Corona has sidelined a cross-Canada debate on how to define and fight anti-Semitism – for now

montreal city council

Up to the beginning of March, a debate had begun in various legislatures in Canada over anti-Semitism and how to fight it. The city councils of Montreal (above), Calgary and Vancouver discussed and declined to adopt a controversial motion which defines anti-Semitism in a way that is aimed to shield Israel from criticism. But those behind the motion have had some successes elsewhere. When the Corona virus crisis abates there is little doubt they will be back to continue their campaign. Why is the motion they are proposing so problematic, and what can be done about it? Read more…

A motion to have Montreal city council adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism was withdrawn last January 28th after intense lobbying by several organizations including Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV). After some debate, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante suggested that the motion be referred to a committee for further study and eventually it was withdrawn.

aaron lakoff

In a short video interview, IJV Communications Director Aaron Lakoff discusses why 3 city councils declined to adopt the controversial IHRA motion

IJV takes some encouragement from the fact that Montreal joined Calgary and Vancouver city councils in balking at adopting the motion, as IJV Communications director Aaron Lakoff tells Canada Talks Israel Palestine in this short video interview.

But the Israel lobby redoubled its efforts and has had some success proposing the same motion in other municipalities and even in one provincial parliament.

On February 3rd, Westmount City Council adopted the IHRA definition. The affluent Montreal suburb of 21,000 became the second municipality in Canada to adopt it, following Toronto-area Vaughan, which did so on Jan. 28.

And on March 2nd, the town council of Hampstead, Quebec, followed suit.

At the provincial level, a private member’s bill in Ontario’s Parliament on the same topic passed second reading on February 27th with little dissent. Ontario MPPs voted 55-0 to send Bill 168 to committee, leading CIJA to claim an “unanimous vote” .  While technically true, those 55 votes represent less than half of the 124 Ontario Members of Parliament. Many Liberals and NDP MPP’s absented themselves, perhaps showing concern about the appropriateness of  the motion. 

Moves are also afoot in several Ontario universities. At the University of Toronto some professors from the school’s dentistry and medicine faculties, have called on UofT President Meric Gertler to meet with them and adopt the IHRA definition which they say would give the school the tools needed to shut down anti-Semitic activities on campus.

Other Canadian jurisdictions and organizations have also been successfully lobbied to adopt the same motion including, the Canadian Federal government (June 2019), the Ryerson university student union, and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

What’s wrong with a motion to oppose anti-Semitism?

Nothing. Opposing anti-Semitism is a good thing.

Anti-Semitism does exist in Canada. While it might not be as prevalent as other forms of racism in Canada (anti-black, or Islamophobia, for example) it is real and pernicious. And the fear of a possible resurgence of anti-Semitism is at the root of the almost universal consensus among Canadian Jews on the need to protect Israel as a Jewish State.

 What’s behind the urge to “redefine” anti-Semitism?

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism itself is not particularly new or innovative.

Those promoting the new definition claim that the purpose is to clarify what “anti-Semitism” means. But in fact, the new definition is not significantly different from existing widely used ones. Merriam Webster for example defines anti-Semitism as : “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”

The real motive behind the push to redefine anti-Semitism is the desire to extend the definition by including 11 specific examples of what it calls “anti-Semitic behaviour” many of which seem specifically framed to protect the State of Israel from criticism.

A case in point is the eighth example which claims that it is anti-Semitic to – “require of Israel a behavior not demanded of any other democratic nation”. This argument is often used to label BDS (the movement to boycott Israel) for its crimes against the Palestinians as “anti-Semitic”. Why? Because the BDS movement, a Palestinian initiative, focuses on Israel. Using the IHRA logic, it would have been possible to claim that the movement to boycott apartheid South Africa was “racist” because it didn’t also oppose human rights abuses in other countries.

Heading them off at the pass – a CTIP suggestion

CTIP believes that it is important to fight anti-Semitism in Canada, not only in words, but in deeds. It is entirely appropriate that municipalities, churches, school boards, unions, universities and other organizations take up this struggle. Passing resolutions to show determination can be helpful.

Now that this debate has been temporarily put on “hold”, those who want to actively take up the fight against anti-Semitism might consider developing and proposing an alternative resolution for organizations to adopt instead of the misleading and deceptive IHRA definition.

A sample text follows:

Proposed resolution on fighting anti-Semitism in Canada

“This organization (e.g. municipal council, school board, labour union, religious institution, provincial parliament)” is concerned about the danger of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Canada and will act strongly and decisively to oppose it.

