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Council pushes brakes on anti-Semitism motion

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Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung (Credit: City of Vancouver)

Vancouver’s city council has postponed voting on a motion designed to fight anti-Semitism in favour of a broader approach to combating hate.

Council voted 6-5 to send the resolution to the city’s racial and ethno-cultural equity advisory committee with the goal of providing recommendations on how the city can increase action to stamp out all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung put forward the original motion, which included a resolution to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, after attending the Vancouver Police Department’s board meeting at the Jewish community centre, where she learned about the high rate of hate crimes against Jewish people in the city. She said she submitted the motion to send a strong signal that anti-Semitism is not welcome in Vancouver.

“I think a lot of people say, ‘Is this the City of Vancouver’s responsibility?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it is.’ We’ve stood with a lot of our other cultural communities, so why not the Jewish community that is being targeted? And then a lot of people say that we don’t need to worry about that in Vancouver, it’s not happening here. My answer is: it is, and we’ve seen incidents of it,” Kirby-Yung said in a phone interview with The CJN before the council’s decision to postpone the vote.

Kirby-Yung also said her motion was a response to what she was hearing from the local Jewish community, and that it should be up to communities to define what hatred against them means. Ultimately, though, the council voted to postpone the motion in part because they heard from many Jewish people who opposed adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition is controversial because of examples that some people see as an infringement upon free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel. The most divisive example of anti-Semitism that IHRA provides seems to be “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.”

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Coun. Christine Boyle introduced the motion to refer Kirby-Yung’s resolution to committee. During the council meeting, Boyle said she is married to a Jewish man and is the mother of two half-Jewish children, and is therefore deeply concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism. She said the divisive nature of the IHRA definition within the Jewish community and within the community at-large contributed to her decision, and she wants to be sure Vancouver addresses the issue of anti-Semitism in the most constructive way.

“It’s my sense that the way to combat hate and violence is by building solidarity across difference,” she said. “I know that there are wise and thoughtful people on (the committee) who will be able to provide tangible and actionable recommendations that help build solidarity and increase the sense of safety for our Jewish neighbours and friends in the city.”

In the discussion surrounding Boyle’s motion, many councillors echoed the idea that the issue was too important to rush or get wrong, and that the disunity among the Jewish community and the greater community created enough doubt that it was worth slowing down the process.

The Pacific branch of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) was disappointed by the decision to postpone the motion.

“By delaying the initiative to protect Jewish community members at a time of rising anti-Semitism, those councillors who voted against the motion are on the wrong side of history,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s director in the Pacific region, in an emailed press release. “Our community will not be silent about the dangerous growth of Jew-hatred in our city. We will continue working to raise awareness and counter anti-Semitism using the IHRA definition as a key tool.”

Before the decision to postpone the vote, Kirby-Yung explained how she would respond to people who did not approve of her invoking the IHRA definition:

“What I would say to those people is that this is only political if we allow it to be political. This is not intended to be that. It’s intended to be a working tool, it’s not intended to impede legitimate political discourse. It’s meant to be a clear definition,” she said.

“It’s now the global gold standard, if you will. I think it’s the most adopted, widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism on the planet. Our country saw fit to adopt it at the end of June for Canada as part of our anti-racism strategy.”

In the end, more councillors felt it was prudent to take the process slowly and voted for Boyle’s motion. As part of that motion, the committee is expected to report on the issue by early 2020 at the latest.

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