud” of the support shown across the community.
At McGill, a similar motion in support of Palestinian solidarity that was passed by more than 70% of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was not ratified by SSMU’s board of governors. In a statement published on April 22, the board said they could not adopt the policy because it contravened numerous SSMU governing documents, including its constitution, equity policy and Quebec law.
The original version of this article was published by The CJN. For more national Jewish news, visit thecjn.ca.
I met my husband long ago at Cornell University Hillel events. One event celebrated what looked like the success of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. It was part of the Oslo Accords and, in October 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. It was a sunny, warm day, but things have shifted often since then. These are thorny political issues, but one can hope.
I recently completed studying the talmudic tractate of Pesachim. When finishing a tractate, one says a prayer called Hadran. It ends with Kaddish, much like what’s said at any Jewish service. It ends with praying for peace. We have lots of prayers for peace.
Meanwhile, my husband, now a biology professor, asked me to look at a motion from his faculty union. It claimed a deep concern with academic freedom. The motion proposed rejecting the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. (The IHRA stands for International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.) This motion theoretically responded to a student union motion that supported the IHRA’s definition. Many countries, including Canada, have adopted the IHRA’s working definition.
The politics behind this are tangled. Many on the political left suggest that to truly support truth and reconciliation and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour), one must support all Indigenous movements worldwide. According to this argument, Palestinians must be supported as the sole true Indigenous people – against the colonial-settler narrative of Israel. There are issues with this position. One is that Britain is the colonial power whose actions helped lead to the creation of Israel. Also, Jews have been indigenous to, or lived in what is now, Israel for thousands of years.
There are practical consequences when universities debate these topics. North American Jews are a minority. This vote, which affects us, is one where we have no majority voting power. We rely on non-Jews to advocate for us and support anti-discrimination guidelines. We often must confront those who feel these definitions threaten them intellectually – while we’re feeling threatened in reality.
Jewish students on campus feel attacked. Jewish academics are forced to step up and speak out. In some cases, Jewish professors and students face discrimination as a result of this advocacy.
Just before Passover this year, at a special meeting, the faculty union put forth its agenda. The meeting agenda was to consider this motion that opposes the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. Those attending the meeting wouldn’t approve the agenda. (Note that approving the agenda is usually not a big deal.) Without an agenda, the motion couldn’t go forward. There was no vote.
Some attendees suggested that the entire union membership should vote. First though, they said, this motion should be considered by the cultural diversity and academic freedom committees. In the end? This meeting’s outcome just puts off the problem for the Jewish community.
Multiple professors in relevant fields spoke out against this motion, which opposed using a working definition of antisemitism. Behind the scenes, the local Jewish federation got involved. The motion was problematic – and it’s still out there. It could be voted on at another meeting, potentially one with even less notice or publicity.
It’s particularly troublesome that those voting on whether one can use the IHRA definition at this university in teaching or research aren’t all relevant experts. Most aren’t professors in religious studies, Jewish studies, Holocaust studies, Near Eastern studies. Most of the voting representatives won’t be Jewish. In their argument to maintain “academic freedom,” they’re proposing to limit the freedoms of colleagues. This limits others’ right to use whatever definitions they prefer when they speak about anti-Jewish discrimination.
There’s a bigger argument here. If Canadian universities want to show ally-ship with Indigenous communities and to be partners in truth and reconciliation, the way is clear. It starts much closer to home. Stand with Canada’s Indigenous peoples on the issues that matter to them. For instance, pressure the government to provide all Canadians with clean drinking water. Support Indigenous students at universities. Hire and appoint Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) to academic positions. The list is long. To start, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action.
None of these feuds are new. My husband and several other Jewish professor friends spent a lot of time on how to address this motion. This is “their” problem because they’re Jewish, but not because this is in their fields of research.
