EDITORIAL: On Spellings, Antisemitism and Free Speech

Bernie Farber

On June 10, I participated in a panel organized by Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression on the subject of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of the term “antisemitism.”

To be clear, even the spelling used by the IHRA for Jew-hatred was controversial. Customarily, it’s been spelled “anti-Semitism.”

The term itself was coined in the 1860’s by German writer and anti-Jewish agitator Wilhelm Marr as his way of advancing the longstanding hatred of Jews.

As we entered the 20th century, Jew-hatred became endemic and antisemitism inexorably grew to its culmination in Nazi Germany’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people. It almost succeeded; the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children represented two-thirds of European Jewry. The near-destruction of European Jewish life became known as the Holocaust or in Hebrew, the “Shoah.”

Following this cataclysmic event, one would have thought that Jew-hatred would have disappeared, or at least diminished, but sadly, this diabolical form of discrimination continued, and even the term coined by Marr became a controversy.

Antisemitism, we were told, meant not the hatred of Jews but the hatred of all Semites – peoples of the Middle East – which was unquestioningly a bastardization of the term, since “peoples of the Middle East” never entered Marr’s mind.

Nonetheless, by the mid-1980s, Jewish organizations including the former Canadian Jewish Congress, advocated for modifying the spelling of the word, excising the hyphen and capitalizing the first letter, to read “Antisemitism.” Many media style guides continue to insist on the old hyphenated spelling (for the record, the CJR spells it without the hyphen).

If that were the only problem, we might find a solution. However, the definition itself has now become a point of controversy. In an attempt to come to grips with a common understanding of Jew-hatred in the 21st century, the IHRA took a definition already constructed by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, and developed a new working definition:

“Antisemitism is 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.”

Clearly, the definition is uncontroversial, some might say pareve. It has been widely accepted. Along with the working definition come a number of helpful examples to give context. And it is here where serious complications arise, mostly from the far left of the political spectrum.

A number of the examples try to explain how Israel as a Jewish state can become the stand-in for the ugliest stereotypes of Jews. To be clear, there is a specific proviso outlined by the IHRA in its definition stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Nonetheless, this has not diminished the outcry from groups like Independent Jewish Voices of Canada and others who stand firm in their belief that this definition, coupled with the examples, will both stifle any legitimate criticism of Israel and lead to legal sanctions should anyone even attempt criticism.

And yet, the vast majority of Jewish interest and advocacy groups, from left to the right, including, JSpace Canada (where I sit as a board member), New Israel Fund, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and B’nai Brith Canada, as well as many others around the world, fully support the IHRA definition. In fact, more than 30 countries have voted in support of the IHRA definition, including Canada, the UK and many Western European nations.

As we move forward with the IHRA definition, we must all show increased care not to allow the criticisms of those who reject the wording to bear fruit. Many progressive Jews have legitimate, serious concerns about some policies of the State of Israel, and we all must be free to voice those differences. But at the same time, it is important for the naysayers to understand that the vast majority of Jews worldwide have embraced the IHRA’s definition and they too have a voice – perhaps the most important voice of all.

Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is the publisher of the CJR and presently the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.  He is recognized internationally as an advocate on human and civil rights. Mr. Farber has led various social justice organizations, including Canadian Jewish Congress and the Mosaic Institute.