“Anti-Semitism” accusation increasingly used to shield Israel from criticism, but backlash develops in Canada and around the world

The Trump administration is considering branding Amnesty International as ‘anti-Semitic’ because of its repeated criticism of human rights abuses by Israel. One of the legal tools Trump uses is the so-called “IHRA” definition of anti-Semitism. But resistance to the IHRA definition is growing in the USA, in Canada and around the world. Read more…

In October, NBC News reported that The Trump administration is weighing a proposal to brand prominent human rights organizations as “anti-Semitic”. Backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the proposed declaration would take aim at Human Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalOxfam and possibly other rights groups that have criticized the Israeli government over its policies toward Palestinians. Pompeo followed that up by announcing that the U.S. would also brand the boycott movement against Israel (BDS) as “anti-Semitic” and bar any groups that participate in it from receiving government funding.

While these threats may be merely political theatrics by the outgoing Trump/Pompeo administration, they do reflect a dramatic “weaponization” of the term “anti-Semitism” by the pro Israel lobby in Canada and the USA in an attempt to “chill” any criticism of Israel.

One of the legal tools that is being used is a document called the “IHRA definition of anti-Semitism” which goes far beyond traditional definitions of anti-Semitism, – hostility toward or discrimination against Jews – to include many examples of statements critical of the State of Israel.

But as the term anti-Semitism is increasingly used against a broader and broader range of Israel’s critics, so too, does the pushback. Established human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights watch are sputtering with anger at this attempt to smear them. “It’s shocking, confusing, offensive, troubling. I am almost speechless,” Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said of the Trump/Pompeo proposal.

Widespread rejection in North America of IHRA definition.. including from some surprising places

Opposition to the overuse of the anti-Semitism label has come from some surprising places.

Over 30 Jewish groups – including non-Zionist, anti-Zionist and liberal Zionist groups from around the world have also signed a statement calling on legislative bodies to reject the definition.

We urge our governments, municipalities, universities and other institutions to reject the IHRA definition and instead take effective measures to defeat white supremacist nationalist hate and violence and to end complicity in Israel’s human rights violations. Israel does not represent us and cannot speak for us when committing crimes against Palestinians and denying their UN-stipulated rights.

Statement by over 30 Jewish groups worldwide

In fact, the list of those opposing the IHRA definition is growing, according to Corey Balsam, National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada in a blog post which appeared in The Times of Israel.

“Proponents of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance like to boast about how much support it has,” noted Balsam. “Pro-IHRA lobbying efforts around the world have had remarkable success: nearly 30 countries including the US, Israel and Canada have adopted or recognized it, as have many local governments and universities (especially in the UK, where the government is now threatening universities with funding cuts if they refuse to adopt it)”. 

But,” notes Balsam, “The IHRA definition also has a great many detractors.”

Among those detractors are some rather centrist Jewish organizations, not just radical ones. The Washington-based liberal Zionist organization J Street lobby group said in a statement that “Trump’s executive order is a cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses, not fight anti-Semitism. (…) it appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel,” J Street wrote.

Americans for Peace Now, a nonprofit whose stated aim is to help find a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has refused a request from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

And backlash in Europe, too

The “anti-Semitism” label has also been widely used in Europe, and especially in Germany, which for historical reasons is understandably concerned about being (or even being labelled as) anti-Semitic. “In Germany, a Witch Hunt Is Raging Against Critics of Israel. Cultural Leaders Have Had Enough,” headlined the the Israeli daily “Haaretz’. Nazareth based blogger Jonathan Cook explains that a “reign of political and cultural terror” has unfurled over the last several years in Germany, as unfair and unfounded anti-Semitism accusations undermine the careers of some important political and cultural figures. But, he says, a backlash is also building there, too.

Divided public reaction in Canada

Public reaction in Canada has been divided, as reflected in a debate which unfolded recently in the Toronto Star. In Canada, Zionist groups like CIJA and B’nai Brith have been actively promoting the IHRA definition.

Some liberal Zionist groups in Canada have chosen to look the other way. CTIP contacted Canadian Friends of Peace Now for a statement. “This is not an issue we want to be active on”, said Gabriella Goliger, CFPN’s Ottawa Chapter chairperson.

IJV Canada has identified 11 examples of Israeli racism starting from the original notion of the founder of Modern Zionism right up to its current discriminatory laws and practices.

But Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) and CJPME are two of the groups which have been resisting the IHRA definition since it was first put forward several years ago and continue to do so.

In recent days, IJV has been waging its own very “in your face” campaign against the IHRA called #no to IHRA in particular focusing on the IHRA claim that calling Israel a “racist endeavour” state is anti-Semitic.

IJV points to 11 examples of Israeli racism – not just in daily social practice, but rooted in Israeli law and in the statements from some Zionist leaders. Each of these examples, claims IJV Canada, demonstrates a different aspect of the racism which underlies and pervades Israeli society.

Example #1 starts with a reference to a letter from from Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism to Cecil Rhodes, one of Britain’s best known colonialists. Hertzl’s vision of a “Jewish State” was clearly based on a notion of Jewish racial superiority over the barbaric Arabs.