This gut-wrenching position is familiar. Does supporting academic freedom mean that antisemitism is up for discussion? It shouldn’t mean this, but antisemitic incidents are on the rise. Freedom of speech shouldn’t mean danger to minority students and professors.
Complexity isn’t resolved easily. Delving into these issues without lots of prior knowledge reflects badly on this faculty union and, by extension, the university. Smart people know there aren’t easy answers to entrenched political problems. Motions such as this one show a lack of rigour.
Canadian university professors should be sophisticated enough to know that complex issues aren’t resolved by simply opposing a working definition. It’s useless virtue signaling. Just as it shouldn’t be up to Black people or Indigenous people to fight every battle without allies, we, as Jewish people, shouldn’t have to keep fighting these battles alone over how to define antisemitism.
My husband and I met with a hope for peace. We care about human rights, but this union issue just seems to be wasting time during a pandemic. Opposing this working definition that protects a minority population, because it could possibly affect free speech? This really isn’t what a biology professor wants to be doing at work – even if he’s Jewish.
If Canadians care about peace, truth and reconciliation, and about the well-being of all people, we shouldn’t be attacking one group to elevate others. We shouldn’t have to keep fighting over definitions about discrimination against minorities.
Perhaps, we can leave the global political issues and their definitions up to the relevant experts. For us, it might be simple: we should show up to care for one another with respect instead. Advocate for better conditions close to home: safety without discrimination, fresh food, clean water, housing security, and economic and social supports. Even at their preschool, my children learned about key Jewish concepts like “Shalom Ba-bayit.” In other words, peace and tolerance start at home.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
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 Gindinis 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.
Synagogues damaged. Community centres defaced. Children bullied. Threats of violence online. Hate targeting Jewish Canadians is growing. When it comes to hate crime, the Jewish community is the most frequently targeted group. According to Statistics Canada, an anti-Jewish hate crime occurs, on average, once every 24 hours.
We in British Columbia are not immune. The Vancouver Police Department reports that, in 2018, there were 141 hate crimes, of which Jews were the most targeted.
This rising threat is either unseen or misunderstood by most Canadians, which is why the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is so important. It can empower our political leaders, judges, educators, and others to recognize and address rising antisemitism. After all, if you cannot identify the problem, you will not solve it.
Grounded in decades of research by experts in Holocaust remembrance, antisemitism and Holocaust denial, IHRA, an international group comprising 34 member countries, including Canada, adopted – by consensus – a working definition of antisemitism.
The definition includes 11 illustrative examples that help Canadians understand the evolving nature of antisemitism. In all, the IHRA definition is a vital, non-legally binding instrument to combat antisemitism, one that provides flexibility, consistency and understanding of its many manifestations.
Since its publication in 2016, the IHRA definition has become the most widely supported definition of antisemitism for organizations and governments at home and abroad. It is an important instrument in the coordinated, consistent response to a grave international threat.
In Canada, support for the IHRA definition is widespread – backed by almost every Canadian Jewish organization, including the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and rabbis and lay leaders of the Canadian Reform movement. The definition is a foundational part of the federal government’s national anti-racism strategy and is supported by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Province of Ontario, and many municipalities.
Internationally, the definition has received extensive backing. From the European Union, to the United Nations Secretary General, to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, to governments throughout the world, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is supported by leaders of every political stripe.
Notwithstanding the IHRA definition’s widespread recognition, there is a small but vocal cadre of detractors, unrepresentative of the Canadian Jewish community, who reject the IHRA definition, claiming it is a conspiracy to stifle criticism of the state of Israel. This contention is false.
The IHRA definition states explicitly that, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Here, the IHRA definition distinguishes between political expression on Israeli policies and hate targeting Israel as a Jewish collectivity. The IHRA definition describes manifestations of antisemitism, such as denying Jewish self-determination and characterizing Israel or Israelis with classic antisemitic images or symbols.
