The agreement by 31 countries that Holocaust denial is an expression of anti-Semitism may be the most significant achievement of Canada’s leadership of an international organization devoted to Holocaust education and research, its outgoing chair says.
Mario Silva, a former Toronto Liberal member of Parliament and city councillor, who was chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) during Canada’s one-year chairmanship, officially handed over responsibility to the United Kingdom at a ceremony at the British Embassy in Berlin on Feb. 25.
He cited the Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion, adopted by the IHRA’s member countries at a plenary meeting in Toronto in October, among the top accomplishments of the past year.
“This definition will help identify and address a growing manifestation of contemporary anti-Semitism,” he said in his final address.
Under this legally non-binding definition, denying the Holocaust means not only saying it didn’t happen or minimizing its extent, but also calling into doubt how Jews were exterminated, such as in gas chambers, and whether they were specifically targeted for genocide.
According to the definition, denial also includes blaming the Jews or suggesting they created the Holocaust for political or financial gain.
Distortion may include saying the Holocaust did not go far enough or excusing the responsibility of the Nazis’ allies and collaborators.
Silva said progress has also been made in reaching out to non-members of the IHRA, an intergovernmental body started in 1998 by then-Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, which brings together political and civil leaders, and experts. Canada joined in 2009.
Ukraine, South Africa, Australia and Albania attended IHRA meetings this past year, Silva said. Uruguay joined as an observer and El Salvador has expressed an interest in becoming one, he added.
Silva, a legal scholar, also termed “successful” a recent visit to the Vatican.
A continuing issue is access to Holocaust-era archives, he said. The IHRA has found that research in some countries is inhibited by “legal obstacles, prohibitive costs and the closing of archives,” he said.
Of specific concern is a proposed European Union regulation on data protection, which could have the effect of making Holocaust archival access more difficult, he said.
Silva’s successor is Sir Andrew Burns, who was high commissioner to Canada from 2000 to 2003 and ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. Most recently, he was Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues. Britain, a founding member, previously chaired the IHRA in 1999.
Among his aims, Burns said, is to deepen the IHRA’s professional expertise and thereby enhance its reputation and influence, and to generally raise its visibility in the world.
Burns said he hopes the IHRA will “make a practical contribution to tackling the outstanding contemporary challenges of rising anti-Semitism and incidents of Holocaust trivialization and denial… and [to increasing] support for Holocaust survivors, education of the young and opening up of the historical record.”
Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, was named this country’s new delegation head of the IHRA by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.
The federal government undertook a number of initiatives related to Holocaust awareness during Canada’s year as IHRA chair.
These included funding the digitization of Holocaust survivor testimony, the National Film Board’s “virtual classroom” project for schools to use in teaching about International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a guide to Holocaust-related holdings at Library and Archives Canada, research to identify the origin of Holocaust-era artworks, and an award for excellence in Holocaust education.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) congratulated Silva on his work and thanked Kenny for advancing IHRA’s aims.
“All Canadians can be proud that our country has become a leading voice in global efforts to counter hatred and discrimination, including the world’s oldest hatred – anti-Semitism,” said CIJA president David Koschitzky in a statement.
“Although his term as chair has concluded, we know that Dr. Silva will continue to play an important advisory role in IHRA’s work,” he continued. “From our own perspective as an active member of IHRA’s advisory council, CIJA looks forward to working with the incoming chair and further exploring innovative ways to preserve the memory of the Shoah here in Canada and around the world.”