Get Tough With Social Media, Say Global Lawmakers

Nov. 18, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish advocacy agencies are calling for stiff fines, cuts in government spending for online advertising, and new regulations to force social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to get tough with online hatemongers.

B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) and other organizations told a panel of international lawmakers recently that getting tough is the only way to get the tech giants to help drain the cesspool of online antisemitism polluting their platforms.

The groups made their points during the first public hearing of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism. That body, comprised of lawmakers from Canada, the United States, Israel, Great Britain and Australia, launched in September to deal with the growing problem of online hate.

“In the crisis we are facing now this issue has become all the more pervasive,” said Michael Levitt, CEO of FSWC. “We are seeing antisemitism being weaponized now under the thinly-veiled guise of anti-Zionism.”

One suggested tactic is to form an agency like the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, a voluntary, self-regulatory body created by the country’s private broadcasters to deal with viewer complaints about news and entertainment programs.

Another is to make directors and officers of social media companies personally responsible for allowing their platforms to be used for hate speech.

“The platforms offer an unprecedented opportunity to spread antisemitism,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of FSWC Canada’s campaign against antisemitism. “They have to be held responsible for the material they publish.”

In a news release following its presentation, Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said after years of pressure, “there have been some clear signs that social media platforms are gradually coming around,” but the problem is far from solved.

What’s needed, said Mostyn, is greater transparency and a chance to provide input to their policies.

“If necessary, governments and civil society must exert a leadership role. The Jewish community is absolutely ready to contribute to these efforts,” he said.

In its testimony, B’nai Brith argued a key to combating online hate and antisemitism is to define the problem for a global audience. One such tool is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism. That definition has been adopted by several Canadian municipalities, the federal government, and recently in Ontario.

B’nai Brith also argued antisemitism should be seen as an issue of human rights, not simply one of religious freedom. Many of its current forms must be understood as “hatred and demonization of the State of Israel that exceeds the boundaries of legitimate policy criticism.”

“A clear legal and policy framework – domestically and internationally – is required to bring coherence to efforts to take down hate.”

Agencies around the world have noted shocking rises in antisemitism, often driven by driven by conspiracy theories about Jews being responsible for the COVID pandemic. In Canada B’nai Brith has noted an 11 per cent rise in online antisemitism and harassment that often advocates genocide.

Social media companies haven’t been ignoring the problem. Earlier this year, for example, Twitter began flagging some tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump for violating policies that ban threats of harm against an identifiable group.

And last month, Facebook announced a new policy banning Holocaust denial.

In an email exchange, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform found and removed nearly 90 percent of hate speech content before being reported, and in the first quarter of 2020, took action against 9.6 million postings.

Over the last year, “we’ve conducted 14 strategic network disruptions to remove 23 different banned organizations, over half of which supported white supremacy,” the spokesperson said.

In Canada, the company’s work has included a $500,000 program announced earlier this year for the Global Network Against Hate, in partnership with Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

Other Canadian participants in the task force include Members of Parliament Anthony Housefather (Liberal), Marty Morantz (Conservative) and Randall Garrison (NDP). Israel is represented by MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White).

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.

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.”