Critics of Ontario’s Bill 168 Miss the Mark

By HARRIS WATKINS

Working for a member of Ontario’s provincial parliament, I have often seen coordinated email campaigns influenced by external and third-party organizations (using the same subject line usually gives it away).

Such was the case when the office of Progressive Conservative MPP Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga Centre) began to receive concerns about Bill 168, The Combating Antisemitism Act, 2020, as anti-Israel activists in Toronto ramped up their pressure campaign against the proposed legislation.

Introduced last year by Conservative MPP Will Bouma and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin, Bill 168 calls on the government to be guided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in “interpretation of acts, regulations and policies designed to protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to antisemitism.” The bill passed second reading last February and now heads to committee hearings.

The coordinated email effort against the bill lists two predominant criticisms. First, because the IHRA definition was intended to be a working definition, it is insufficient to serve as a legal standard due to its inherently broad wording. Second, the definition is susceptible to being used as a tool to curb freedom of speech (specifically, criticism of Israel).

Both arguments fail to hold water.

The most widely accepted definition of antisemitism today, the IHRA interpretation has been endorsed by Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Parliament, France, Germany, and various academic bodies as a direct response to rising rates of antisemitism. More than 128 Jewish organizations recently signed an open letter calling on Facebook to adopt the definition, as antisemitism continues to fester on its platform.

If one were to consult the stated mission of the IHRA, they would see that its foremost objectives are to identify and address the practical needs of policymakers in eradicating antisemitism. The definition was created for the benefit of policymakers globally to provide nations around the world with an important tool to combat rising hatred and discrimination within their realms. Antisemitism is a global problem and requires global language to fix. The IHRA accomplishes this.

This same language in the IHRA definition can also be found in the writing of Bill 168 itself. The bill’s preamble states that its purpose is to use the definition in a manner that allows for a consistent interpretation of all governmental action directed toward protecting Ontarians from hatred and discrimination. It goes on to say that the government will “be guided by the working definition of antisemitism and the list of it adopted by the IHRA.” 

This appears to me to be in line with both the stated purpose and wording of the definition.

The bill’s premise is that the definition will aid in enacting legislation that will itself be legally binding — not simply that the definition will be taken and made into law without any sort of democratic guidance in the policymaking process. This wording affirms the ability for policymakers to use the definition as a tool in governance.

Thus, the Ontario government is seeking to utilize the definition as it was intended.

Second, the IHRA definition clearly has no gripe with legitimate criticisms of Israel and its policies. What it does, however, is draw a valid link between antisemitism and anti-Zionist prejudices. This encompasses the noted double-standard invariably applied by antisemites to the actions of Israel but not to other democratic states. It also provides a valid condemnation of the belief that the Jewish people are not, like all other peoples, entitled to a geographical homeland. 

What sort of “legitimate” criticism of Israel could take issue with the fact that the IHRA definition reiterates the right of Israel to exist?

If the so-called legitimate criticism of Israel purported to be silenced by this legislation does not even hold that the country should exist, there clearly isn’t a point in engaging in dialogue, because criticism implies improving; we cannot work to improve what some would rather simply destroy

If a problem-solving discussion is what opponents of Bill 168 want, the IHRA definition is clearly able to facilitate it.

What the Ontario bill’s detractors really seem to want, however, is the freedom of speech to decry the legitimacy of Israel’s existence; as being null, and, as long as the state exists, as bonafide apartheid.

Supporters of Bill 168, including a plurality Canadian Jewish organizations, agree that calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state is antisemitic, hence a form of illegitimate criticism. In turn, naysayers say they are simply “cowering to Israeli interests” and promoting “Zionist propaganda.” Like the COVID conspiracy theorists, they truly have an answer for everything.

The reality is that the scope of real discourse is severely constrained if the IHRA definition is not in play, as it allows detractors to fester and solutions to legitimate problems be damned.

Look no further than the vast array of debate within Israel itself to see just how much the Jewish people are divided on the actions and policy of the government. Legitimate criticism of the government is rife — as it should be in a democratic state — yet within this discussion is an overwhelming consensus that the state is legitimate and should exist. This is absolutely no different than any other democratic country, for these diverse views on governance and policy that Israelis hold are typically borne of a personal perspective of how the country can best flourish according to their perspective. 

Detractors say that even Jewish and Israeli groups will be silenced by Bill 168. This is simply fear-mongering. 

The IHRA definition admirably attempts to help policymakers and decision makers of conscience by providing them with a definition of antisemitism conducive to decision-making to the benefit of constituents. Of course, while no itemized definition of antisemitism will be perfect and able to account for every aspect of this complex phenomenon, this definition is no doubt the most extensive and most fit to curb the alarming rise of antisemitism in our province.

This is something not only to the benefit of Ontario’s Jewish community, but all of us who value eradicating hate and prejudice wherever they may manifest. 


Harris Watkins
Harris Watkins

Harris Watkins is the Israel Advocacy Coordinator with Hasbara Fellowships Canada and a staff member in the office of MPP Natalia Kusendova.