Ten Holocaust survivors who have made it their mission to educate younger generations about the dangers of antisemitism and racism were honoured by the Ontario government in a virtual ceremony on Nov. 5.
The annual ceremony, usually held at Queen’s Park, was scheduled for last spring but postponed due to COVID. This year’s virtual event was held during Holocaust Education Week, Nov. 2-9.
The theme of this year’s event was “passing the torch” – fitting, given that the honourees were all speakers at the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and had dedicated hours to talking to students about their experiences, said Fran Sonshine national chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, in remarks that were recorded earlier at the Holocaust memorial in Toronto’s Earl Bales Park.
This year’s honorees were Hedy Bohm, Esther Fairbloom, Pola Goldhar, Denise (Fikman) Hans, Mark Lane, Faigie (Schmidt) Libman, Rose Lipszyc (née Handelsman), Captain Martin Maxwell, Andy Réti and Gershon Israel Willinger.
Each honoree had received a certificate, often surrounded by their children and grandchildren, in outdoor ceremonies recorded earlier.
The survivors spoke briefly, often thanking Canada for taking them in after the Second World War, and giving them a second chance to build a life – and about the importance of teaching young people about the Holocaust.
“I hope in the future to continue Holocaust education,” said Bohm. “My goal has been and always was to make young people feel empowered to stand up and speak against any type of prejudice.”
MPPs Roman Baber, Will Bouma, Rima Berns-McGown, Gila Martow, and Steven Del Duca, leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario, introduced each honoree.
Premier Doug Ford praised the honourees’ “unbelievable bravery,” saying their “resilience and strength continue to inspire me.”
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, spoke about the “alarming rise” of antisemitism, assaults and Holocaust denial, even in democratic, western societies.
“What I have to come to realize is that the Sisyphean task of combating antisemitism necessitates continuous activity on three levels: legislation, prosecution and education,” Baram said in her remarks.
“Every time elected officials speak up against antisemitism and draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not, every time a Holocaust survivor provides testimony, every time a story of the Righteous Among the Nations is told in public, every step brings us closer to developing an antidote to hatred and racism,” Baram said.
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.
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.”