Ten questions to Irwin Cotler about the IHRA definition of “anti-Semitism”: an open letter

cotler at wall.jpg

Irwin Cotler at the Western Wall in Israeli occupied East Jerusalem. Cotler is the Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Canadian Minister of Justice under Paul Martin. For several years he has been actively promoting a “new” definition of anti-Semitism which includes broad protection of Israel from criticism. Some aspects of the definition appear problematic. CTIP asks Mr. Cotler to clarify his views. Read more.

This open letter was sent to Mr. Irwin Cotler on July 23, 2019

Mr. Irwin Cotler

Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights


Dear Mr. Cotler,

I am editor of the weekly blog Canada Talks Israel Palestine, whose mission is to help Canadians better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through objective analysis and raising awareness for a just and reconciliatory solution.

Let me start by recognizing that you have for many years been very active in several important struggles in Canada for human rights and in particular the struggle against anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a scourge that should be defeated and I support that struggle wholeheartedly.

However, I do have some concerns about your recent efforts, along with CIJA, B’nai Brith and other groups to lobby the Canadian government  and various municipal governments including Vancouver to adopt a “new” definition of anti-Semitism, promoted by the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” and referred to as the IHRA definition. 

The basic IHRA definition, as you know, is not very different from existing definitions to be found in any dictionary. But it also refers to a number of “examples” of what it describes as anti-Semitism, some which refer specifically to the State of Israel.

I would like clarification regarding two of the “examples” which, according to the IHRA document would constitute “anti-Semitism.

I cite from the IHRA “working definition” document:

“To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations (ed. note: i.e. of anti-Semitism):

  • “Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

Clarification requested

With these IHRA proposed “examples of anti-Semitic acts or behaviours” in mind, I would like to ask you for clarification on which, if any, of the following ten statements you would classify as “anti-Semitic”. I believe them all to be true:

ihra bds

The IHRA definition would characterizes the BDS movement as “anti-Semitic”. BDS proponents say that is deliberate falsification.

  1. “In Israel as in Nazi Germany, (and unlike Canada), “Jewishness” is determined not by individual choice but is a civil status determined by the state. It forms the legal basis for discriminating among different categories of citizens.”
  2. “Gaza, where Palestinian refugees from all over southern Israel have been concentrated since 1948, and which has been described by a former British Prime Minister as an “outdoor prison”, has a striking similarity to the Warsaw ghetto where Nazis concentrated Jews.”
  3. “The contemporary Israeli policy of forcing Bedouin citizens of Israel off their lands and concentrating them into small areas is very similar to Canada’s own historic racist policy toward its indigenous peoples.”
  4. “According to Bishop Desmond Tutu Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is “worse” than Apartheid.”
  5. “Leading Israeli politicians advocate for ethnic cleansing to achieve a pure society, as did the Nazis.”
  6. “The international community should bring peaceful, legal pressure on Israel through boycott or other sanctions, to force Israel to comply with international law.”
  7. “Supporting UN Resolution 194 (which Canada voted for in 1949) calling for the Palestinian right of return.”
  8. “Israel’s policy of systematically destroying Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, while building new homes for Jews is, in fact, a form of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the Nazi objective of a “judenrein” Germany (i.e. free of Jews)”.
  9. “With the passing of the “Nation State law” Israel has become an officially discriminatory state based on religion, just as Nazi Germany was.”
  10. “During the 1948 Nakba, Zionist militias confiscated millions of dollars of private property from Palestinians, just as the Nazis stole art, silver, paintings from Jews.”

Mr. Cotler do you agree that these statements, all of which appear to be extremely critical of Israel and current Israeli policy, are factually correct, ? If they are true statements, is it anti-Semitic to repeat them? If not true, I would be happy to have my misunderstandings corrected.

If you would like to send me an answer, I would be happy to publish it for the edification of our readers. 

Yours truly

my small sig

Peter Larson, Ph.D.

Chair, Canada Talks Israel Palestine




  1. Shamefully Canada continues to be complicit in Israel’s war crimes and ethnic cleansing involving the systematic genocide of Palestinians and complete takeover of their lands. The charge of antisemitism is used over and over again for any who criticize Israel’s war crimes. This means that criticism of murder and deliberate maiming of unarmed protesters, the destruction and takeover Palestinian lands, the the torture and imprisonment of men, women and children is considered antisemitic. The logical conclusion of this stance is that murder and torture are Jewish values which is obviously absurd. To equate Jewishness with human rights violations is the obvious conclusion of this argument.. something that is a discredit to Jews and gentiles.

  2. Congratulations very well written. But this type of letter should go to Trudeau and freeland. When Trudeau was campaigning before last election he kept stressing his belief against human rights violations and a few weeks later Canada and US were only countries at UN voting against UN resolution criticizing Israel for human rights violations Sent from my iPad


    1. Thanks for your response. I wrote a much more extensive letter to Freeland and Trudeau and also presented the same argument to our local liberal MP. I was of course assured that my concerns would be addressed and received a polite response.

  3. great letter Peter , but even if some of the statements are not accurate (and I think they are accurate), it doesn’t make them antisemitic , Critics of Israel can be wrong and not antisemitic. it depends on the context, who is making them etc.

  4. Looking forward to his reply.

    I have trouble with statements like #9: “With the passing of the “Nation State law” Israel has become an officially discriminatory state based on religion, just as Nazi Germany was.” (I don’t support the IHRA examples or making such statements illegal.)

    But I assume that there are many countries that are “officially discriminatory state based on religion.” So choosing just one for comparison can be iffy — like “Benjamin Netanyahu has eggs for breakfast, just like Hitler did.” It might be better to write: “With the passing of the “Nation State law” Israel has become an officially discriminatory state based on religion, just like Saudi Arabia, Nazi Germany, Spain under Franco, Poland, the Vatican, etc.” (Of course, I would check my facts. Does Poland favour Catholics?)

    1. My objection to #9 is that Israel was already an officially discriminatory state based on religion before it passed the Nation State law. That law just made a bad situation worse.

      Many states associate themselves with a religion to suggest that their state is guided by the principles of that religion. At the same time, they deny discriminating against others and protecting minority rights. For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran does reserve parliamentary seats for Jews. (Unfortunately, few states live up to their avowed principles. I am unable to name one. )

  5. Peter: I suggest submitting this letter as an op ed in the Globe and Mail or some other high-profile media venue. Perhaps they could invite Coter to respond publicly in a parallel article.

  6. An impressive letter and I look forward to Mr Cotter’s response. M. Navarro

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. Well said Peter . I trust Mr. Cotler will reply but doubt it will be a 10 out of 10.

  8. Hi Peter, I wonder whether Irwin Cotler will respond to your questions on anti-semitism. You refer to “Bishop” Desmond Tutu. His proper title is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a higher level of responsibility in the Anglican Church. Hope you are having a good summer!Kathleen 

  9. I hope that I am wrong but I do not expect a response from Mr. Cotler. In my experience, the response of pro-Zionists to such logical arguments is to brand the author an anti-semite and refuse to debate with anti-semites.

  10. This letter to Cotler is incisive in clarifying the problems with the definition.

    I notice that the acronym IRHA is nowhere defined in this week’s CTIP post. Using the full name International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance just once helps when I forward the post to colleagues.

    1. hey Doug, your point is well taken. The letter was addressed to Mr. Cotler who knows all this of course. I have made a minor (after the fact) edit to make this point clear to other readers.

  11. I too look forward to Mr Cotler’s response. I prefer not being defined as an anti- Semite but until that definition changes I guess I’ll have to wear it.

  12. Hey Jake, I don’t follow. Cotler, Trudeau and Freeland are exercising their freedom of speech. We need to use ours to convince people that what those folks are saying is wrong.

  13. Thank you Peter for this and your ongoing work in this field. I look forward to his response. Tara

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