EDITORIAL: On Spellings, Antisemitism and Free Speech

By 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. 

EDITORIAL: We must do better than this

COVID-19 is sucking all the air out of the room. Tragically it also seems to have poisoned our intelligence and turned otherwise smart and decent people into unthinking, unfeeling brutes.

Last week despite multiple warnings, cautions and even demands to engage in social distancing and certainly not to gather in groups of more than five, Trinity-Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto was filled with summer sun-worshippers as though it were just another day in late May. Gone were the fears of spreading or acquiring this dreaded disease. One would have hoped if people didn’t care about themselves surely they have elderly parents, cousins, aunts and uncles; have we become so callous that causing the potential deaths of those we love has become meaningless?

However, sadly it gets worse. Covid-19 has torn open the ugliness of care in many of our long-term care facilities most especially in Ontario and Quebec. In these provinces by provincial request, 1,650 Canadian military troops were sent to LTC facilities that were worst hit. The report from the military as to what it found boggles the mind:

• “a culture of fear to use supplies because they cost money, expired medication, in some cases military personnel noted aggressive behaviour believed by observers to be abusive”

• “Poor nutritional status due to underfeeding”

• “Cockroaches and flies” were observed as well as residents “left in beds soiled in diapers”

• Inadequate oxygen and inaccessible wound care supplies.

These were just a few observations. There were more including poor staff training, which according to the report led to a “code blue due to choking during feeding while supine — staff unable to dislodge food or revive resident,” read the report.

How does this happen in the 21st century? Our elderly parents and relatives who gave to us so selflessly surely deserve better. How is it possible that Ontario has 175 LTC inspectors for 626 residences yet it took the intervention of the military to discover this unconscionable treatment?

This pandemic has brought out the best and worst of ourselves. Sadly, the worst can lead to fear, disease and even death. Yes, I understand that we have all been locked down for weeks and some  people are more fortunate than others. However, there simply cannot be any excuse for endangering the lives of others and certainly the treatment of our elderly needs to be addressed immediately. We have to do better than this.

Editorial: Hatred is Also a Virus

By BERNIE FARBER

COVID-19 has transported us to a different world. Social niceties, from handshakes to hugs, are now things of the past. New words and concepts like “physical distancing” are fast becoming learned behaviours. Days spent at home can sandpaper your nerves raw and lead to moments, minutes and hours of anxiety and depression.

Yet, we are all going through this strange new world together. We can take strength in numbers. We know that if we follow the rules, we can be safe and keep our family from harm. Nothing is certain but we understand enough that staying home, avoiding crowds, and washing your hands can help not only flatten the curve (another new phrase of the virus language) but keep you away from the virus itself.

It is during crises that we see the best and worst of humanity. Individuals and groups have sprung out of nowhere to shop for their elderly neighbours. Others have started online funding to help secure personal protective equipment. Some have simply made it a point to be in touch with those who are isolated, lonely and afraid. These are our “upstanders.”

On the dark side, we can always count on the ignorant and stupid, including conspiracy theorists who believe that COVID has been drummed up to deprive the U.S. president of another term.

Racists have also sadly emerged. Some have physically attacked neighbours of South Asian descent, as though they were to blame for this crisis.

And of course, let’s not forget the antisemites who very early on postulated the nonsense, according to Alex Friedfeld of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism that Jews created the virus to trigger the collapse of the stock markets and then take advantage by lining their own pockets.

For Jews, any change in world dynamics produces Jew-hatred. It comes with the territory. And throughout history, antisemitism always found a way to endure. While we battle this pandemic, let’s not lose sight of the haters out there. For them, little has changed, other than they can carry out their evil in the shadow of COVID.