Ontario Does Not Need the IHRA Definition to Fight Antisemitism

November 19, 2020

By DOGAN D. AKMAN

On Oct. 26, the Ontario government short-circuited the legislative process around Bill 168, the Combating Antisemitism Act, and passed an Order-in-Council (“OIC”) through which the province adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, including the list of illustrative examples – the “complete definition.” The OIC was rushed through by Premier Doug Ford in response to the recent vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, where someone had carved an antisemitic symbol.

Once enacted, the Bill and the OIC require the government to be guided by the complete definition when it interprets its legislation, regulations and policies designed to protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to antisemitism.

As to be expected upon the OIC’s publication, the next day, three leading national Jewish organizations and a progressive one, JSpaceCanada, immediately praised, applauded and celebrated the decision.

And again, as to be expected, a variety of pro-Palestinian organizations, joined by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), protested the government’s move on the three perennial grounds, namely, the definition is faulty because it –

may be used successfully to label as antisemitic the critics of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and the  Palestinian Authority; those governing the treatment of her Israeli Arabs citizens; or the governance of parts of Judea and Samaria pursuant to and in accord with the Oslo accords, and

may infringe upon freedom of speech, and academic freedom.

I submit that the best way to begin the assessment of the OIC and predict the nature and scope of the alleged threats to freedoms is to examine Ontario’s record of fighting antisemitism during the years 2014 to 2020, a period when the province adopted an “anti-racism strategic plan” and enacted the Anti-Racism Act in 2017 along with the accompanying Three-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan. Ontario’s legislature also passed a motion denouncing the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign Israel that led nowhere.

Based on Ontario’s track record during these six years, the applause, praise and celebration over the IHRA decision are quite premature. In this period, Ontario became the antisemitism capital of the country. And the alleged twin threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom are unlikely to materialize.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 5, JSpaceCanada published an article in these pages titled “Why We Support the IHRA definition of Antisemitism…Cautiously,” in which it promises “to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not suppress freedom of speech or academic freedom…We are committed to monitoring and speaking out against any attempt to misuse the IHRA definition to attack Palestinian activism or to promote Islamophobia. And we will defend those whom we feel have been wrongfully accused of antisemitism.”

This, in turn, raises the question of when JSpaceCanada will fight antisemitism instead of allocating its resources to fight and defend Palestinian activism and Islamophobia (the latter has yet to be defined in a sensible manner.)

The plain truth is that Ontario did not and does not need the IHRA definition, whatever its merits, in order to fight antisemitism or to enact a proper BDS motion. It already had and still has the tools long before it adopted the IHRA wording.

But if that was the case, one may wonder why, for example, the province never took universities to task for:

• permitting the establishment of antisemitic campus clubs and demanding that they get rid of them;

• failing to prevent and deter the antisemitic verbal and physical harassment and violence perpetrated against Jewish students, and 

• allowing some of their faculty to engage in written and/or verbal antisemitic behaviour under the cover of academic freedom, and failing that, pleading freedom of speech.

The province also failed to set timelines within which the universities must resolve antisemitic problems on campus, such as the foregoing, and to warn them that failure to do so will result in cutbacks in provincial funding.

Academic freedom is not absolute. This freedom can be legitimately invoked only by those who abide by and discharge the corresponding moral and intellectual obligations. And in this connection, when did, for example, the JSC target those who write, teach and preach in dereliction of their obligations? When did it speak up against studies which deliberately use corrupt methodologies and resort to intellectually obscene analysis of data generated by such methodologies?

Those on the Jewish Left – “progressives” such as JSpaceCanada – risk aiding and abetting antisemitism by remaining silent instead of fighting the foregoing antisemitic activities and a multitude of others of the same ilk.

And given political and electoral realities, it remains to be seen whether this time around, Ontario will do what it would not for years.


Dogan Akman
Dogan Akman

Doğan D. Akman is an independent researcher and commentator. He holds a B.Sc. in sociology, an M.A. in sociology/criminology, and an LL.B in law. He held academic appointments in sociology, criminology and social policy; served as a judge of the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, and was a Crown Counsel in criminal prosecutions and in civil litigation at the federal Department of Justice. His academic work is published in peer-reviewed professional journals, while his opinion pieces and other writings have appeared in various publications and blogs.