Trudeau names Cotler as Canada’s envoy on anti-Semitism – but how broadly does Cotler stretch the term “anti-Semitism”?

The federal government has named former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler to lead the government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). For several years Cotler has been promoting the IHRA’s definition of “anti-Semitism” which many find problematic. Over a year ago, CTIP wrote to Mr. Cotler asking for some clarification of his interpretation of that definition. He has still not answered. Read more.

Former Liberal Cabinet minister Irwin Cotler has a good reputation for defending for human rights, including actively fighting anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism does exist in Canada, of course, and CTIP supports and joins with all those who oppose it as well as various other kinds of racism.

On November 25th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Cotler as Canada’s special envoy and representative to a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Cotler has been actively involved with the IHRA for some time, most recently trying to get a “new” definition of anti-Semitism called the IHRA definition, adopted by various legislative bodies in Canada (federal, provincial, municipal).

“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 working definition

This “new” IHRA definition is not very different from existing definitions of anti-Semitism easily available in any dictionary, but it adds on a series of “examples” whose main objective appears to be to protect the State of Israel by labelling various criticisms of it “anti-Semitic”.

Two of the activities that the IHRA alleges to be “anti Semitic” behaviour are:

  • “Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

Last year, when Mr. Cotler was already actively promoting the IHRA definition, CTIP wrote him an open letter asking him for clarification on whether ten specific statements about Israel, all of which CTIP believe to be accurate, would in his view constitute anti-Semitism.

Here is an excerpt from our letter to Mr. Cotler:

“We would like to ask you for clarification”, we wrote Mr. Cotler, “Which, if any, of the following ten statements, would you hold to be examples of “anti-Semitic acts or behaviours?”

  1. In Israel today 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 including through boycott , divestment and sanctions, to force Israel to comply with international law.”
  7. “Canada should continue to support 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.”
The letter was sent to Mr. Cotler at his office at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. CTIP invited Mr. Cotler to send an answer which we offered to publish, without modification, in a future newsletter. Mr. Cotler did not respond to, or even acknowledge receipt of, our letter. (A complete copy of our July 2019 open letter to Mr Irwin Cotler can be found here.) Download

What does Prime Minister Trudeau think?

In fact, CTIP did not and does not expect an answer from Mr. Cotler. While all of the statements are VERY critical of the actions or policies of the State of Israel, none of them reflects either “hatred” or any other form of prejudice toward Jews. They could only be viewed as anti-Semitic by those who feel that every harsh criticism of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

CTIP joins other organizations, including Independent Jewish Voices Canada in expressing concerns both over the Cotler appointment as well as the IHRA definition itself.

“In appointing Irwin Cotler to this position, the Canadian government further aligns itself with the highly controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, which is being weaponized to portray supporters of Palestinian human rights as antisemitic, and to shield Israel from legitimate criticism,” commented Corey Balsam, National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Since Prime Minister Trudeau has named Cotler as Canada’s representative, perhaps we might ask Mr. Trudeau whether he too, feels that Israel should be protected from criticisms of its actions and policies towards the Palestinians.


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 with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to


  1. Many thanks, Peter, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family.I am forwarding your Cotler piece to my contacts. Best regards,Azhar ali khan

  2. As Mr. Cotler seems determined to use the IHRA definition of antisemitism, he is in good company. It appears that many antisemites are upset with the definition as they cannot use antisemitic trope, such as agencies like JVP, INN, IJV, inappropriate attempt to portray Jews using tactics used by Nazis, as if brushing your teeth the way Nazis did means you agree with their ideology.

    For Larson’s clarification, it is likely all 10 of his examples are antisemitic in trope and intent. Bishop Tutu’s is especially egregious. The last time I personally heard him speak, he was whining about the Dalhi Lama having a higher status than he. Of course, that was back in 2008. As for Tutu being an antisemite, he pulled out the old antisemitic canard that he cannot be an antisemite as his best friends are Arabs.

    1. Hey Mr. Sigman, I am not a general character reference for Bishop Tutu, though he is generally held in high regard. I have heard Arabs say “I can’t be anti semitic because I am Arab myself”. Personally, I think this is a foolish statement and ineffective. In the English language today “anti semite” means anti Jewish. To pretend it refers to some racial characteristic is to avoid the issue.

      1. It has never referred to a racial characteristic. My most accessible dictionary says that “semitic” means “relating to or denoting a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic and certain ancient languages such as Phoenician and Akkadian, constituting the main subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic family.”

        However, words change in meaning over time and, in common usage among English speakers today, it relates to Jews.

    2. And you pull out the old canard that anyone criticizing Israel and its willful abuse of Palestine and Palestinians is “anti-Semitic”..technically Israelis that support this abuse are the ACTUAL anti-semites….just sayin!

      1. Hey Andrew, Thanks for commenting.
        Jews who criticize Israel strongly are frequently charged with being “anti-Semitic” if not actually “self-hating Jews.”
        Liberal Zionists will often accept certain criticisms of Israel but won’t accept the idea that Israel is fundamentally based on racism.

    3. Restricting antisemitism to Jews is an old canard. The Arabs are also Semites. On the other hand, is a Polish Jew a Semite? If Mr. Trudeau includes Islamophobia directed against Arabs in Mr. Cotler’s assignment then it might be even-handed.

      1. Hey Amin, thanks for sharing your opinion. With respect, I don’t agree that “restricting antisemitism to Jews” is an old canard. Of course Arabs are semites. But in modern English, “Anti-Semitism” is defined as some kind of hatred or antipathy toward Jews. Just check any dictionary.
        Logically, semite and anti semite should be mirror opposites, but they aren’t.

    4. Recently this was in Haaretz newspaper. Written by one of the courageous activist group in Israel. (just small part of it).

      For the Jewish state, the Holocaust is a tool to be manipulated
      If Zionism previously justified its crimes against the Palestinians in the name of the Holocaust, today it uses it as a tool to justify antisemitism itself.
      ByOrly NoyNovember 20, 2020

      If Zionism previously justified its crimes against the Palestinian people in the name of the Holocaust, today it uses the Holocaust as a tool to justify antisemitism itself in exchange for political profit. More than that: it allows an antisemite to define what antisemitism is. This is the bitter truth we face today — for the official State of Israel, the concept of the Holocaust and antisemitism are purely political means, and as such can be manipulated, distorted, and deceived, just like any other political tool.


      First I thought to write a long comment, in reply to Mr. Sigman’s comment, but than I decided against it. It’s totally waste of time. There’s no discussion with Mr. Sigman. Perhaps according to him 98% of the world population is Antisemitic.Need I say more.

      Thank you Peter for so well you present the facts

      1. Hey Jake,
        thanks for writing. I agree that you (or I) are unlikely to change Mr. Sigman’s point of view. He seems pretty determined.

        But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth while to reply to him, as OTHERS read the comments too. They will decide if YOU or SIGMAN have the more convincing arguments.

        If you are careful and logical, I think lots of people will find you reasonable and your points compelling.

  3. Would strongly recommend that Mr. Cotler should never mention Israel Palestine at all but only actions bigotry discrimination against Jews, Judaism Jewishness in his pontificating and analysis of antisemitism in his new role as antisemitism envoy.

  4. If Mr. Cotler and the IHRA focussed their energy on making sure that the Holocaust was remembered, there would be no problem; the Holocaust must never be forgotten. The problem comes because the IHRA and Mr. Cotler seem to be using their positions to make sure that the Nakba is forgotten. The Nakba, too, must never be forgotten – especially because it has not ended.

Comments are closed.