The Saturday Debate: Is the IHRA definition the right way to fight anti-Semitism?

Worth noting (I share some of the concerns regarding potential over broad interpretations regarding criticism of Israeli government practices and policies):

In late October, Ontario became the first province to officially recognize the “working definition of antisemitism” adopted four years ago by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA wrote the definition in light of evidence that “the scourge of antisemitism is once again on the rise.” The first step involved creating “clarity about what antisemitism is.”

Here’s the definition: “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.”

That was accompanied by 11 contemporary examples of antisemitism to serve as illustrations.

Canada, and now Ontario, are among many governments and organizations around the world that have adopted this definition as part of strategies to fight antisemitism. At the same time, critics argue that the definition, along with the illustrations, has the effect of stifling legitimate criticism of Israel.

In this week’s Saturday Debate, Shimon Koffler Fogel argues the definition is needed, while Michele Landsberg and Avi Lewis say it’s unnecessary and may actually lead to more antisemitism.

Shimon Koffler Fogel

Over the last 70 years, antisemitism has adapted. Today, it is not limited to swastikas, racial slurs or shouts of “Heil Hitler,” though these odious examples persist. Certain perceptions of Jews are too often used to explain why “things go wrong” across all political ideologies, in public fora, and online spaces.

Lip-service to generic anti-racism is no solution. We need to move beyond a shallow understanding of antisemitism focused exclusively on history, which forces our community to continually justify its actual experience in ways that are not just exhausting, but demeaning. We need a shared definition of present-day antisemitism if we are to have any hope of combating it effectively.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is the world’s most widely recognized tool for understanding contemporary Jew hatred. Following years of collaborative research by leading experts on antisemitism, the IHRA definition was adopted by international consensus. The definition includes 11 examples of antisemitism that can help Canadians understand the lived experiences of Jews and the hate and discrimination we face.

Some of the examples pertain to Israel, describing expressions of hate against Jews as a collective. This may sound complex, but complexity is no excuse for ignoring the problem. Nearly all Jewish Canadians describe their connection to Israel as a key component of their Jewish identity. Antisemitism targeting this facet of Jewish identity cannot be denied — it is real and must be understood and addressed. The IHRA definition is crucial in this regard.

Nonetheless, there are those who, to shield themselves from accountability for their hate, seek to limit Canadians’ understanding of antisemitism to the narrowest possible view. Their claim that hostility toward Israel can never be antisemitic is as ludicrous as the notion that criticism of Israel is always antisemitic.

When the leader of Canada’s white nationalist party claims “Canada has a Zionist occupied government,” that is antisemitism.

When Jewish students at the University of Toronto are denied access to kosher food because the Jewish campus club is deemed “pro-Israel,” that is antisemitism.

When Jewish members of Parliament are slandered as more devoted to Israel than Canada, that is antisemitism.

When students at a Peel Region high school recycle age-old anti-Semitic blood libels to attack Israel, that is antisemitism.

When a senior staff at the Privy Council Office states that Israelis are genetically predisposed to pedophilia, that is antisemitism.

When an anti-Israel protest in Mississauga descends into chants of “the Jews are our dogs,” that is antisemitism.

How can detractors of the IHRA definition claim these examples and dozens more like them are not antisemitism?

The IHRA definition is the consensus standard, in Canada and around the world.

More than 30 democratic countries, including Canada, have endorsed it. Muslim-majority countries, such as Bahrain and Albania, and the Iraq-based Global Imams Council, have too. Hundreds of municipalities, the European Union, the United Nations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation all support it.

Most recently, the Government of Ontario adopted the definition in response to an unprecedented call for urgent action from hundreds of Jewish community organizations across the province. This outpouring spanned the political and religious spectra. From left to right. From atheist to ultra-Orthodox.

Of course, no community is monolithic. There are Jewish detractors, but this is nothing new. At the height of devastating Soviet persecution of Jews there were Jewish Stalinists egging the authorities on, whitewashing the regime’s crimes.

