There’s a debate over Canada’s new definition of anti-Semitism, and it might sound strangely familiar

Needed raising of some parallels:

You could be forgiven for having missed the fact that Canada has adopted a formal definition of anti-Semitism. It was included as part of the government’s new anti-racism strategy, announced by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez earlier this week, in a list of terminology toward the end.

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” it reads. “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This is a relatively recent definition, adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental body with 31 member countries, including Canada. It’s since been adopted by a handful of countries, including the U.K. and Germany.

But controversy has bubbled up around the IHRA definition, fuelled by those who believe it’s over-broad and could chill legitimate criticism of the Israeli state. Though Canada isn’t passing any new laws to curtail debate about Israel, some believe the IHRA definition is a threat to free speech.

If this sounds strangely familiar, that’s because the debate bears a certain resemblance to the controversy that raged for months over M-103, the Liberals’ anti-Islamophobia motion that Conservatives claimed would threaten people’s right to criticize Islam. The arguments in both cases are oddly similar — they’re just coming from very different quarters.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is brief, but includes a list of 11 contemporary examples, such as “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy,” and the claim that Jews invented or exaggerated the Holocaust. It also lists as anti-Semitic “applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Aidan Fishman, former national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s league for human rights, said his organization pushed for Canada to adopt the IHRA definition because of a “really alarming rise” in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years.

“It’s a very comprehensive definition, which really encapsulates anti-Semitism in its modern form,” he said. Canada’s decision comes in the midst of an international effort by Jewish organizations to urge governments and political parties to formally adopt the IHRA definition.

Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP from Montreal and chair of the House of Commons justice committee, said defining anti-Semitism is key to fighting it. “Most people just need to be educated and understand where something crosses the line,” he said.

Still, the IHRA definition has not been universally embraced. Last week, just days before the anti-racism strategy was released, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) released a statement saying the definition is “extremely vague,” “open to misinterpretation” and could undermine Charter rights to free speech. “We fear that if adopted, the IHRA definition will serve to severely chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights,” the association said.

In a statement to the National Post on Thursday, the NDP said the party supports the anti-racism strategy, but likewise raised concerns about the IHRA definition, saying it “could be a threat for people who legitimately denounce grave human rights abuses by the government of Israel against Palestinians.”

Independent Jewish Voices, an organization that supports the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, is urging Ottawa to reconsider. “The full definition’s examples conflate fundamental criticisms of Israel and/or Zionism with anti-Semitism — a position IJV strongly rejects,” the organization said in a statement, adding its adoption “would pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and academic freedom in Canada.”

Fishman and Housefather both denied this, pointing out that the definition states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” But Fishman said support for the BDS movement does constitute anti-Semitism under the IHRA definition to the extent that supporters also, for example, call for the lifting of sanctions against Iran — a double standard, he argued.

“There are many parts of BDS which are indeed a new form of anti-Semitism when you single out Israel,” Housefather said.

Canada’s anti-racism strategy does not propose any new penalties for anti-Semitism, nor does it propose new legislation — it provides only a definition. But Meghan McDermott, staff counsel for the BCCLA, said she worries it could eventually be incorporated into the Criminal Code. “It’s kind of what we would call soft law for now,” she said. “We just worry about that whole floodgates argument.”

That “floodgates argument” is strikingly similar to the concerns raised by Conservatives and other critics of M-103, the 2017 motion that called on the government to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of racism and religious discrimination. Though M-103 was not a government bill and proposed no changes to legislation, critics claimed that because Islamophobia was not precisely defined, the motion could restrict legitimate criticism of Islam.

B’nai Brith was among those critics. At a 2017 meeting of a parliamentary Heritage committee conducting a study of systemic racism as required by M-103, Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith, called Islamophobia a “confusing” term with competing definitions. “We must ensure that no one can hide behind the idea that any criticism of Islam represents Islamophobia, or a vague definition to this effect,” he said.

Ultimately, the Heritage committee recommended Canada update its national action plan against racism, a commitment that’s now been fulfilled with the release of the new anti-racism strategy, which defines both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Its definition of Islamophobia “includes racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general.”

The Conservatives did not respond to a request for comment about the new strategy and its definitions.

McDermott insisted the two debates — about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — are not analogous, as the controversy over the IHRA definition centres around criticism of a foreign nation. The debate over M-103, she said, wasn’t “grounded in reality.”

“It seemed to me that it was… people who were Islamophobic who were making those arguments,” she said.

For his part, Fishman said criticism of the IHRA definition is ill-founded. “And I think some of it is actually motivated by a desire on the part of certain groups… to keep pushing anti-Semitism,” he said.

Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said she’s concerned about any definition of racism that’s too broad, because of the importance of freedom of expression. Still, she pointed out, nothing in Canadian law has actually changed.

“There’s nothing in that strategy at the moment that seems to restrict rights in any way,” she said. “It’s more about empowering people to respond.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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