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.

Ontario Passed the Entire IHRA Definition, Government Says

Nov. 3, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Ontario’s government has flatly rejected claims that it dropped words linking criticism of Israel to antisemitism from a new order defining Jew-hatred in the province.

The Ontario Legislature

In a sudden move last week, the Progressive Conservative government cancelled public hearings on Bill 168, which adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism for Ontario. Instead, it passed an Order in Council approving the bill as law.

Opponents of the IHRA definition at first accused the government of trying to short-circuit debate by circumventing public hearings. In the days following the order, however, they suddenly claimed Ontario’s Order in Council dropped the most contentious clauses from the IHRA wording.

In an email to the CJR, a spokesman for Government House Leader Paul Calandra said the Ontario standard endorses the entire IHRA definition, including the “illustrative examples” that opponents found objectionable.

Owen Macri said the government moved “swiftly and immediately” to cancel public hearings and impose the IHRA definition by Order in Council after “a heinous act of antisemitism” at a Canadian war memorial in Ottawa last month.

“This government does not need a committee study to know that antisemitism is deplorable and fundamentally wrong,” he wrote. “We stand with Ontario’s Jewish community in defence of their rights and fundamental freedom.”

He also rejected arguments that cancelling hearings on the bill was undemocratic.

“We disagree fundamentally with the idea that it could ever be anti-democratic to condemn antisemitism,” he wrote. “The Government of Canada and other national governments have adopted the Working Definition of Antisemitism and have similarly done so as a decision of government.”

Approved in May 2016, the IHRA document defines antisemitism as “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 includes 11 “illustrative examples” of antisemitism meant to guide governments in using the document. According to those standards, antisemitism could include Holocaust denial, accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations, claiming the State of Israel is a racist endeavor, comparing Israeli policies to those of the Nazis, and holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.

As the bill enacting the new definition wound through the legislative process – it passed second reading last February and headed to committee – opponents, including groups like Independent Jewish Voices, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) and others, argued that the examples made the definition nothing but an attempt to silence their criticism of Israel.

In one critique, for example, IJV activist Sheryl Nestel argued, “First, we don’t believe the goal of the IHRA [working definition of antisemitism] is to address antisemitism. We believe its goal…is to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism.”

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, among others, have also opposed the definition and its examples as an infringement of academic freedom.

In the days following the Order in Council, however, opponents claimed to have been told by Conservative MPP Kaleed Rasheed (Mississauga East-Cooksville) that only the main text of the IHRA definition, not the examples, had been adopted.

Rasheed was quoted as telling a Zoom meeting with CJPME and other community groups: “Rest assured, the definition as adopted by the Order in Council does not include the IHRA definition’s illustrative examples.”

CJPME president Thomas Woodley declared in a news release: “This reveals that the Ontario government made a decision that its adoption of IHRA should not be used to silence political expression about Israel.”

Going forward, Woodley continued, “anyone who refers to the IHRA definition must recognize and respect the fact that the examples related to Israel have not been adopted by Ontario, and they are not applicable to evaluating speech in Ontario.”

The CJPME statement was later removed from its website after Rasheed denied making the claim. He told CJR in an email “This is not accurate and does not reflect my views or comments…”

York Centre Conservative MPP Roman Baber also noted the content of what Ontario had approved.

“The Order in Council explicitly provides that the ‘Government of Ontario adopts and recognizes the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary on May 26, 2016.’ The Illustrative Examples helped form the Plenary’s definition, are referenced in the Plenary’s definition, and are therefore part and parcel of the definition,” Baber told the CJR via email.

The claim that the Order in Council was selectively worded was also taken up by four Arab-Palestinian groups, which sent a letter to Premier Doug Ford thanking him for not including the definition’s illustrative examples, which they alleged “allow for criticism of the State of Israel to be labelled as antisemitism.”

Palestinian-Canadian groups “should be honest with their constituents about what has occurred,” responded B’nai Brith Canada wrote CEO Michael Mostyn in a statement on Oct. 30. “The Government of Ontario has adopted the leading definition of antisemitism, and has recognized that certain attacks on Israel can and sometimes do cross the line in Jew-hatred.

“The sooner they and all Ontarians internalize this fact, the better.”

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.

Ontario Endorses IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Jewish Groups Approve; Others are Upset

Oct. 27, 2020

Ontario has become the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism – motivated by the recent anti-Jewish vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

In a statement, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet “took swift and decisive action” on Monday (Oct. 26) to “adopt and recognize” the definition, even before the legislation could be passed.

“After a heinous act of antisemitism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa [on Oct. 14], it is crucial that all governments be clear and united in fighting anti-Semitism and our adoption of the working definition has done just that,” Calandra said in a statement on Oct. 27.

“The government of Ontario is proud to adopt and recognize the working definition of anti-Semitism. We stand with Ontario’s Jewish community in defence of their rights and fundamental freedoms as we always have and always will,” he said.

