Governments and academic institutions across Canada are facing growing pressure to adopt a widely criticized definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The issue has already chilled academic freedom on campuses around the world.
A case for this contentious definition was made in a recent editorial in the Toronto Star. The op-ed’s authors also spoke at a town hall at the University of Toronto to further pressure Canada’s largest post-secondary institution to adopt the definition that equates legitimate protest against Israel with antisemitism.
In response to this pressure, more than 150 prominent Jewish faculty from across Canadian universities and colleges have made a historic statement. Many signatories share family histories profoundly shaped by the Holocaust and antisemitism.
We express a commitment to justice, which many of us believe is vital to an ethical Jewish life. Our letter asserts that addressing all forms of racism and discrimination, including antisemitism, is imperative.
We released the statement to express our alarm at attempts to intervene in campus activities relating to Israel and Palestine. The letter also expresses the deep concern we share at the upsurge in painfully familiar forms of antisemitism in recent years.
‘Certain perception of Jews’
The IHRA’s working definition offers a vague framing of antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and which may be “directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property.”
The problem is that this formal definition is tied to a series of examples, more than half of which equate criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism. The examples diminish Jewish identity, culture and theology into something static and unchanging, and they also equate Jewishness and Judaism with the state of Israel. This effectively erases generations of vigorous debate within Jewish communities.
The IHRA’s working definition also distracts from experiences of anti-Jewish racism and threatens to silence legitimate criticism of Israel’s grave violations of international law and denial of Palestinian human and political rights.
The issue is particularly pressing because the definition has been invoked by those seeking to interfere with governance and student life at Canadian universities. On campuses where this definition has been adopted, it’s been used to intimidate and silence the work of unions, student groups, academic departments and faculty associations that are committed to freedom, equality and justice for Palestinians.
Opposing the definition
A range of international Jewish institutions have recognized this problem. More than 500 Canadian academics signed an open letter on the subject, following multiple statements by Jewish and Israeli academics and Israeli citizens in the U.K., along with specialists in Jewish and Holocaust history, who oppose the adoption of the IHRA’s definition.
The New Israel Fund of Canada retracted their support for the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. University College London’s (UCL) Academic Board has advocated that the university reverse its previous adoption of the IHRA model.
The new letter by Jewish faculty at Canadian academic institutions joins these others and goes beyond them. We add our voices to a growing international movement of Jewish scholars, including those who have signed the recent Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, who insist that policies to combat antisemitism not be used to stifle legitimate criticisms of the Israeli state.
At the same time, we assert the right to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Legitimate form of protest
The signatories also recognize that the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a legitimate, non-violent form of protest. While some endorse BDS and some do not, all the signatories oppose equating its support with antisemitism.
We know there is serious and occasionally fractious disagreement on our campuses about antisemitism and criticism of Israel. But these disputes cannot be resolved by decree.
If the goal of the IHRA definition is to quell further criticism of Israel, it will surely fail, as it has at many academic institutions. Debates over Israel-Palestine have only intensified, as attested by the controversy over Cornel West’s tenure at Harvard, and the cancellation of a talk by renowned scholar-activist Angela Davis at Butler University.
Adopting a seriously flawed statement to confront antisemitism is antithetical to the broader pursuit of justice and tolerance that is at the core of the mission statements of many universities. Freedom to criticize the policies and practices of any state without exception, including the State of Israel, is central to accountable scholarship, learning and education.
Abigail B. Bakan, Professor, Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto, University of Toronto; Alejandro I. Paz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto; Anna Zalik, Associate Professor in Environment and Global Geography, York University, Canada, and Deborah Cowen, Professor, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto