Why We Support the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism… Cautiously

Nov. 5, 2020 

By JORDAN DEVON AND KAREN MOCK

On Oct. 27, Ontario became the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. JSpaceCanada, the organization we represent, joined the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in applauding this decision

As most in our community are aware, we do not always see eye to eye with these organizations. As a progressive Zionist Jewish voice, we are unapologetic in our opposition to the Israeli occupation and emphatic in our support for a two-state solution – positions that aren’t always shared by more dominant community institutions.

But on this occasion, we felt the need to rise above these differences. While our community has diverse voices and opinions, there is clear consensus about the need to combat the alarming rise of antisemitism. We cannot protect our society from the scourge of antisemitism if we are unable to name it, to identify it properly, and to address it consistently. 

The IHRA definition states: “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.”

The definition has been given broad acceptance by Jewish communities around the world. By adopting it, Ontario is following the anti-racist/anti-oppression norm that victimized groups can best define the terms that describe discrimination against them.

However, it must be noted that the IHRA definition does not come without its critics.

Shortly after we released our statement in support of the provincial government’s decision to bypass public committee hearings and proceed to endorsement, we received concerned, disappointed, and even angry messages from allies and colleagues in the Arab community, who noted that the IHRA definition has been used to suppress criticism of Israel in jurisdictions around the world. 

Indeed, the IHRA definition comes with a list of illustrative examples of antisemitism, some of which have been interpreted as appearing to conflate criticism of Zionism and Israel with antisemitism.

The definition, as drafted by Kenneth Stern and an international team of scholars, was meant to be used as a tool or resource to assist in identification and documentation, and not to be legally binding. However, there is great concern that the IHRA definition has been weaponized by right-wing groups to suppress even tepid criticism of Israel – a reality that has been acknowledged by Stern himself.

But we can understand why reference to the IHRA language is alarming for communities who experience Israel and Zionism differently than Jews do. And we acknowledge the distinctions and relationships between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

Criticizing Israeli policy is not inherently antisemitic. Indeed, the IHRA definition itself specifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that against any other state cannot be considered to be antisemitic.”

As a progressive Zionist organization, JSpaceCanada has actively criticized discriminatory Israeli government policies, and we will continue to do so, challenging Israel to fulfill the promise of its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between well-meaning critics of Israel and those who are influenced by antisemitism, or may cross the line into antisemitic rhetoric.

We will continue to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not supress freedom of speech or academic freedom. In the same vein, we would expect that definitions of racism or any form of discrimination should not be used to silence speech that does not meet one of the criteria of hate speech.

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.


Dr. Karen Mock is the President of JSpaceCanada
Jordan Devon is the Vice-President of JSpaceCanada. 
JSpaceCanada is an all-volunteer, non-partisan, progressive Jewish organization.

An Undelivered Submission on Bill 168

Nov. 2, 2020

On Oct. 26, Ontario’s cabinet surprised many when it decided to bypass committee hearings and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, contained in Bill 168, the “Combating Antisemitism Act.” Ontario thus became Canada’s first province to adopt the definition.

Bill 168 passed second reading earlier this year and according to one source, more than 100 Ontarians had requested a chance to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice Policy to have their say – both for and against adopting the IHRA definition, or to suggest amendments.

Among the undelivered deputations was the following from Randi Skurka, appearing as an individual.


Good morning/afternoon, 

Firstly, I’d like to thank the committee for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing.

As the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism in the world today, endorsed by a growing number of countries, academic bodies, even making inroads in the Middle East, it is crucial that Ontario adopt the IHRA definition.

I am forever grateful to my grandparents, who bravely left Poland a century ago to make their home here in Toronto. Fleeing pogroms and deeply ingrained prejudices, they came in search of a better life where they could live as Jews in freedom and safety. My 92-year-old father remembers the antisemitism he experienced as a young person, even here. I grew up believing that those days were over. But I was wrong.

According to Statistics Canada, Jews are the most targeted group for police-reported hate crimes in the country. Jewish students on campuses across Canada have been singled out, ostracized or attacked for years simply for expressing their Jewish identity. For example, over the past year alone, they were denied kosher food at the University of Toronto, kicked off the student union at McGill University for planning a visit to Israel, and at York University, were threatened with violence for attending a talk featuring Israeli speakers. Antisemitism masquerading behind the veneer of anti-Zionism is a growing problem in Canada and internationally.

It all starts with words. When Israel Apartheid Week was launched at U of T in 2005, it used hateful rhetoric singling out Israel alone as a human rights abuser. Together with the BDS movement, which has been condemned by our own prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as blatantly antisemitic, these campaigns have proliferated around the world, creating a toxic atmosphere in which harassment and targeting of Jewish students have become mainstream.

These movements represent themselves as peaceful, nonviolent forms of protest. But the last two decades have proven otherwise. Conceived by known anti-Israel activists, whose clearly stated goals are the complete elimination of the State of Israel, the manifestation of these movements has been nothing less than the total isolation and social death of any student or faculty member that dares to defend Israel’s right to exist. 

A recent survey has shown that the Canadian Jewish community, small but mighty, defines itself with things like Holocaust remembrance, tradition, and working for social justice. Though widely diverse religiously and politically, one feature among all others unites them – for a full 86 percent of Canadian Jews, their connection to Israel is an important and essential part of their identity. 

The IHRA definition clearly states that criticism of Israel in the form of civil discourse is not considered antisemitic. Yet, all too often, this criticism is presented in a historical vacuum without any sense of context, intended to mislead its audience. This is exactly what the Soviet Union did starting in the late 1940’s – take those old canards and hateful caricatures, and harness them to persecute and demonize Jews now behind a façade of anti-Zionism. How soon we have forgotten the decades of oppression and incarceration of Soviet Jewish dissidents simply because of their identity.

These are the same dangerous myths that are rearing their ugly heads today.

Just this past July, two anti-Israel rallies, one in Toronto, one in Mississauga, graphically demonstrated how anti-Zionism is used as a cover for plain old antisemitism. They were organized by known hate groups with a strong presence on Ontario campuses. Far from peaceful, they quickly devolved into hatemongering and incitement to violence, with the chanting of slogans such as “intifada, intifada”, “from the river to the sea,” and most frightening of all, “The Jews are our dogs.” Is this any way to rally for human rights, here, in Ontario?

The Arab-Israeli conflict is longstanding and very complex. The only way to resolve the issues is for the two parties to sit down together at the negotiating table and have direct dialogue. Just recently, Canada applauded as Sudan followed UAE and Bahrain in establishing a peace agreement with Israel. The Middle East is rapidly changing and finally acknowledging Israel as a partner and a neighbour. This is the way of true progress and liberalism.

It’s time to leave the ancient myths and medieval tropes in the past, where they belong. To embrace each other and give each other space. To listen to one other. To rely on data and facts on the ground. To promote freedom. To build bridges, instead of threatening destruction. The IHRA definition of antisemitism will help to confront the escalating revival of an ancient hatred, and stop it once and for all, so that all of us may feel welcome and safe.

Thank you.


Randi Skurka

Randi Skurka is a writer and lay leader in the Jewish community, with a focus on education and antisemitism. She sits on the boards of Beth Sholom Synagogue and StandWithUs Canada, and holds a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies.

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.

Barrie Endorses Antisemitism Definition

Sept. 22, 2020 – As expected, the City of Barrie has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, after withdrawing the motion a month earlier for further consideration.

City council on Sept. 21 unanimously adopted a resolution that Barrie endorse the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, as codified at the IHRA plenary in May 2016.

Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor
Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor

It was the same resolution Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman withdrew at the 11th hour last month just before it was to go before the city’s General Council.

Lehman and members of council had received some 200 letters and emails, the vast majority from outside Barrie, opposing adoption of the IHRA definition, alleging its acceptance would stifle criticism of Israel and silence pro-Palestinian activism.

In a recent CJR interview, Lehman said he withdrew the measure party because he didn’t want council making a decision based solely on opposition to it.

The full council “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.”

In the interim, Lehman said he received support for the definition’s passage from “well beyond the [local] Jewish community. We had a number of community leaders speak to city council, and send in letters and emails of support.”

Councillors heard from both sides Monday night.

Rabbi Audrey Kaufman of Barrie’s Am Shalom Congregation told council the definition is not an attempt to silence criticism of Israel, reported Barrie 360.

“The IHRA definition has nothing to do with Israeli politics,” Rabbi Kaufman said in her deputation. “It’s not pro-Zionist, pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian. It does not prevent anyone from criticizing Israeli policies.”

She said accepting the IHRA definition “creates a sense of protection for the Barrie Jewish community. It is proof to us that expressions of hatred toward Jews will not be tolerated in this city and we have our municipal government’s full support,” Barrie 360 reported.

Critics of the IHRA definition called it counter-productive and said it has already been used to stifle Palestinian causes, including in this country.

The definition “has been used time and time again by its pro-Israel backers to silence voices for Palestinian human rights,” said Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, which led the charge against the measure.

In a statement, Noah Shack of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said that by adopting the resolution, the city “has sent a clear message: There is no place for antisemitism and hate in Barrie.”

Statistics Canada data confirm an “alarming trend of Jews being the country’s most frequent target of hate crime,” Shack continued. “This is not just a problem for Jewish communities – it harms society at large. The adoption of the IHRA definition is an important step in addressing this scourge. After all, you can’t effectively solve a problem if you can’t properly identify it.”

The definition has been endorsed by 35 countries, including Canada, and, according to CIJA, by the European Parliament and the United Nations. A bill incorporating the IHRA wording is before Ontario’s legislature.

Last week, the City of Brampton endorsed the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

– By CJR Staff