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We can't fight antisemitism by vilifying Israel critics
Alberta's government is the latest to adopt the profoundly flawed IHRA antisemitism definition
As part of a usual Friday afternoon news dump, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced on Sept. 23 the province would become the latest government to adopt the contentious International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. He did this through an order in council, subverting any debate over a definition with troubling implications for free speech regarding Israel.
There’s no doubt antisemitism is real and must be combatted, and that to be able to identify it we must define it, but this cannot be done by inhibiting difficult, critical discussions about Israeli policy.
The IHRA definition, which has been adopted now by the federal, Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec and Alberta governments, is itself innocuous, albeit vague:
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.
However, its 11 examples of antisemitism, which equate Holocaust denial with “calling the State of Israel a racist endeavour,” pose major problems towards holding Israel to account for its myriad, well-documented, systemic human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.
They’re also riddled with contradictions. Supporters point to IHRA’s disclaimer that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” It also prohibits holding Israel to vague “double standards.” However, according to the definition, it’s OK to call the Canadian state a racist endeavour, but not Israel. This strikes me as a particularly egregious double standard.
The definition correctly observes that holding Jewish people collectively responsible for Israel’s actions is antisemitic, but at the same time conflates opposition to Zionism — the State of Israel’s founding ideology — with hatred against Jews.
Premier Kenney, flanked by his right-wing allies in the organized Jewish establishment, explicitly said he thinks labelling Israel an apartheid state, one which privileges the rights of Jews over those of Palestinians, is antisemitic.
By Kenney’s logic, Israeli human rights organizations B’tselem and Yesh Din, which have deemed Israel an apartheid state, are antisemitic. The same goes for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which wrote detailed reports reaching the same conclusion.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom Kenney called a “uniquely powerful example of moral courage” when he died in December 2021, would also be antisemitic, since he has said Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “in many instances worse” than the South African apartheid he suffered under.
So too would President Jimmy Carter, former Israeli education minister Shulamit Aloni, former Israeli attorney general Michael Benyair and Jon Allen, who was appointed Canada’s ambassador to Israel in 2006 by Kenney’s boss at the time, former prime minister Stephen Harper.
While the definition is itself “non-legally binding,” Jewish Federation of Calgary CEO Adam Silver said his goal in passing this definition is to inform “education, public policy, anti-racism strategies and law enforcement frameworks.”
This is why Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the definition, has cautioned governments and academic institutions against adopting this definition, which conflates anti-Israel sentiment with antisemitism in a way that is prone to abuse by those who want to shut down any debate over Israel’s policies by simply declaring it hate speech.
The day Kenney announced Alberta was adopting this misguided definition, past president of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton Steve Shafir had the chutzpah to take to the pages of the Toronto Sun to accuse Edmonton-Strathcona MP Heather McPherson of putting Jewish Albertans in physical danger due to her strident criticisms of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians.
This is an extraordinarily malicious, partisan attack against McPherson, who simply applies the same human rights framework to Israel as she does every other country she criticizes as the NDP foreign affairs critic.
The Jewish federations, by contrast, were conspicuously silent when their UCP allies gave a financial reward to someone who wrote an essay espousing white replacement talking points.
The IHRA definition, with its vague, contradictory criteria, emboldens organizations representing the most chauvinistic elements of the Jewish community, which have no measures of democratic accountability, to unilaterally declare any criticism of Israel anti-Semitic.
Fortunately, Jews who don’t share the mainstream Jewish establishment’s blind support for anything Israel does are pushing back. The Jewish Faculty Network, for example, was established last year by a coalition of Canadian Jewish academics to highlight IHRA’s threat to academic inquiry and push back against the false notion that Jewish people are made unsafe by rigorous criticism of Israel.
At a press conference announcing its formation, which I covered for the Canadian Jewish News, Israeli historian Amos Goldberg pointed out IHRA has already been used to justify shutting down a 2019 charity race in London, U.K., for traumatized children in Gaza, because organizers referred to Israel as an apartheid state on their website.
Many of the network’s members propose as an alternative the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which establishes a clear distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism while acknowledging the two can occasionally overlap.
Kenney, a historically unpopular, lame duck premier, has given his right-wing allies in the Jewish community a parting gift in the form of this definition. Municipalities, academic institutions and other community organizations concerned with combatting racism must reject it wholeheartedly.
Edited by Scott Schmidt
I pitched this op-ed to two major media outlets, both of which rejected it. If you want me to continue being able to publish things that won’t get published elsewhere, please consider a paid subscription.