Home News Canada Irwin Cotler tackles the rise of modern anti-Semitism

Irwin Cotler tackles the rise of modern anti-Semitism

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Irwin Cotler

Anti-Semitism, often described as the world’s oldest hatred, has evolved in the 21st century, in a new, more pernicious direction, through a distorted lens of human rights — an evolution that internationally-renowned Canadian human rights advocate and legal expert Irwin Cotler outlined for an audience of more than 250 at a downtown Winnipeg hotel on April 27.

Cotler was the keynote speaker at the Winnipeg-based Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism’s sixth annual Shindleman Lecture. Previously speakers have included professors Deborah Lipstadt, Alvin Rosenfeld and Jeffrey Herf, author Daniel Goldhagen and Hannah Rosenthal, former U.S. State Department special envoy to counter anti-terrorism.

Founded in 2010 by Catherine Chatterley, the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism (CISA) aims to promote scholarship and facilitate public education on the subject of anti-Semitism, in both its classical and contemporary forms. Chatterley teaches history at the University of Manitoba. Her area of expertise is modern European history, with an emphasis on the history of anti-Semitism.

Before introducing Cotler, Chatterley spoke about CISA and, in particular, the new scholarly journal, Antisemitism Studies, which CISA launched a few months ago, in partnership with Indiana University Press. “There was a real need for an academic journal of this kind,” noted Chatterley, who is the publication’s editor. “The response from scholars worldwide has been tremendous. We are already planning our fourth and fifth issues for October and November.”

Chatterley also recognized Sandy Shindleman and his family for supporting CISA and making the lecture series possible. The Shindleman family’s company, Shindico, is one of the largest real estate firms in Canada.

Irwin Cotler is a former Liberal member of Parliament, who served as justice minister and attorney general under former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. He continues to fight for justice and human rights on the international stage. He spoke in Winnipeg on international terrorism and global anti-Semitism.

Cotler began his presentation by quoting the late Eli Wiesel’s condemnation of the world’s indifference and inaction in the face of Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews.  Cotler noted that the Western powers knew about the Holocaust by 1942, but chose to do nothing.

The only actions taken to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust were undertaken by individuals such as Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Cotler pointed out.

He also criticized the international reaction to other, more recent genocides, such as Rwanda in 1994, Darfur in the early years of this century and the slaughter that continues to take place in Syria.

Thus far, with regards to Syria, he observed, very little action has been taken by Western powers.

“Anti-Semitism did not die at Auschwitz,” Cotler stated. “And it is still the canary in the coal mine.” Anti-Semitism may start with the Jews, he observed, but it doesn’t end with the Jews. Many other people end up becoming victims, as well.

He further noted that the Holocaust — and genocide in general — ends in violence, but begins with words — words of incitement and dehumanization.  The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, he pointed out, expressly prohibits advocating genocide.

He outlined seven current manifestations of calls for genocide directed at Israel and the Jewish people.  These include repeated statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, the Hamas Charter, religious fatwas pronounced by various Muslim religious leaders and threats from the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant and al-Qaida, as well as neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Anti-Semitism is also ubiquitous on the Internet, he noted.

“Jews and Israel continue to be demonized in many quarters as the embodiment of all evils,” Cotler said.  “Israel is accused of being racist, colonialist, engaging in ethnic cleansing and both a Nazi and an apartheid state.”

“Only the Jews are denied the right to self-determination,” he said. “Only Israel’s legitimacy is questioned.”


But, once again, it may start with Jews, but doesn’t end with the Jews.  Cotler noted how the terrorist practices that were first directed at Israel — airplane hijackings and bombings, suicide bombings and murder by motor vehicles — are now being used in much of the rest of the world.

He excoriated the Western world for a complete absence of moral leadership in combating rogue countries, such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China, and international terrorism.

The most pernicious aspect of modern anti-Semitism, he noted, is its promotion under the aegis of universal human values. He pointed out that the United Nations, international law, human rights and the struggle against racism have all been misused to attack Israel.

“Every year,” he said, “the United Nations General Assembly passes 20 resolutions condemning Israel, the only democratic country in the Middle East, and four resolutions condemning other countries.

“In the past 50 years, Israel has been the only country in the world that has been charged with violating the Geneva Convention.

“The UN Human Rights Council and its predecessor has issued more condemnations of Israeli actions than the rest of the world combined.”


 Then there was the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001, which focused entirely on Israel and the Jews.

So what is to be done?  Cotler called for a more inclusive definition of anti-Semitism and the need for individuals to take action against anti-Semitism and racism. He noted that the Ottawa Protocol — a successful effort led by the government of Canada in 2010 to expand the definition of anti-Semitism — needs to become more widely known. That definition notes, among other things, that while criticism of Israel in itself isn’t anti-Semitic, singling out Israel for criticism or denying Israel’s right to exist is.

“We need to combat efforts to launder anti-Semitism under the banner of universal public values,” he said. “And we shouldn’t retreat from the UN.  Rather, we should repeatedly be calling on the UN to live up to its own stated ideals.

“The world’s overwhelming focus on Israel and the Palestinians results in the ignoring of the plight of all other threatened minorities.

“I support Israel, not because it is a Jewish state, but because it is a just cause.  Israel and the Jewish people deserve the support of Jews and non-Jews alike, just as all other minorities deserve our support.”

As to Israel and Palestinians, Cotler said that he supports the ideal of two states for two peoples — but that both states have to be democratic states with an independent judiciary, a free press and a respect for human rights.

“What we don’t need is another repressive dictatorship in the Middle East,” he concluded.

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