For nearly all Jewish Canadians, a connection with Israel is central to their Jewish identity. For 86% of Jewish Canadians, caring about Israel is an essential or important part of being Jewish, according to the 2018 Study of Jews in Canada. This link cannot be ignored or denied, nor can the link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Those denying the Jewish right to self-determination are, in essence, rejecting the heart of Jewish identity: peoplehood – a right to control our own destiny.
This tiny group of detractors also criticizes the IHRA definition as too vague. The IHRA definition is not a checklist. Context is critical. The real world is rarely black and white. When read together with the 11 examples, the IHRA definition provides a nuanced understanding that allows the specifics of a situation to be duly considered.
This unrepresentative faction goes on to assert that “real” antisemitism is rooted exclusively in white supremacy. This one-sided, dangerously narrow view erases Jewish experience, history and identity. While antisemitism is undoubtedly a prominent feature of white supremacy, antisemitism is not confined to any single position on the political spectrum. There is as much antisemitism on the extreme left as on the extreme right.
Antisemitism is not limited to a place, a time, or a specific political ideology. That is precisely one of the reasons that the IHRA definition is important. It is a tool to identify antisemitism wherever it may root, breaking through the subterfuge and identifying antisemitism in a thoughtful and context-specific manner, so that we can stand together as a society against antisemitism, building a better tomorrow.
Visit cija.ca/ihra to learn more about the IHRA definition of antisemitism and how you can get involved.
Geoffrey Drukerchairs the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Pacific Region Local Partnership Council. CIJA is the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. CIJA is a national, non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Jewish life in Canada through advocacy. It represents hundreds of thousands of Jewish Canadians affiliated with Jewish federations across Canada.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, in 2016, adopted a so-called Working Definition of Antisemitism. Given the complexity and pervasiveness of this ancient bigotry, the statement itself is remarkably succinct at a mere 38 words.
It reads: “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.”
It is innocuous and hardly debatable. Where controversy has arisen is in the accompanying 11 examples, seven of which make reference to Israel. Examples provided of antisemitic manifestations include: accusing Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust; 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; applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Opponents of the definition, including a majority of Vancouver’s city council, which voted against adopting the definition in 2019, claim it could stifle free expression in the form of criticism of Israel – this despite the fact that the definition self-defines as “non-legally binding.” In a world where any individual with access to a computer has more power than even the most powerful figures in history to disseminate their views to a global audience, it is notable that “Zionists” are imagined to have the power to control what others think, do and say. The criticism is perhaps, ironically, a manifestation of the problem itself.
To their credit, the new U.S. administration has said it “embraces and champions” the definition. The previous administration also endorsed the definition. (Canada and 28 other countries, as well as scores of cities and other jurisdictions and organizations have similarly endorsed it.) But the Trump administration’s support was a component of a broader politicization of ostensible support for the Jewish community. By allowing Israel’s right to exist in peace to become a partisan tool, we risk polarizing politicians and the public, driving supporters to their corners on a topic where less polarization should be encouraged.
If there are problems inherent in the terminology, it is perhaps in the chutzpah of attempting to define it at all. It is almost universally acknowledged that antisemitism is uniquely capable of metastasizing as required by the perpetrator. It is, above all, a pathology of the antisemite, with more to do with the eye of the beholder than with Jewish people themselves. Antisemitism is very often (if not always) a projection of someone’s (or some society’s) own problems directed toward an empty vessel in the form of “Jews.” Note that antisemitism is most rampant in the places where Jews are fewest – or nonexistent.
Antisemitism differs from other prejudices and bigotries as well in the typical responses it engenders. We have unlearned a tendency to deflect blame for misogyny back onto its victims; we do not accept that violence against women is in anyway justified by, say, what a victim was wearing. We recognize racism as a flaw of it perpetrators and we do not accept that racism against people of colour is based on the behaviour or innate characteristics of the victims. Homophobia is a pathology of the homophobe; it is not nurtured or provoked by LGBTQ+ people. Yet how many times do we see people respond to antisemitic violence or words with a variation on the question: What did the Jews do to deserve it?
Last week, that formulation was hinted at by a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Andy Levin, of Michigan. “Injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” Levin said during a webinar. “Unless Palestinian human rights are respected, we cannot fight antisemitism.”
This false equivalency and conflation – coming from a Jewish elected official, no less – is a picture-perfect illustration of why the IHRA was created.
As the new administration in Washington begins repairing the unprecedented social and economic damage done to the country over the past four years, it is encouraging to see one of its first acts being an explicit and enthusiastic commitment to the battle against antisemitism.
Judith Weiszmann holds an audience of students spellbound at Merivale High School in Ottawa in October 2013. (photo by Jeremy Page)
No matter the audience, Judith Weiszmann has three key messages when she speaks about the Holocaust: always remember the good that one person can do in the world, pay attention to the pockets of antisemitism springing up in some parts of Europe and North America, and remember that living in peace with your neighbors is much better than the alternative.
Judith and her husband Erwin, z”l, both structural engineers who emigrated to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution, were frequent speakers about the Holocaust for schools and service clubs in Winnipeg, where Judith still lives and continues to be an outreach speaker. The families of both Judith and Erwin were saved by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat who came to Hungary towards the end of the war and managed to issue thousands of Schutzpasses (a document identifying the bearer as a Swedish citizen rather than as a Jew) to Hungarian Jews who were on the brink of being deported to concentration camps.
In 2011, the Swedish government issued a stamp commemorating the 100th birthday of Wallenberg. It featured a picture of Wallenberg in the foreground and an image of a Schutzpass in the background, complete with a picture of the 14-year-old bearer of the pass, Judith Kopstein, who later became Judith Weiszmann. Serendipitously, Judith had presented a copy of her Schutzpass to Wallenberg’s half-sister Nina 10 years previously when Nina attended the unveiling of a statue in her brother’s honor in Toronto. Upon returning to Sweden, unbeknown to Judith, Nina framed her Schutzpass and hung it in her home. Years later, the Swedish Postal Services made use of the image and Canada also issued a stamp using the same Schutzpass, never imagining that the young girl pictured in it was still alive. When Canada Post learned that Judith, then 83, was very much alive, and tremendously honored to appear on a Canadian stamp with Wallenberg, they held a special ceremony for her in Toronto to mark the connections.
Since the issuing of the Wallenberg stamps, Judith has received a wide-ranging number of speaking requests – requests she is only too glad to oblige. In her words, they provide her with an opportunity to “bear witness” to the selflessness of Wallenberg and remind her audiences that forces of evil can take root again if we are not vigilant.
In Ottawa, in October 2013, Judith held an audience of students spellbound in the ethnically diverse Merivale High School during both her morning and afternoon presentations. According to teacher Irv Osterer, whose efforts resulted in Judith’s visit, “by the afternoon, word had gone around the school about how important it was for everyone to hear this woman speak. By the afternoon presentation, the kids were almost hanging from the rafters of the auditorium.”
Drawing parallels between the fact that she was the age of many of the high school students when she lived through the Holocaust, she inspired the students with messages about the difference one person can make in the world, how hating your neighbor is not a way forward, and about how a better world will come from all of us living side by side in peace. At the conclusion of her remarks, a young woman in a hijab bounded to the front of the theatre to give Judith a spontaneous embrace.
From Ottawa, Judith continued to Toronto, where she spoke to a joint session of B’nai Brith Canada and the Law Society of Upper Canada and to a conference hosted by Canada, the 2013 chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an international body that deals with Holocaust and related educational matters and liaises with several governments, Holocaust researchers and educators.
As a result of the Toronto speaking engagements, in February 2014, Judith had the opportunity to realize a lifelong dream, which was to travel to Wallenberg’s homeland, Sweden. On this occasion, she was the guest of the Canadian government and was asked to speak once more to another conference of the IHRA in which the leadership of the alliance rotated from Canada to England.
