Calgary will commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day each Jan. 27, but the decision to do so was not without controversy.
Members of the 8,500-strong Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors and students from Calgary Jewish Academy, were in the public gallery at city hall on Nov. 18, when council passed a motion directing that “the City of Calgary formally recognize, commemorate and proclaim Jan. 27 as our annual city-wide International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
The date, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1945, was designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations in 2005.
After a short video was shown in the council chambers, which included interviews with Holocaust survivors, the motion was adopted unanimously. “Applause then broke out in the gallery,” Calgary radio station 660 News reported.
“We have Holocaust survivors here in this city and we have generations growing up who don’t know about it,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the Calgary Herald. “I think it’s important for council to condemn bigotry in all its forms, anti-Semitism being one of them. And I think it’s important for us to commemorate the remembrance of that great loss of life in the Holocaust.”
The motion, titled “Combatting Anti-Semitism in the City of Calgary,” was brought forward by Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart.
It noted that in 2000, Alberta declared Yom ha-Shoah as Holocaust Memorial Day, while in 2018, Windsor, Ont., declared April 15 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The motion also pointed out that current research shows that one in five Canadian youth haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure what it was, while 62 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 don’t know how many Jews were killed during the Nazi era.
Statistics Canada has said that Jews are the most frequently targeted ethno-cultural group when it comes to police-reported hate crimes, it added.
“Much of the work to protect and shield our community from racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism happens at the level of municipal government,” the motion stated.
In a statement to The CJN, Adam Silver, CEO of the Calgary Jewish Federation, wrote: “To see the validated look on (audience members’) faces, to know that our city will mark a meaningful day of education and action aimed at combatting anti-Semitism and to feel supported by city council, was remarkable.”
However, an earlier draft of the motion, which was sent to council by the city’s priorities and finance committee on Oct. 8, contained two resolutions: that the city mark Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that municipal officials “explore” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism “and make recommendations to council.”
But the measure that passed on Nov. 18 omitted the recommendation on the IHRA definition. Instead, it said in its preamble that anti-Semitism “can only be overcome by education, increased awareness, strong political condemnation and enforcement of relevant laws anchored in the IHRA definition as a clear means of identifying hatred toward Jews.”
The deletion of the resolution on the IHRA item in the final motion was hailed by Independent Jewish Voices, which supports the anti-Israel BDS movement, as “a major victory for all who oppose anti-Semitism and support Palestinian human rights.”
IJV and others have said that the IHRA definition is being used to quash legitimate criticism of Israel, “and thankfully, our city councillors saw that,” said Miriam Meir of IJV’s Calgary chapter.
But Martin Sampson, vice-president of communications at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his organization is “puzzled and concerned that anti-Israel activists are propagating mistruths and myths about this motion specifically and the IHRA definition generally. It is unfortunate and diametrically opposed to the mainstream Jewish perspective.”
Sampson welcomed Calgary’s motion on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying he was pleased that the measure “explicitly” contained the reference to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Silver said the reference to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, “a key barometer for assessing hate against Jews, is especially encouraging.”
In an interview with The CJN, Colley-Urquhart said that when the draft motion was approved in October, she received emails attacking the request to explore the IHRA anti-Semitism definition. The messages, some of which accused her of taking sides against Palestinians, “completely caught me off guard. We (weren’t) saying we’re bringing this definition in. We were saying we want the administration to look at it, and inform ourselves,” she said.
“Then I had to really step back. The worst thing I feared was that it would be controversial to establish International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
She decided to “sever” the two resolutions and just go with the one establishing Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The outcome I got was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want any controversy before that gallery, with those people there, about establishing International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” she said A resolution on the IHRA definition “would have started riling things up on the floor of council (and) with those folks there, I would have been doing a huge disservice to them. Would have got into a huge debate (and) would have really tainted the huge success we got with adopting Jan. 27. I wasn’t prepared to go there.”
But she isn’t abandoning getting the city to examine the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. On Nov. 19, Colley-Urquhart tabled an “administrative inquiry” before council, asking the city to analyze “risks and options” for implementing the definition. A reply is due next year.
“We’re still going ahead,” she said. “I’m not letting this go. This is still very important to us.”
Canada adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in June, becoming one of 33 countries to do so.
In July, Vancouver’s city council postponed a resolution to fight anti-Semitism. The motion included the IHRA definition.