Federal politicians, rabbis and communal officials gathered on June 26 at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s headquarters to laud Canada’s official adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, as part of a new national anti-racism strategy.
The development, announced the day before by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, is historic and precedent-setting, said two Liberal MPs. While not legally binding, the adoption of the IHRA definition is “a crucial step for Jewish Canadians,” MP Michael Levitt told those assembled.
“In order to root out anti-Semitism, we must clarify what it really is. Only by working from a shared understanding of the problem can we properly and effectively address it.”
One component of the Liberals’ $45-million anti-racism plan, titled Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022, is the long-awaited adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Accepted by the international body in 2016, the definition has been endorsed by 17 of the 32 IHRA member countries.
It reads: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The details are in the accompanying examples of anti-Semitism, which include: Holocaust denial or accusing Jews of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust; calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion; making “mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews”; and other facets of anti-Jewish racism.
While criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country “cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic,” it is anti-Semitic to deny Jews “their right to self-determination by claiming that Israel is a racist endeavour,” according to the IHRA definition.
Levitt cited B’nai Brith Canada’s annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, which found that last year was the third consecutive record-setting year for anti-Semitism in the country. Statistics Canada reported that Jews were the most targeted minority for hate crimes in 2017, he added.
Levitt tallied several other Liberal actions on battling anti-Semitism: condemning the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; quadrupling funding for the Security Infrastructure Program for communities at risk of hate-motivated crimes; and taking a “leading role” in addressing online hate.
He noted that, in his apology last year over the fate of the MS St. Louis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that anti-Semitism “is still far too present.”
With the adoption of the IHRA definition, law enforcement agencies, human rights commissions, Internet service providers, universities and the education and justice systems “can now work from a clear understanding of what anti-Semitism is, with specific examples, to effectively work to combat it.”
While criticism of Israeli government policy is “legitimate in any democracy,” as the IHRA definition points out, holding Israel to a different standard than other countries, questioning its right to exist or calling for its destruction, ““like Israel apartheid weeks on university campuses or the BDS movement often do, is anti-Semitic,” Levitt stated.
He called on provincial and municipal governments to adopt the same wording.
Also on hand was Toronto-area Liberal MP Marco Mendicino, who called the anti-racism strategy and the adoption of the IHRA definition “a landmark day.”
But at the same time, “it’s tragic that we still need an anti-racism strategy and need to expressly include a definition of anti-Semitism, which is the world’s oldest hate.”
Mendicino said more “insidious” forms of hatred include denying the Holocaust, accusations of dual loyalties and questioning Israel’s right to exist.
“When we see this as something that delegitimizes Israel and the Jewish people, we have to call it out.”
Including the anti-Semitism reference in the federal strategy will help guide law enforcement, he said. “But also, we want to educate. We want to be sure that we are preventing the next example of anti-Semitism from occurring.”
An unexpected guest was former Liberal justice minister and human rights advocate Irwin Cotler, who called for the IHRA definition to be “mainstreamed” into all levels of government, as well as domestic and foreign policy, the justice system, universities and international forums like the United Nations.
In his remarks, Joel Reitman, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said the government has offered “an important tool for Canadian authorities when examining incidents of anti-Semitism, be it police, prosecutors, human rights commissions, campus officials and school principals.”
Adopting the IHRA definition isn’t just about protecting Jews. “Left unchecked, anti-Semites pose a danger to broader society,” said Barbara Bank, CIJA’s Toronto chair.
Also in attendance was Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, which also commended the government for its action, as did Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Georges Santer, chair of the IHRA, said that, “The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance commends the Canadian government’s decision to adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Canada is now the 17th country to adopt the working definition domestically and we are pleased this tool will be used to further support the global effort to counter anti-Semitism. We continue to work with our 33 member countries to fulfil the international community’s responsibility to fight the evil of anti-Semitism.”
The Liberals’ anti-racism strategy addresses efforts to fight anti-indigenous, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-black and homophobic behaviour.