Barrie a Step From to Adopting IHRA Definition

Sept. 16, 2020 – By RON CSILLAG

The City of Barrie, Ont. is one step closer to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, a month after it unexpectedly withdrew the motion.

Meeting virtually on Sept. 15, the city’s General Committee quietly passed a resolution to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The measure now heads for ratification by city council, which meets Monday, Sept. 21, when members of the public can have their say.

The motion was identical to one that its sponsor, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, withdrew at the 11th hour last month after he and council members received a slew of letters and emails opposing its adoption.

Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (IJV), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and vehemently opposes the IHRA definition, boasted in August that “well over 100” of its members and supporters sent letters and messages to Barrie city councillors urging them to vote against the resolution.

Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor
Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor

In a CJR interview, Lehman conceded he put the item on the agenda last month “without a lot of broader discussion in the community, in part because it was the middle of the summer.”

Concern about the motion was raised after he and council members received about 200 messages opposing its adoption – “obviously a coordinated campaign by certain groups.”

Lehman said he didn’t want council making a decision based only on that.

“They needed to hear why this was important and to hear from our local community, which really hadn’t mobilized that way,” he said. “To be frank, I don’t think anybody really expected that degree of opposition.”

After the resolution was withdrawn, Lehman’s office told the CJR the motion was shelved “following a large number of requests from the Jewish community in Barrie for further consultation.”

Lehman confessed to being “a little confused by that language. I wanted to provide the time for that consultation, and I was concerned we hadn’t heard it.”

However, over the past month, he received “extensive correspondence” from the local Jewish community supporting the IHRA resolution.

In fact, that support “went well beyond the Jewish community,” Lehman added. “We had a number of community leaders speak to city council, and send in letters and emails of support.”

He said almost none of the letters and emails urging Barrie to defeat the IHRA resolution were from residents. “Of the nearly 200 emails, I believe only three that I received were from local residents.”

Should Barrie’s council pass the measure, it would join the Quebec cities of Westmount, Cote St.-Luc and Hampstead, and Vaughan, Ont., all of which have endorsed it.

As of this summer, the definition has been adopted or recognized by 18 countries. Last year, the federal government endorsed the definition as part of its anti-racism plan.

A bill before Ontario’s legislature on combating antisemitism, which contains the IHRA definition, passed second reading earlier this year and is headed to committee for public input.

IJV of Canada and other groups have called the IHRA definition “dangerous,” claiming its acceptance would stifle criticism of Israel and silence pro-Palestinian activism.

That concern is “certainly not supported by the language I see,” Lehman said, pointing out that the definition states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

On Monday, members of the public will be given five minutes each to make their views known.

David Shron, president of Barrie’s 63-family member Am Shalom Congregation, said someone representing the synagogue will address council in support of the IHRA motion.

He told the CJR that many of the messages sent to the mayor and council members opposing the measure came from outside Ontario.

In the past month, city officials were “inundated with information from people who actually know what’s going on in our local community.”

Shron said he was “very happy” the resolution was approved by the General Council, adding, “I don’t expect it having a major problem” before council.

The 2011 National Household Survey showed there were 660 Jews in Barrie.