The “Combating Anti-Semitism Act,” known as Bill 168, passed second reading earlier this year. It sets out to use the IHRA definition as a framework for interpreting acts, regulations and policies going forward.

It was scheduled to go to committee hearings in late October for public input. But the government’s pre-emptive adoption of the definition means the committee suspended public hearings.

“The government decided to act swiftly in view of the events of Ottawa over the weekend,” York Centre Tory MPP Roman Baber told the CJR via-email, referring to antisemitic graffiti found etched into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the capital.

“It also seemed appropriate given the second anniversary of the Pittsburgh shooting [at the Tree of Life Synagogue],” Baber stated.

The legislation will not go to third reading he noted, “as we have accomplished what Bill 168 set out to do.”

The move to adopt the definition and bypass public hearings was carried out by an Order in Council, which read as follows:

“On the recommendation of the undersigned, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, by and with the advice and concurrence of the Executive Council of Ontario, orders that:

Whereas the Government of Ontario believes that everyone deserves to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity;

And Whereas systemic racism, including antisemitism, is a persistent reality in Ontario preventing many from fully participating in society and denying them equal rights, freedoms, respect and dignity;

And Whereas on May 26, 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) decided at its Plenary in Bucharest to adopt a working definition of antisemitism;

Now therefore the Government of Ontario adopts and recognizes the Working Definition of Antisemitism, as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary on May 26, 2016.

Premier and President of the Council

Approved and Ordered: October 26, 2020.”

Jewish groups issued statements approving the development. They did so jointly – for the first time in recent memory.

Ontario joins “a growing number of jurisdictions, at all levels of government and around the world, in taking action against the growing threat posed to our society by antisemitism,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

The IHRA definition “provides a framework that can help guide Ontario government institutions interested in understanding contemporary forms of antisemitism, such as Holocaust denial,” Fogel said.

The adoption of the definition and its many illustrative examples of antisemitism “is a major step forward. From high schools and university campuses to police hate-crime units, this announcement promises much-needed relief for Jews across the province,” stated B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.

“Ontario will now be equipped to identify and react to incidents of antisemitism in a clear and precise way, and be better positioned to prevent antisemitism and react to it whenever it rears its head anywhere in the province. We applaud the Ontario government for becoming the first province in Canada to adopt the IHRA definition,” said Mostyn.

Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), applauded the move.

He called the IHRA definition of antisemitism “a vital tool in the ongoing fight against hatred and discrimination targeting the Jewish community in Ontario…By making clear what antisemitism is and looks like, the IHRA definition will allow civil society and government to work together more effectively in our shared goal of eliminating hatred in our province.”

Karen Mock, president of JSpace Canada, remarked that “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. By adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the government of Ontario has demonstrated a commitment to implementing human rights and anti-racist policies.”

In a tweet, Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca welcomed the development, saying he “fully support[s] the decision by #ON  to adopt the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. There’s no place for hatred in Ontario, and this is an important step in the right direction.”

The New Democrats appeared to have been caught off guard by the government’s unexpected move.

In a statement on Oct. 27, the NDP said the government “secretly” adopted the legislation “behind closed doors and passed it by Ford edict instead of by democratic vote.”

Nearly 100 Ontarians asked for a chance to appear before the committee and “thousands” of messages were sent, the statement said.

“Antisemitism and antisemitic acts of hate are growing in Ontario, and we need to take concrete actions as a province to stomp out this growing, racist movement,” said NDP critic for the Attorney General Gurratan Singh. “Adopting a new definition of antisemitism should be done in consultation with the people of Ontario, and discussed in open and transparent debate.
 
“Excluding the voices of community members is no way to build a united coalition against hate.”
 
The NDP had voted for the bill on second reading “while explicitly and specifically saying it was doing so in order to ensure Ontarians would be welcomed into committee hearings, and amendments could be proposed,” the statement said.

Questioned by reporters later, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said she had “no idea” how the bill was handled.

“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the government moved ahead on it. When we’re changing the laws in Ontario, we should really have public hearings.”

She said this and other examples of the Ford government cancelling public hearings are “pretty dictatorial. We were waiting to see the outcome of the public hearings and we didn’t get that opportunity, which is the whole point of having a democracy. You’re supposed to actually listen to people and not just ram things through.”

Groups that have opposed the IHRA definition because they believe it would silence criticism of Israel and squelch support for Palestinians were angered by the Ford government’s move, charging that was undemocratic.

NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown, in a Facebook post, said she found it “appalling” that the government “did an end-run around democracy and snuck the IHRA definition through by order-in-council, the day before it was to go to justice committee hearings and the day before 100s of civil society organizations had asked to speak to it.

“It is obvious that they were afraid of the storm of public disgust that was on their way in committee — including by many respected Jewish public figures.”

Montreal-based Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which supports the BDS campaign against Israel, condemned the Conservative government “for pulling the plug on democracy in an attempt to protect Israel from criticism.”