Canada’s official response?

Canadian authorities have no excuse for not understanding the discriminatory policies, based on race/religion which are embedded in Israeli practice and law. They are openly displayed for anyone interested in investigating human rights. We have diplomats on the ground both in Tel Aviv and in Ramallah. Yet our government has ENDORSED the IHRA definition. Prime Minister Trudeau even named Hon. Irwin Cotler, a longstanding promoter of IHRA as Canada’s official representative to the IHRA. It seems that Canada, which claims to support human rights around the world, finds it convenient to look the other way while attempts are being made through the IHRA definition to shield Israel by labelling its critics as “anti-Semitic”.


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 Canada’s response to 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 http://www.ottawaforumip.org.


  1. IJV is a borderline antisemitic organization. It does not matter what the members were born. “So-called” IHRA definition? Really?

    Canadian authorities understand that there are no unduly discriminatory policies embedded in Israeli practice and law.

    1. Mr. Sigman, would you please explain why you think that IJV is “borderline antisemitic”? I think your comment is a good example of how the term “anti semitic” is being used flagrantly and without merit.

    2. Mr. Sigman, By what authority do you declare IJV, an organization whose voting members are all Jews< to be antisemitic or even borderline antisemitic? Are you more Jewish than they are?

      1. IJV supports BDS. BDS is inherently antisemitic. Being born a Jew does not mean you cannot be antisemitic. Gilad Atzmon is the supreme example Many Black organizations consider Justice Thomas and Bill Cosby to be anti-Black.

      2. Mr. Sigman, I think you are going around in circles. Why is BDS “inherently anti-Semitic”? I repeat to you, you do not need to be afraid. Neither I, nor anybody else who supports the objectives of the Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine is anti-SEmitic. BDS is a movement that opposes Israel, not Jews.

      3. Mr. Sigman, I was hoping that you would answer my question but you did not. Instead of explaining what gives you the authority to declare other Jews to be antisemitic, you just did it again. You clearly feel entitled to disparage fellow Jews and to cast aspersions on Jewish organizations. Did someone or something give you that authority?

      4. Mr. Larson,

        BDS does not oppose the Arab citizens of Israel. It opposes the Jewish citizens of Israel. It demands that Israel allow millions of Arabs to live in Israel, changing the demographics so that Israel becomes an Arab state. And as millions of those Arabs voted for Hamas, which is a genocidal organization devoted to killing Jews… Hopefully you see the point,

      5. Mr. Sigman,
        BDS demands that millions of Arabs (Palestinians, actually) RETURN to Palestine (now called Israel). Yes, that would change the demographics… back to what they were before 1947/48. And when that happens Hamas will no longer have any reason to send rockets. Hopefully you see the point.

      6. Mr. Sigman,

        If Israel does not wish to become an Arab state, it need only add something like the following to its constitution making sure that it cannot easily be removed.

        “Israel/Palestine shall not deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws. The right of citizens of Israel/Palestine shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or faith.”

        You may recognize some of the phrases. I have adapted them from the Amendments to the US Constitution. I note that many Jews, in fact people of all ethnicities, races, and faith, feel quite secure living in a country that gives them the protection of those amendments.

  2. i understand trump as he is insane but canada.. ,trudeau’s call makes me sick..very sad and i voted for him..makes me even sadder..

  3. Hey Mr. Sigman, is there one person on this planet that made an unfavorable comment about Israel that is not Antisemite. Don’t you realise that Jews like you are the real problem. That with your ideas, there will never be any kind of justice and peace. Could it be that you are the actual Antisemite.

  4. Mr. Sigman, is there one person on this planet who made an unfavorable comment about Israel, who is not Antisemite?

    1. Jake,

      Many antisemites make such ridiculous statements as you have. Criticizing the Israeli government over not fully funding Israeli Arab schools, is not antisemitic. Criticizing Israel’s law that allows Jews to immigrate and apply for almost automatic citizenship, especially as the world turned its collective back on the Jews during the Holocaust, is antisemitic.

      Comparing Israel’s policies to Nazi Germany is antisemitic.

      1. Mr. Sigman,
        Two things can be compared without being the same.
        Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are not the same as those of the Nazis toward the Jews.
        The Nakba is not the same as the Holocaust.
        But they both have an objective of “ethnic cleansing” – i.e. cleansing the land of unwanted people.

        The Nazis carried out ethnic cleansing by killing millions of Jews. The Zionists only killed a few thousand – they did their ethnic cleansing by driving Palestinians out.

      2. Peter,

        It should be noted that the Nazis did not originally set out to achieve their ethnic cleansing by killing Jews. They wanted to see them go elsewhere. It was only at the Wannsee Conference that they concluded that Jews were not welcome elsewhere and decided on their “final solution” – extermination. The building where that conference took place is now a museum where the documents detailing that decision can be read.

        Their original concept was not that different from the position of some Zionists – those who keep telling me that there are many Arab countries where Palestinians should go. Those people are often critical of neighbouring countries for not accepting their “Arab Brothers”. I read analogous statements made by Nazis before the Wannsee meeting.

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