By adopting the IHRA definition, Canadian universities have a real chance to tackle antisemitism

By adopting the IHRA definition, Canadian universities have a real chance to tackle antisemitism

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August 30, 2019

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Dear Friends,

With only a few days before college and university classes are set to resume, our Executive Director Daniel Koren penned an op-ed published in today’s National Post on why Canadian college and university administrations should consider adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Read it in its entirety below.

Next week, Canadian colleges and universities will officially resume.

For most school administrators, it’ll be business as usual. But for those tasked with protecting the human rights of students, there was one political gesture this summer that holds much significance: the federal government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The government’s decision, a key element in its new anti-racism strategy, has major
implications for university administrations, offering clear guidelines on how they should interpret anti-Jewish hatred and what measures to take to a) prevent such hatred; b) curtail the efforts of those promulgating it; and c) support those students victimized by it.

Antisemitism in Canada has experienced a dramatic uptick over the past five years – particularly on college and university campuses. Many Jewish students have relayed that they are being targeted, whether by Nazi-inspired graffiti, professors who deny or obfuscate the Holocaust, or students who promote the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and vitriolic campaigns such as "Israel Apartheid Week" (IAW).

If that last one made you bat your eyes, chances are that BDS and anti-Israel activism have been presented to you as a "legitimate and non-violent tool of resistance." It is here where the IHRA definition becomes crucial to understand.

IHRA defines antisemitism as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

Swastikas and blatant gestures of anti-Jewish bigotry are easy to identify and address. But when anti-Israel activism crosses the threshold into antisemitism (a recurring theme these days), IHRA can greatly assist academic institutions looking to ensure that the human rights of all students are upheld and respected, Jews and Israelis included. For example, there have been many incidents where pro-BDS groups on campus have promoted antisemitism under the guise of "human rights" and/or anti-Israel activism.

In the past five years alone, these clubs have shared libels reminiscent of age-old antisemitic tropes, invited speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist, and shared content that lauds terrorists who have murdered Jewish individuals. At UBC, geography professors boycotted an event because it was being held at Hillel, a non-political Jewish campus group. After a BDS vote at McGill, hateful messages ridiculing "little Zionist jewboys" made their way onto social media.

In March of 2016, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, which empowers Jewish students to support Israel, was barred from participating in a "Social Justice Week" at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology because it "seemed closely tied to Israel."

By using the IHRA definition, we can ascertain that these incidents were not simply "harsh analyses of the Israeli government’s actions," but specific acts of antisemitism such as denying the indigenous Jewish right to self-determination and blaming Jews as a collective for Israeli policies.

BDS activists have been quick to protest the IHRA definition, claiming it "suppresses" criticism of Israel (it does not). But in reality, it is the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism today. There are 33 member countries who belong in IHRA. In addition to Canada, the definition has been endorsed by the United Kingdom, the European Parliament, France, Germany, and various academic bodies such as the UK Office for Students.

Yes, Canadian universities already have guidelines in place to combat discrimination, and many have dealt with similar incidents gracefully, such as when Carleton and the University of Ottawa both banned a flyer endorsing IAW because it was "inflammatory and capable of inciting confrontation." (Fun fact: the artist commissioned to design the flyer was political cartoonist Carlos Latuff, who once won second place in Iran’s iniquitous Holocaust Denial Cartoon Contest.)

But by endorsing the IHRA definition, Canadian colleges and universities would be taking advantage of a meaningful opportunity to take a stand against anti-Jewish hatred. More importantly, it would help administrations understand the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and campaigns that seek to isolate, demonize, and delegitimize it.

The time has come to put a stop to deceitful and pernicious campaigns that usurp the language of human rights to promote a biased political agenda. Adopting the IHRA definition will help college and university administrations bring that principled goal to fruition.

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