Critical Thinking on Israel, not Coddling, Needed for Jewish University Students: Expert

Nov. 26, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A veteran of the wars against antisemitism warns Jewish students are being harmed more than protected when their universities stifle criticism of Israel.

Kenneth Stern has been fighting against antisemitism for more than 25 years, first with the American Jewish Committee and now as head of a major hate studies institute.

He argues in his new book on the Israel-Palestine debate that “safe zones” on campuses and speaking bans on Israel critics aren’t preparing modern students for the world they will have to face.

He told the recent annual meeting of JSpace Canada that rather than being sheltered from uncomfortable ideas, today’s students should be taught the critical thinking skills that will let them counter anti-Israel ideas with better ones of their own.

“Today’s students are being quarantined from difficult ideas, but we are all going to have to face disturbing ideas in our lives,” Stern told the online meeting. “There is too much of a push now saying students are fragile and need to be protected.”

In his new book, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, Stern argues that honest and free debate over Israel and the policies of its government are being stifled in the name of protecting students from uncomfortable ideas.

“There is a kind of group-think today that says some things shouldn’t be explored,” he said. “Our students need to learn how to fight over ideas.”

Stern’s book, which appeared earlier this year in the United States, was officially launched in Canada as part of the meeting. JSpace bills itself as a progressive Jewish voice.

Stern is director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, a lawyer and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism.

Reviews, like the one in The Jewish Independent, have described Stern’s book as “the most comprehensive assessment” of the Israel/Palestine debate. The reviewer also found it free of bias, noting the author “offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics…” 

The real core of the book, however, is an argument for free expression and the exercise of academic freedom, the review stated.

Stern told his JSpace audience that rather than suppressing anti-Israel ideals, universities should sweep away their anti-hate speech codes and instead empower students to speak out when they are faced with bigotry and hatred.

“In an ideal environment you want students to be able to say what they think, but if bigotry becomes normalized, some are going to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s important that students learn to speak out against things that make them uncomfortable.”

Before a civilized debate can be held, however, Stern has argued that terms must be defined: What actually is antisemitic as opposed to a legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies.

On that point, critics have found irony in the fact Stern was instrumental in helping to draft the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism currently being adopted by governments and universities around the world.

Canada adopted it last year, while Ontario recently imposed it through an Order in Council. Several Canadian cities and towns have endorsed it.

Critics of the definition have attacked its 11 attached examples of antisemitism, noting seven of them specifically equate criticism of Israel with Jew-hatred.

Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov, who reviewed Stern’s book in June for the CJR wrote: “It may also read as ironic, given that Stern was instrumental in drafting the definition that is now much debated, and which has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (and last year by Canada). But this is where the strength of the book lies: It is a principled discussion of free speech, whether or not one agrees with his threshold.”

Stern told the JSpace audience the IHRA definition was created as a way of gathering data on antisemitism in Europe and was never intended as a club to stifle free debate on the topic.

“The idea that some people are using it as a hate crime measure on campuses is despicable,” he said. “It was never intended to be used this way on campus. That is an absolute abuse of it.”

One result of efforts to censor anti-Israel speech on campus, he said, is to drive some students away from on-campus Jewish life when they find organizations fully committed to an “us-versus-them” vision. That is especially true, he said, of graduates of Jewish day schools who feel betrayed when they arrive on campus when suddenly faced with attacks on Israel for the “occupation” of Palestine.

One example of that, noted by the Jewish Independent reviewer, is Stern’s critique of the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International. It “proscribes engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

In the end, Stern argues that rather than turning anti-Israel speakers into martyrs by denying them a chance to air their ideas on campus, Israel supporters should be armed with the skills to refute those claims.

“Both sides are harming the academy by trying to chill the other,” he said. “Campuses should not be places where we censor free speech. They should be places where we mine it for what it is worth.”

The alternative to that environment of free speech, he said, is for government to define truth, “and I see danger there.”

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.

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.

Editorial: Kosher or Treif? Help Us Decide

Nov. 4, 2020

We had in mind to call this new addition to the CJR “Bouquets and Brickbats,” but somehow, “Kosher or Treif?” seemed more appropriate.

From time to time, the editors here would like to recognize individuals and groups for their work, whether it’s advancing Jewish ideals, pushing forward a positive agenda, or simply getting at the truth in an era in which objective truth is proving elusive.

On the other hand, we also need to know about those who, to put it politely, do not have our best interests in mind.

Recognition will be complimentary (K= Kosher) or critical (T=Treif). Please feel free to let us know if you agree by sending us your thoughts at canadianjewishrecord@gmail.ca

KOSHER: Andy Lulka is a Montessori advocate and educator. Her quiet but vital work on Holocaust education and confronting antisemitism from a point of intersectionality and anti-oppression is well known in the field. Despite health challenges, Andy has demonstrated that positivity and wisdom leads to strength of purpose.

KOSHER: York Regional Police, which has charged a white nationalist for “uttering threats” against two anti-racist activists in an online chat room. All to prove that hateful actions online can lead to serious consequences.

TREIF: Bobby Orr. The Canadian hockey legend’s fawning statement of support for Donald Trump only tells us that while he played stellar defence for the Boston Bruins, it turns out his embrace of a racist, sexist, misogynist candidate for president was nothing but offensive.

KOSHER: Mustafa Farook is the Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). His outreach to other faith communities has helped build many bridges. Most recently, following a swastika defacement of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Mustafa publicly tweeted, “…To the lowlife that did this, if you want to intimidate the Jewish community, or dishonour the fallen you have to come through us.”

TREIF: Maxime Bernier, leader of the so called People’s Party of Canada, tried to run for a seat in Toronto’s York Centre riding in the recent by-election. His anti-immigrant, climate change skeptic, anti-transgender policies were eagerly echoed by white supremacists and others of the same ilk. York Centre voters, speaking for most Canadians, soundly sent him packing with just 642 votes. But, alarmingly, at 3.6 percent of the total vote, Bernier did better than the Greens in York Centre.

KOSHER: Annamie Paul has become the first Jewish female person of colour to head a federal party, the Greens, in Canada. She faced down sexism, racism and antisemitism to do so. Mazal tov Annamie. A welcome addition to the political scene.

KOSHER: General John Vance and the Canadian Armed Forces. Despite a slow start, the military has taken decisive action to root out neo-Nazis and white supremacists from their ranks. Gen. Vance, the Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff, has issued new standing orders that will assist others in command to take decisive action against racists and haters in the military.

TREIF: Kimberly Hawkins, owner of the Toronto-based restaurant/caterer Foodbenders. Following a flurry of online rants last summer equating Zionists with Nazis, glorifying terrorism, and saying Jews control the media, Hawkins was hit with a lawsuit, two human rights complaints and now, a possible review of her business license by the City of Toronto. Even after she issued a wan apology, Hawkins kept posting her bilge. Her food is treif and she gives us heartburn.

KOSHER: The Hon. Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has initiated a bold new plan that would see thousands more immigrants and refugees welcomed to Canada as part of our pandemic economic recovery.

KOSHER: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and JSpace Canada for the unprecedented move of coming together without rancour to support the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that was approved last week by the Ontario government. This marks the first time in their collective histories that these Canadian Jewish groups from the left to the right of the Jewish political spectrum have issued a joint statement in support of an advocacy issue.