It was all smiles from B’nai Brith president David Mostyn (left) and MP Michael Levitt (right), Chair of the Canada Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, as Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez released the Federal government’s long awaited anti-racism strategy. But despite their brave faces, Israel’s lobbyists were not able to get criticism of Israel defined as “racism” in the federal document. In fact, Israel is not even mentioned. Read more.
To read the press release from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), one would think CIJA had scored a major victory in getting the new Federal anti-racism strategy to curb criticism of Israel.
“Today, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, Pablo Rodríguez, announced that the Government of Canada will be adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of its anti-racism strategy,” reads their press release.
“This is a major milestone in the struggle against antisemitism (…)”, continued Jeffrey Rosenthal, Co-Chair of the CIJA board of directors.“The IHRA definition explicitly recognizes that anti-Zionism – that is the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state – is a clear and unequivocal expression of antisemitism.
Over at B’nai Brith, the same tune. “B’nai Brith Canada Welcomes Government’s Acceptance of IHRA Definition of Antisemitism”, it trumpeted to its members. In fact, reading the B’nai Brith press release might lead one to think that anti-Semitism is the ONLY kind of racism worth mentioning in Canada.
Demonizing and delegitimizing criticism of Israel is certainly is what both CIJA and Bnai Brith wanted to happen. And it’s what they have been lobbying for over the last couple of years. They want the Government to join their campaign to protect Israel by declaring that most forms of criticism of Israel amount to anti-Semitism. They reserve special ire for those who are critical of Zionism and for supporters of the international movement to boycott Israel, known as BDS.
But that’s NOT exactly what happened.
The Federal document, entitled “Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022”, did correctly identify and address several important kinds of racism facing Canada. This includes: anti-black racism, Islamophobia, settler colonialism and anti-Semitism. But it did not mention Israel, or criticism of it, at all.
Nor did the Minister’s press release make any mention of Israel, Zionism or BDS.
The Federal strategy document DID include the definition of anti-Semitism which was developed by a group called the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance IHRA” which reads as follows:
“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.“
This definition, while not as succinct as definitions that already exist in many dictionaries, (read the Mariam-Webster definition here) does not really add anything particularly new or controversial.
CIJA and B’nai Brith want to expand the definition to protect Israel
“In order to root out anti-Semitism, we must clarify what it really is“, claimed MP Michael Levitt at the Ministers press conference. “Only by working from a shared understanding of the problem can we properly and effectively address it.”
But existing definitions, like the Merriam-Webster definition, were already very clear and quite adequate. So why the push to “redefine” anti-Semitism?
The real objective of the Israel lobby is not to “clarify” a definition that already is quite clear, but to expand the definition of anti-Semitism in order to insulate Israel from criticism over its violations of international law and of Palestinian human rights.
This is done by attaching to IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (itself awkward but non controversial) a series of “examples” of supposedly “anti-Semitic” activities or statements whose intent it to call Israel to account. One of the examples used by IHRA: is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis“. According to this, referring to Gaza as an “open air concentration camp”, would be automatically be identified as an “anti-Semitic” statement.
CIJA co-chair Jeffrey Rosenthal loudly proclaims that the IHRA definition “explicitly recognizes that anti-Zionism – the legitimization and demonization of the Jewish state – is a clear and unequivocal expression of anti-Semitism”.
But this is not quite correct.
The basic IHRA definition (quoted above), which the Federal government adopted, does no such thing. Only the examples do that.
And in response to a CTIP query directed to the Minister’s office, a spokesperson confirmed that “There are no other attachments or annexes to the strategy that expand on the definition of anti-Semitism beyond what is in the public document.”
In other words, the anti-racism strategy does not include those examples which IHRA uses to protect Israel from criticism.
However, in separate correspondence between the Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV Canada) and the Ministry of Justice, the ministry confirmed that, “yes, the government considers the examples to be part of the definition.”
So two different ministries, two different answers.
The Israel lobby has invested huge energy lobbying the federal government to criminalize or demonize criticism of Israel in general and BDS in specific. It continues to do so.
CIJA’s president Shimon Fogel has been described as one of the most influential powerbrokers in Ottawa. And his influence is backed by muscle. The annual report of the Commissioner of Lobbying regularly shows that CIJA deploys considerable resources to influence Canadian policy toward Israel.
But so far the Liberal government has waffled. It did support a motion in Parliament in 2015 “condemning” BDS, for example, but that motion was toothless – it did not criminalize BDS and had no legal consequences. The lobby hoped that it would nonetheless have a “chilling effect” intimidating activists or organizations asked to host meetings which are supportive of human rights for Palestinians, and that has been partially successful.
CIJA is currently encouraging its members to “thank” the Trudeau government for defending Zionism by including the IHRA definition in the new anti-racism strategy, even though the anti-racism strategy does not do that.
On the other hand, IJV Canada has called on the government to reconsider. IJV is also organizing a Webinar to discuss the significance of the government strategy and to consider ways of responding to attempts to redefine anti-Semitism. The discussion will be led by Antony Lerman who was the founding Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and an expert on anti-Semitism and now to fight it.
More information about the IJV Webinar can be found here.
Activists intent on promoting human rights for Palestinians should not underestimate the considerable influence of the Israel lobby. But neither should they overestimate its power. There are two sides to this (admittedly unequal) struggle. But the lobby doesn’t always get what it wants.
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