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Nix IHRA antisemitism definition mandate for heritage grants, civil society groups tell feds
Signatories to the open letter include Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, CUPW and the United Church of Canada.
A coalition of more than 30 civil society groups has penned a letter asking the federal government not to force heritage grant recipients to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) antisemitism definition, which equates certain criticisms of Israel with anti-Jewish prejudice.
The Jan. 23 letter, which is addressed to Minister of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion Ahmed Hussen and Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez, says the IHRA definition “risks casting a chill within Canadian civil society that will negatively impact the anti-racism work of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, racialized, feminist, 2SLGBTQ+, labour, human rights, academic, arts and civil liberties organizations.”
Signatories include Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), who initiated the letter, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Canadian Arab Lawyers Association, the Canadian Arab Institute, Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Federation of Students, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the United Church of Canada, the Quakers’ Canadian Friends Service Committee, and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.
On Oct. 7, Minister Hussen told the Canadian Heritage parliamentary committee that Canadian Heritage will adopt “enhanced online and social media vetting training and enhanced diversity and inclusion training for all program officers, including anti-Semitism and anti-racism awareness training, all of which will be informed by the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism [emphasis mine].”
This was a response to the Laith Marouf fiasco, in which the Canadian government gave a $133,822 Anti-Racism Action Grant to an organization run by Marouf, a Beirut-based activist with a history of highly inflammatory tweets targeting “Jewish White Supremacists,” who he said deserve “a bullet to the head.” The Canadian government revoked this grant in response to uproar over his tweets.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) — Canada’s pre-eminent pro-Israel lobbying group — has called on the feds to make future grant recipients sign an attestation that they will abide by “Canada’s anti-racism strategy, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and DEI training, among other criteria, that would allow for immediate action should the receiving organization be found to have promoted hate [emphasis mine].”
CIJA has bolstered IHRA in part because it “explicitly recognizes that anti-Zionism – the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state – is a clear and unequivocal expression of anti-Semitism.” Other supporters, like former U.S. envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Ira Forman, say the definition does nothing of this sort, suggesting it may not be the most precise formulation.
Kenneth Stern, the definition’s main writer, said IHRA was never intended to be adopted by governments, but has become “weaponized” by right-wing pro-Israel groups to “hunt political speech with which they disagree.”
The federal Liberal government adopted the IHRA definition as part of its anti-racism strategy in 2019.
York Centre Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks said at the Oct. 7 committee meeting that IHRA is “an anchor in terms of how the government approaches its understanding of anti-Semitism,” calling the Marouf scandal a “litmus test” for how committed the government is to the definition.
In addition to the feds, IHRA has been adopted by provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, as well as the City of Vancouver in a move notably opposed by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
The scandal surrounding Marouf’s unhinged social media presence, the letter’s signatories say, doesn’t warrant forcing grant recipients to pledge fealty to a sweeping antisemitism definition, which would categorize some forms of anti-racism work as antisemitism.
Although the definition says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” it also cites “saying the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” as an example of antisemitism.
The letter notes this example creates a blatant double standard. “While an organization that receives Heritage funding can presumably suggest that Canada is a ‘racist endeavor’ (eg. a settler-colonial project), suggesting the same about Israel would be off-limits … undermining the very anti-racism work the government seeks to support,” the letter says.
A report from IJV, which I covered for The Breach, outlines the myriad ways accusations of antisemitism from pro-Israel groups have had a chilling effect on criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, particularly in academia.
“The emotional impact is I feel that I am like a bacteria,” one Palestinian scholar told the report’s authors. “I don’t really know how else to describe it. I feel like I am this dirty existence, like I’m a dirty word, I have a dirty identity. And if I talk about it, it ruins everything. Like it ruins the department, and it ruins their PR, and it ruins the university.”
Sarah Boivin, an IJV spokesperson, said using the IHRA definition is an “easy way out for the government to say they’re doing something about antisemitism” while inhibiting “honest, open, and critical discussion about racism and apartheid in Israel.”
“The government’s efforts can’t be anti-racist while using a definition that gaslights an entire nation of people whose rights and very existence are denied by Israel,” Boivin said.
CAUT executive director David Robinson said that while the association “vigorously opposes antisemitism and all forms of discrimination and hate,” it also recognizes the “need to safeguard the academic freedom rights of scholars to develop critical perspectives on all states, including the state of Israel, without fear of outside political influence, funding cuts, censorship, harassment, threats or intimidation.”
Canadian Arab Lawyers Association president Dania Majid said baseless accusations of antisemitism have “impacted diverse voices in support of Palestinian human rights in the arts, academia and community-based organizations - and many of them rely on government grants to carry out their research and projects.”
“Heritage Canada grants should not also be weaponized to censor Palestine,” Majid added.
A statement from the Canadian Arab Institute called the potential adoption of IHRA for granting purposes a “watershed moment for the Canadian government.”
“If Heritage Canada decides to apply the IHRA working definition and examples to vet recipients for funding, then this could set a dangerous precedent of muzzling the very work that organizations who receive Heritage Canada funding are committed to,” it said.
While pro-Israel groups claim the IHRA definition is almost “universally supported,” this letter from a wide range of civil society actors suggests otherwise.
I’ve reached out to Heritage Canada to inquire whether they’ve adopted IHRA as a condition for grant recipients, whether they’ve received the letter asking them not to, and what their response to its criticisms of IHRA are. I’ll update this piece if they reply.
Read the full letter and an accompanying news release here.
The A/V Corner
Listen: Scott and I hosted Edmonton-Strathcona MP and NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson on the Forgotten Corner for a wide-ranging discussion, including her 2019 nomination race, the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.