“We were less than 24 hours away before members of the public were set to testify before the committee about the dangers of IHRA in regards to free expression,” said Michael Bueckert, vice president of CJPME. “Apparently, the Ontario government didn’t like to see that they were receiving thousands of emails opposing IHRA, and they shamefully decided to pull the plug before Ontarians had a chance to share their opinions,” said Bueckert.

Another pro-BDS group, Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, said the government’s “anti-democratic order is fitting for the IHRA definition, which poses such a grave threat to democratic principles of free expression and the right to protest.

“One thing is for certain: that we will not be deterred from our efforts to denounce the state of Israel for its systemic racism against the Palestinians. If that means we will be engaging in civil disobedience, then so be it,” said a statement from Corey Balsam of IJV.

Mira Sucharov, professor of political science at Carleton University and founding co-chair of the Jewish Politics division at the Association for Jewish Studies, acknowledged that the Ontario government needs to combat antisemitism. “But by conflating criticism of Zionism with antisemitism, this particular definition is the wrong way to go about it,” she told the CJR.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism is opposed by other organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and more. More than 450 Canadian academics signed an open letter opposing the IHRA definition’s adoption by universities, citing threats to academic freedom.

The working definition has been adopted by 35 countries, including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Several cities have also endorsed it, while others have shelved it.

Bill 168 was a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MPP Will Bouma in late 2019 and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin.

* The above expands a previous version of this story with quotes from the NDP, and clarifies that the Ford government’s move to adopt the IHRA definition unilaterally was done with all-party support.

Breaking News: Ontario Endorses IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Oct. 27, 2020

Ontario has become the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism – motivated, it seems, by the recent anti-Jewish vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

In a statement, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet “took swift and decisive action” on Monday (Oct. 26) to “adopt and recognize” the definition, even before the passage of legislation currently before the house.

The “Combating Anti-Semitism Act,” known as Bill 168, passed second reading earlier this year and was scheduled to go to committee hearings this week for public input. It contained the IHRA definition as a guide for interpreting acts, regulations and policies going forward.

The government’s pre-emptive adoption of the definition, done with all-party approval, according to a CJR source, means that the committee has suspended hearings on Bill 168. Several communal organizations were scheduled to speak both in favour of and against the bill.

“After a heinous act of anti-Semitism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa [on Oct. 14], it is crucial that all governments be clear and united in fighting anti-Semitism and our adoption of the working definition has done just that,” Calandra said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The government of Ontario is proud to adopt and recognize the working definition of anti-Semitism. We stand with Ontario’s Jewish community in defence of their rights and fundamental freedoms as we always have and always will,” he said.

The move to adopt the definition and bypass public hearings was done by an Order in Council, which read as follows:

“On the recommendation of the undersigned, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, by and with the advice and concurrence of the Executive Council of Ontario, orders that:

Whereas the Government of Ontario believes that everyone deserves to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity;

And Whereas systemic racism, including antisemitism, is a persistent reality in Ontario preventing many from fully participating in society and denying them equal rights, freedoms, respect and dignity;

And Whereas on May 26, 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) decided at its Plenary in Bucharest to adopt a working definition of antisemitism;

Now therefore the Government of Ontario adopts and recognizes the Working Definition of Antisemitism, as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary on May 26, 2016.

Premier and President of the Council

Approved and Ordered: October 26, 2020.”

Jewish groups issued statements approving the development. They did so jointly – for the first time in recent memory.

Ontario joins “a growing number of jurisdictions, at all levels of government and around the world, in taking action against the growing threat posed to our society by antisemitism,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

The IHRA definition “provides a framework that can help guide Ontario government institutions interested in understanding contemporary forms of antisemitism, such as Holocaust denial,” Fogel said.

The adoption of the definition and its many illustrative examples of antisemitism “is a major step forward. From high schools and university campuses to police hate-crime units, this announcement promises much-needed relief for Jews across the province,” stated B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.

“Ontario will now be equipped to identify and react to incidents of antisemitism in a clear and precise way, and be better positioned to prevent antisemitism and react to it whenever it rears its head anywhere in the province. We applaud the Ontario government for becoming the first province in Canada to adopt the IHRA definition,” said Mostyn.

Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), applauded the move.

He called the IHRA definition of antisemitism “a vital tool in the ongoing fight against hatred and discrimination targeting the Jewish community in Ontario…By making clear what antisemitism is and looks like, the IHRA definition will allow civil society and government to work together more effectively in our shared goal of eliminating hatred in our province.”

Karen Mock, president of JSpace Canada, remarked that “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. By adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the government of Ontario has demonstrated a commitment to implementing human rights and anti-racist policies.”

According to CIJA, the IHRA definition has been adopted by “dozens of countries and other institutions, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.”

Bill 168 was a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MPP Will Bouma in late 2019 and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin.

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.