Since the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last October, much ink has been spilled on the rise of antisemitism. Rightly so, given clear evidence that the world’s oldest hate is seeing a dangerous resurgence.
Mass violence targeting Jewish institutions in Europe and the US remind us that Jew hatred in its most extreme is a deadly toxin. Research suggests Canadians are not immune. Statistics Canada’s annual hate crime report consistently points out that Jewish Canadians are the most frequently targeted group for such incidents.
And while many commentators have eloquently exposed the complex nature of antisemitism (including its manifestation in far left, far right, and Islamist forms), too few have offered constructive solutions. How can we begin to tackle an ideology, especially one fueled by technology that enables radicalization as never before?
There have been times – more than a few – in history in which Jews could not count on authorities to protect their lives, let alone secure their basic rights and freedoms. No reasonable observer could suggest this about Canada in 2019, which is one of the most blessed countries in the world that a minority could hope to call home.
The challenge is not one of will, but ability. Because antisemitism constantly adapts itself to changing political and social conditions, it can be challenging for authorities to identify newer manifestations of Jew hatred. If authorities cannot spot it, we cannot expect them stop it – at least with any consistency or objectivity.
This is true when it comes to police investigations of hate crimes. It is true in cases of antisemitic bullying on university campuses and in public schools. And it is particularly true when antisemitism masks itself in the language of human rights advocacy by targeting Israel, Israelis, and anyone who expresses an affinity for the Jewish state.
The foundation of all efforts to shield Canadians from the global rise of Jew hatred must be a consensus-based definition of antisemitism. This is why the Government of Canada’s decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, announced on Tuesday as part of Canada’s anti-racism strategy, is a valuable contribution for which CIJA had long advocated.
While the IHRA definition is non-legally binding, it can serve as a practical tool in helping Canadian authorities at all levels address incidents in their respective domains. Indeed, it is already central to government efforts in Europe to combat antisemitism, including in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. It is sought as a reference by educators and authorities precisely because it captures a range of antisemitic slurs and conspiracy theories, recognizing that Jew hatred has reincarnated itself in new forms throughout history.
Most important, it delves into antisemitism masquerading as critique of Israel. The definition states that criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against other countries cannot be viewed as antisemitic. This excerpt offers a valuable measure in protecting legitimate free speech from unfounded accusations of hate. At the same time, it also explicitly confirms that anti-Zionism – the denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination – is clearly antisemitic. As Martin Luther King Jr. once noted: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking antisemitism.”
Sadly, far too many seem unable to connect the dots between the demonization of the Jewish state and hatred of Jews. This is not an abstract matter. Two months ago, a public high school in the Greater Toronto Area was found to be hosting a grade twelve class project promoting the allegation that Israelis use Palestinian inmates as human guinea pigs for pharmaceutical testing.
A quick Google search would have uncovered the fact that the allegation has been debunked as a lie. And a brief reading of the IHRA definition would have exposed how blood libels targeting Israelis are a modern form of antisemitism, recalling similar libels once used to instigate mob violence against Jews. And yet, the project was permitted to continue until community members brought it to light. The school board subsequently took action to shut it down, apologize, and begin the process of repairing the damage within the school.
No problem can be confronted without clear terms of reference. The government is wise to adopt the IHRA definition as part of its anti-racism efforts. Canadian officials would be right to make use of it, with the knowledge that, while Jews may be their immediate target, antisemites left unchecked pose a danger to broader society.