From the Editor: Our city should adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

Last June, the federal government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as a component of its anti-racism strategy. At the time, Canada was the 17th country to adopt the definition.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – the advocacy agent for Jewish federations in Canada, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa – has been encouraging provincial and municipal governments across the country to endorse and adopt the IHRA definition as well.

In an era when, sadly, antisemitism and antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise, it is important to have a common definition of antisemitism that can guide law enforcement officials, the courts, the educational system, and all of us. The IHRA definition does that by defining both classic antisemitism and pointing out examples of how criticism of the State of Israel can and does cross the line into antisemitism. However, the IHRA definition of antisemitism explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The line is crossed, though, by “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” or “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis,” or “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” or “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

In other words, criticism of specific Israeli government policies or Israeli politicians are as legitimate as criticism of specific Canadian or American policies. For example, as I write, environmental protest actions by several Indigenous nations in Canada have stopped Via Rail service across the country and it is not anti-Canadian to criticize the government on how it has handled the protests or even how it has handled the totality of relations – and reconciliation – with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. But it would be anti-Canadian to say that Canada has no right or legitimacy to exist as a country because of how it has acted on the protests specifically, or even on Indigenous relations generally.

Bill 168, a private member’s bill introduced by Ontario Conservative MPP Will Bouma, would make Ontario the first province to adopt the IHRA definition. The bill passed first reading at Queen’s Park two months ago and is now at committee.

At the municipal level, few cities have yet taken any action on adopting the IHRA definition. On January 28, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the city of Vaughan, a Toronto-area suburb became the first city in Canada to adopt the definition.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a motion was presented at Montreal’s city council calling for the city to adopt the IHRA definition. The motion was presented by Councillor Lionel Perez, an observant Jew, who told the Canadian Jewish News that he “believes the city should take this position because of the increase in hate crimes against Jews.”

However, when the matter came before the city council, Perez withdrew the motion when Mayor Valèrie Plante said defining antisemitism was “far from a black and white issue” and suggested sending the issue of antisemitism to a council committee which could devise a “Montreal model” to define antisemitism.

The following week there was no such hesitation when the city council of Westmount – the suburb next to downtown Montreal where I lived for 27 years before moving to Ottawa in 2007 – unanimously adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

I hope Ottawa City Council will also soon act to adopt the IHRA definition.