Irwin Cotler: To combat antisemitism, we must first agree how to define it

While I am a great fan of Cotler’s contribution, his advocacy for the IHRA definition needs to be nuanced as it can and is sometimes being used to discourage criticism of Israeli government policies. Given the Netanyahu government’s various actions (judicial reform, settlements, citizenship revocation), Israel will come in for more criticism that cannot and should not be deemed antisemitic – but some may do so invoking the definition.

Personally, I was surprised that Cotler in not among the signatories to Statement by Canadian jurists on proposed transformation of Israel’s legal system:

We are presently experiencing a resurgence in global antisemitism — the oldest, longest, most enduring and virulent of hatreds. Indeed, since my appointment as Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism in November 2020, I have witnessed the increasing mainstreaming, normalization and legitimation of antisemitism in the political, popular, campus, and media and entertainment cultures.

In order to combat this concerning surge in antisemitism, we must begin by defining it. Because antisemitism knows no borders, it is important that Canadian institutions at all levels embrace the same definition, in order to facilitate collective efforts to combat it.

Significantly, in 2022, Canadian governments and institutions continued to embrace the most authoritative, comprehensive and representative definition of antisemitism that exists today ­— the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.

The provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan all officially adopted the definition in 2022, as well as the City of Vancouver. The Government of British Columbia has also expressed support for the use of the definition in B.C. These governments join Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, as well as the Government of Canada, which all previously adopted the definition.

The IHRA definition is the result of a 15-year-long democratic decision-making process involving intergovernmental bodies, governments, parliaments, scholars and civil society leaders. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel was a leading inspiration for the definition and a key initiator of a process in which I had the privilege of participating as a parliamentarian and minister of justice, and which ultimately led to its approval by the IHRA — a 35-country intergovernmental body — in 2016.

As Canadians, we can be proud of the distinct Canadian connection to this process of adoption. The IHRA definition is anchored and drawn from the 2010 Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism, which was endorsed by every major Canadian political party and unanimously adopted by Parliament.

It is also inspired by the equality rights and anti-discrimination provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, reflecting, as Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, put it, “The human-rights lens through which antisemitism should be viewed.”

It likewise offers an explanation of the different manifestations of antisemitism that exist today. Traditional antisemitism is the discrimination against, assault upon and denial of the rights of Jews to live as equal members in whatever society they inhabit. The new antisemitism is the discrimination against, assault upon and denial of the rights of Jews and the State of Israel to live as an equal member among the family of nations. What is common to each form of antisemitism, traditional and new, is discrimination.

The IHRA definition provides examples of both forms of antisemitism. The examples addressing older forms include stereotypes of Jews as controlling the media, world governments and the economy. Examples of newer forms include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel.

These latter examples have provoked some opposition, with opponents alleging that the IHRA definition will stifle criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, as well as advocacy for Palestinian human rights. This claim is as misleading as it is unfounded.

In fact, distinguishing between what is and what is not antisemitic enhances and promotes free expression and peaceful dialogue. In particular, the IHRA definition explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Accordingly, the definition serves to protect speech that is critical of Israeli policy — which I have myself engaged in — so long as it does not cross the delineated boundaries into antisemitism. Conversely, using this definition, genuine antisemitism, such as those examples listed above, can be defined and recognized.

The IHRA definition therefore sets the parameters for a healthy, democratic, tolerant debate and dialogue. It fosters non-hateful communication, and prevents both actual instances of antisemitism as well as unjust labelling of antisemitism. In doing so, it aligns with Canadian values of equality, diversity and human rights.

My hope for 2023 is that the Canadian jurisdictions that have not yet adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism will do so, and that the ones that have adopted it begin to implement and use it. The IHRA definition is an indispensable resource in helping to identify, recognize and define antisemitism, and adopting it is the critical first step towards Canada’s collective effort to combat the rising tide of antisemitism.

National Post

Irwin Cotler is Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism and a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada.

Source: Irwin Cotler: To combat antisemitism, we must first agree how to define it

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: