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.”

Groups that have opposed the IHRA definition because they believe it would silence criticism of Israel and squelch support for Palestinians were not pleased with the Ford government’s move.

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 & University Chair of Teaching Innovation, 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.

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.

To see the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and illustrative examples, click here: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism

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.