Much of the criticism of the IHRA definition focuses on the motivation of Jewish groups that support it. Many allege an ulterior motive, a hidden objective to stifle criticism of Israel. The insinuation of a nefarious Jewish plot to advance the interests of a foreign government at the expense of the local population is, in itself, classic antisemitism. For centuries, these twisted theories of Jewish disloyalty, dishonesty, and conspiracy have incited devastating bloodshed. 

The IHRA definition states unequivocally that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be considered antisemitic.” Applied correctly, the IHRA definition protects the freedom to criticize Israel and provides a framework for understanding how and when political expression can become a vehicle for hate.

Antisemitism is a mutating virus. No person, place or time is immune. If left unchecked, antisemitism will tear apart the fabric of our society, undermining our values and democratic institutions. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from accountability. Those who dismiss the Jewish community experience of antisemitism do not get to dictate terms that conveniently protect their own bigoted attitudes from criticism.

Michele Landsberg and Avi Lewis

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism is vague, confusing and utterly unnecessary. We already have working definitions of hate speech and acts that cover all kinds of racism — we don’t need one custom-made for Jews. 

In fact, no matter how many governments are persuaded to adopt this definition (through fear of being deemed antisemitic if they don’t) it doesn’t make us, as Jews, one iota safer, or acts of antisemitism any less likely. It provides not a single new tool to fight antisemitism.

So what is this debate all about? Israel. 

Just like the scorpion’s, the sting of the IHRA definition is in its tail, an appended list of 11 examples of antisemitism. Seven of them are focused on criticism of Israel. This points to what is really going on: pro-Israel organizations are campaigning for the IHRA definition so they can use it to shut down legitimate debate of Israel’s policies and to harass and silence critics.

That’s not just our opinion. It’s shared by Ken Stern, the author of the definition itself. “The problem is … that right-wing Jewish groups took the ‘working definition’ and decided to weaponize it,” Stern told The Guardian last year. 

It is no coincidence that those groups in Canada have secured their first provincial victory in Doug Ford’s Ontario, just as Jared Kushner triumphantly watched his father-in-law, Donald Trump, sign it into law in the U.S. The Trump administration may soon declare Amnesty International, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch antisemitic organizations with the help of the IHRA definition. 

Let’s unpack how it works. One of the examples states that antisemitism includes: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

So if you feel that Canada is a racist endeavour (founded on stolen land, a history of genocidal policies from residential schools to the ongoing, fatal underfunding of services for Indigenous communities,) you’ll have plenty of company these days, and a healthy debate in mainstream media. 

If you argue that Israel is a racist endeavour (founded in the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, still brutally enforcing the world’s longest illegal occupation, with countless discriminatory laws aimed at the Palestinian minority), the IHRA definition will be invoked to label you an antisemite.

This was always the strategy. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs tipped its hand in an email to supporters in 2018: “We are launching a national campaign to have government and police adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism … because it explicitly confirms that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” 

So: will adopting the IHRA definition make us Jews safer? Quite the opposite, thanks to the dangerous Jewish exceptionalism advanced by its proponents. 

Michael Levitt of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote in the Star this week: “Jews are the minority group most targeted by hate crime in our country …. Antisemitism has remained with us throughout history as the canary in the coal mine.” In other words: hatred against Jews is a unique form of racism, requiring special tools and a special priority.

This is outrageous at a time when anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is raging in Canada, when BIPOC folks are dying at the hands of the police and through overt racism in hospitals and other institutions, when migrant workers who keep us fed during the pandemic are dying from lack of access to health care themselves. 

Jews do have a role to play — helping to build a multiracial, multi-generational movement against racism, in solidarity with those on the front lines. We should be putting our societal privilege at the service of other communities, not singling ourselves out for special definitions and narratives of uniqueness.

Vigorous advocacy for the human rights of Palestinians is not antisemitism. Many of us know the difference. Despite our different generations, we both grew up bathed in bigotry. We have looked in the ugly face of hate, stared down the swastika carved on the front door of the public school, heard the slurs and epithets that trace their toxic lineage back to before the Holocaust. 

That history can either be the ground on which we help build anti-racist solidarity across all communities, or it can be cynically used to silence legitimate debate about Israel. The latter is much more likely to stoke antisemitism.


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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