Dec. 7, 2020
By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism does not stifle criticism of Israel or discredit advocacy for Palestinian rights, says Canada’s first ever Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
A key role for Irwin Cotler, who was named to the new post by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 25, is leading Canada’s delegation to the IHRA, an intergovernmental organization founded more than 20 years ago and headquartered in Berlin.
Canada endorsed the legally non-binding working definition of antisemitism, formulated in 2016, in June 2019 as part of an anti-racism plan. This October, Ontario became the first province to accept the definition.
Opponents of the definition point to clauses that make it antisemitic to claim that the existence of Israel is “a racist endeavour” or to apply a “double standard” to Israel not expected of other democratic nations.
This is an unpaid, part-time position for Cotler, 80, whose work with the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which he founded after leaving politics in 2015 and chairs, will continue as before.
Charges that the IHRA definition will be used as a weapon against pro-Palestinian advocacy, including the promotion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, are unwarranted and disingenuous, Cotler believes.
“It’s turning it on its head,” he told the CJR in an interview. “There is no intention to silence Palestinian advocacy; on the contrary. The definition states clearly that criticism of Israel is not in itself antisemitism…What is antisemitic is denying Israel’s right to exist. Singling out Israel for opprobrium and indictment is hateful, and to not say so is discriminatory.”
Cotler said he “fully affirms Palestinian rights, that the Palestinians are a people with the right to self-determination, including a free, independent and fully protected state. I have said it over and over again.”
As envoy, he is tasked to support the implementation of the definition across the country and internationally, in concert with civil society and academia.
“The definition is the first international normative set of standards for understanding what antisemitism and facilitating how to combat it in domestic and foreign policy,” he explained. “It’s basically a set of metrics as to when the line is crossed.”
Cotler urged the creation of the Special Envoy position during a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau in late 2019. Most of Canada’s allies, and notably the United States and United Kingdom, have had similar posts for years.
“I’m committed to doing this for one year. Then I’ll be happy to hand it over to somebody else,” said Cotler, who was a member of the Canadian delegation at the IHRA’s founding in Stockholm.
He stressed that the definition is an affirmation of “the right of the Jewish people and Israel to live as equal members of the family of nations…It’s anchored in international human rights and equality laws.”
In his home province and city, the definition has not gained much traction. A motion to adopt it has not come before the National Assembly, and the City of Montreal last year shelved it for further study.
“It’s an educative process,” said Cotler. “When people better appreciate that this is basically an anti-discrimination framework, protecting Jews individually and collectively, I believe they will adopt it. But as long as there are voices misrepresenting what it is, it will take a while.”