Anti-Semitism is a dangerous form of racism. It is hostility to, or prejudice against Jews. It has been the cause of horrific atrocities against Jews in Europe and unfortunately has a long and disgraceful history in Canada as well.

“This organization” commits to taking specific measures to oppose anti-Semitism, including:

  1. Reviewing all our documents, statements and texts to ensure that anti-Semitism does not show in them.
  2. Ensuring that anti-Semitism is included as a special topic in all education courses on racism and human rights offered to employees and/or members.
  3. Taking allegations of anti-Semitism very seriously by carrying out a thorough and serious investigation and referring cases to appropriate authorities (Human Rights Commission, Police, etc.) for further action as needed.
  4. Making our opposition to anti-Semitism, as well as any other form of racism, as widely known in the community as we can.
  5. Carrying out periodic reviews to see whether additional steps are warranted.

What next?

When the Corona crisis abates (1 month, 2 months, 4 months??) it can be expected that pro-Israel organizations like CIJA, Bnai Brith, and others will continue to press forward across Canada with their campaign to promote the adoption of the IHRA definition and its protections for the State of Israel.

However, by proposing that legislatures and civil society organizations adopt a succinct and clear resolution on anti-Semitism which includes steps to be taken, the stage will be set for a better discussion on how to effectively fight anti-Semitism in Canada

___________________________________________

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue.

Want to learn more about what we do? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org.

For short commentaries check out our new Instagram account @chair.OFIP

Contact us at: ofip.chair@gmail.com.

12 comments

  1. Peter, the evidence from Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal points to the conclusion that the IHRA definition can be headed off by pointing out that Jews are not the only targets of racism. Hence, rather than privileging them with a special definition of prejudice, the authority should act against ALL forms of racism INCLUDING antisemitism. The majority of councillors in Vancouver, Calgary and, I believe, Montreal tended to favour this approach.

    1. Hey Robert, thanks.
      Yes, that does seem to have worked in those 3 cities. But didn’t elsewhere. IMHO every kind of racism has its own characteristics, and it isn’t helpful to try to put them all in the same basket.
      Nobody thinks that indigenous Canadians are going to control the banking system, and nobody thinks that Jews are drunken homeless delinquents.
      Anti-Semitism has its own characteristics and its own history – one that is deeply traumatic for most Jews. i think we won’t make much headway by brushing it off and saying its just the same as every other kind of racism. That does not bring comfort or reassurance to any Canadian Jew, nor will it reduce their attachment to the idea of the necessity of a Jewish State. On the contrary, it reinforces their attachment to Zionism.

  2. Good initiative to oppose anti semitism while ensuring that this does not constrain discussion debate on Israel Palestine including criticism of Israel.

    The IHRA central definition is totally appropriate but the examples pertaining to Israel leave open the very real danger of very serious constraints on the criticism of Israel and its policies including Zionism itself. Such criticism is not anti semitic. Fact that some of the main critics of Israel are Jews reinforces this point even as Israel lobby reserves a particular opprobrium for such Jewish critics.

    I recently attended in U Manchester the Bogdonav lectures on antisemitism where professor Dora Porat Yad Vasem hpchief historian led lectures on the IHRA definition which left lots of space for the view that it can be used as an instrument of policy to limit legitimate criticism of Israel.

    Whether or not the IHRA definition is adopted by an organization or not, it should be understood that nothing in it should be used to constrain discussion debate and criticism on Israel Palestine.

  3. I said it before and I’ll say it again.
    If Israelis, the Zionists and the non Jews everywhere who support the Israeli crimes want REALLY to fight antisemitism, they should try to be true to themselves and admit that much of antisemitism is hatred toward Israel’s actions during decades, and hatred toward Zionists in other countries who support those crimes unconditionally.
    As George says, there are many thousands of Jews in Israel and a lot more Jews elsewhere who are against Israel. Did we all turned from initially supporters of Israel decades ago to anti Israel, is not proof that it’s not antisemitism.
    If we Jews became that, why not non Jews.

    Every time that any scholar or politician speaks against Israeli crimes, he/she is destroyed by the forces mentioned above, to loose their livelihood and good name. Doesn’t this bring their families, friends and community to turn into fake antisemitism.
    Clearly the new definition is the continuation of that support and silencing critics. It’s not genuine and should be fought as such.

    I have no doubt that if years ago Israel with a push by its supporters elsewhere, did make peace and let the Palestinians live and prosper, instead of wanting to take over the land, a lot of what is today called antisemitism, would’ve not existed.

    1. Actually, the establisment of the state of Israel in 1948 is the single most important factor in purging western society from antisemitism, to a point that antisemitism is now nothing more than a fringe phenomena in the west

      As you surely know, it is true that antisemitism is now floorishing in the Muslim world, and I agree with you that this is a direct result of the existence of the state of Israel.
      This is unfortunate, but it would not be a reason for jews to give up their yearn for sovereignty and self determination
      Especially in light of the fact that over 99% of the jews from Muslim countries already fled these countries soon after the establishment of the state of Israel

  4. Hi Peter. I tend to agree with Mr. Boyce ‘s viewpoint that authorities need to act against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism. This broader approach would, I feel, be much more acceptable to groups, organisations, cities , etc who inevitably will be asked to consider this matter.

  5. This is from a Canadian Jewish News report on Montreal’s rejection of the IHRA definition (https://www.cjnews.com/news/canada/montreal-does-not-adopt-ihra-definition-of-anti-semitism):

    “’I reject that a municipal body has the knowledge and expertise in such a complex issue. It took 31 countries 12 years to develop this definition, and none other is so widespread,’ [Lionel Perez, leader of Ensemble Montréal] told The CJN.”

    “We are deeply disappointed that [Plante] did not support the adoption of the most widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism, a tool endorsed by reputable international bodies and adopted by dozens of democratic countries, including Canada, to enhance the fight against resurgent anti-Semitism,” stated Federation CJA president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz and CIJA Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko.

    That seems to be the main talking point: Who knows better? A “municipal body” or “31 countries [that took] 12 years to develop this definition”? No doubt this argument will be used to lobby against any alternate motion on anti-Semitism. On the face of it, it carries some weight.

    This is a letter I sent to Jessica Bell, Ontario MPP: “Jessica, The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is not being used to fight anti-Semitism; it is being used to fight against Palestinian rights. It doesn’t matter whether it’s legally binding or not. The moment the IHRA definition is adopted in any form, criticism of Israeli policy will be called “anti-Semitic according to definition of anti-Semitism as adopted by the government of Ontario”; and then the argument will shift from discussion of Israeli policy to the charge of anti-Semitism. That is how it is being used: to divert discussion. It’s that simple. Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary have delayed adoption in favour of more investigation. The NDP should encourage the same. Thank you.”

    There’s a sad irony, I think, in that we argue that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is being used to divert discussion from Israel’s violations of international law, etc., while that’s exactly what it’s doing when we turn our attention (from a boycott, for example) to fighting the IHRA definition. I don’t know if there’s a way around that. But maybe it’s worth discussing.

    Arthur

  6. Hi Peter, As I understand it, the UK Labour Party tried an approach similar to the one you suggest, but ended up being stampeded into adopting the IHRA definition AND examples in the end anyway – partly at the insistence of supposedly “progressive” voices who should know better at the Guardian newspaper, BBC, etc. The whole episode was pretty disgraceful.

    1. Hey Peter, your point is well taken.
      I don’t think beating the IHRA gang with a better resolution is necessarily going to win. But it might. I think there is a good chance with labour unions, church groups, human rights groups, etc. And if they do put a good resolution on their books, it will be a lot harder for the IHRA folks to come long and say “hey, you forgot Israel”. That would be too patent.

      I don’t think the strategy of rushing after this or that city council about to endorse the IHRA motion is a good one. By that time, the lobby has already done its homework, and we are fighting a defensive game in which we can be portrayed as opposed to efforts to fight anti-semitism.

      1. Thanks Peter. I agree that is incumbent on these groups to uphold all these specific commitments, but as part of their broader and more universal and comprehensive human rights policies and resolutions, not just on an ad hoc basis.

      2. Hey Peter, thanks again.

        Of course we should oppose all forms of racism and discrimination. The worst forms in Canada appear to be anti-Muslim, anti-black and anti-indigenous. (I think it varies with different areas of Canada).

        Anti-Semitism is not as severe, but it exists and should be strongly resisted. But while it is not as flagrant as the other forms of racism, it is especially important for those who want to change Canada’s policy with respect to Israel/Palestine. As long as Canadian Jews feel threatened, they will be pushed towards Zionism and supporting Israel.

        IMHO, we cant weaken Zionism as long as Jews feel threatened, and that nobody else understands (or cares about) the danger Jews face.

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