The stories she told of how the war affected Hungarian Jews and how Wallenberg’s interventions saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers no doubt resonated as deeply with the Swedish audience as they did with those in Canada. One of Judith’s most remarkable memories is about the last time anyone in the West actually saw Wallenberg.
Judith’s father, Andor Kopstein, was a senior administrative support to Wallenberg. German was the language in which they communicated. On the final day Wallenberg was seen, they were in Budapest together, as Wallenberg was to travel to Debrecen, a Hungarian city that had already been liberated. In conjunction with the Swedish Red Cross, Wallenberg’s intentions were to purchase food in Debrecen for the general population in Budapest, all of whom had had little access to food. It was widely known that Wallenberg had a considerable amount of gold on his person – funds provided by his own government and the governments of several Allied countries – with which he planned to pay for the food. Wallenberg was about to get into the middle car of a three-car convoy, with Russian military officers in the lead and last cars. Just before the convoy pulled away, Wallenberg said to Judith’s father, in German, “I am not sure if these are my bodyguards or my captors.” Wallenberg was never seen again. A young Judith had watched the exchange, hiding behind an entrance door to her apartment building, and her father repeated Wallenberg’s words to her when the convoy departed.
At the conclusion of the IHRA conference, Judith met with several Hungarian men and women who had moved to Sweden immediately after the war. At the end of the war, Sweden offered the opportunity for Jewish orphans to be brought to its shores. All those who came at that time have remained in Sweden and made their lives there. Other Hungarians came to Sweden after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Judith gave one further presentation on her trip: to teachers involved in an educational institution that the Swedish government formed some years ago after hearing about resurgences of antisemitism in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.
The fate of Wallenberg has never been known for certain but was undoubtedly a topic of conversation when Judith had the chance once more to meet his half-sister Nina. Stopping for tea with Nina and several of Nina’s nieces, and with her own daughter Ann, who accompanied her on the trip, Judith told one interviewer that she and Nina were “united in a love for her brother Raoul.”
From Sweden, Judith traveled to Budapest to visit with relatives and speak at the Jewish Club, a sort of unofficial arm of the IHRA. The club receives some modest financial help from the alliance for its efforts to fight antisemitism. Its main activity is to present lectures and other educational presentations to teachers, students and, occasionally, the general public about the Holocaust and antisemitism. As Judith explained to me, “During the communist regime, there was no education about WWII. Today’s reality is that there is whole generation of teachers who have grown up with no background whatsoever on what happened during the war, Hungary’s role in it and the consequences of antisemitism. They cannot teach what they do not themselves know about.”
Judith’s presentation drew about 70 people, 60 of whom were students at the senior high school or university level. Organizers told her that about 55 of the students present were non-Jews, which Judith saw as an expression of interest and open-mindedness, and she remarked that the students asked intelligent questions. Many attendees admitted that they were hearing for the first time about Hungary’s role in the war and about the treatment of Jews and other minorities during that time. At the conclusion of her talk, one non-Jewish young man stood to say that he knew that there were fewer survivors each year and that “we young people have to take over and talk about it.”
Since returning home from Sweden and Hungary, Judith continues to share her messages with groups of students and others in Winnipeg. Now, she also wants to talk about new concerns she has about the rise of antisemitic incidences in Hungary. In her view, after the landslide victory of Hungary’s right-wing party in the country’s national elections on April 6, “things do not look very promising for Hungarian Jews.” She is irritated with plans (proposed by the previous government) to erect a monument suggesting that Hungary was occupied during the Second World War and that any fault lies with the German Nazis. A very feisty Judith Weiszmann is here to say otherwise – however, she is also here to remind us how much good one person can do in the world and that we all have options to work at peaceful coexistence.
Karen Ginsberg,an Ottawa-based writer, considers herself blessed to count Judith as a friend.