David I. Roytenberg
David I. Roytenberg

Response to Jewish Faculty in Canada Against IHRA

Recently 140 Canadian Jewish academics published a letter on line opposing the adoption of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. A slightly revised version of the letter subsequently appeared in Canada’s National Post. I’ve struggled to find the best way to express my sadness that Jewish academics would write such a letter. This post is my attempt to do that. You can find a link to the letter itself at the bottom of this article.

I’m very disappointed that Canadian Jewish academics would append their names to a statement that makes bizarre claims about the effect of the IHRA definition and its examples, and imputes to it negative objectives that are not found anywhere in its text. Rather than trying to refute the letter line by line, I am going to explain here why I believe that adopting the IHRA definition is a good thing and why this letter is not.

When a group that is subject to racist attacks tries to communicate and clarify the kind of speech and action that threatens them, drawing from their own experience over a twenty-year period, it is callous and irresponsible for others, claiming to speak as members of the same group, to undermine and delegitimize those claims by alleging that they are issued in bad faith or with an ulterior motive.

The fact that some advocates for Palestinians feel uncomfortable being told that attacks on Israel are sometimes antisemitic does not justify denouncing such claims as intended to chill or suppress Palestinian advocacy. Frankly, supporters of Palestinian advocacy seem to be very well represented and as vocal as ever in Canada’s academic realm and its media. What is almost never heard by most Canadians is the undeniable fact that sometimes people who claim to advocate for Palestinians are also promoting hatred against Jews.  That’s what IHRA tells us and there is no way of refuting it, because it’s true.

The adoption of IHRA is starting to make it known that some anti-Israel advocacy is antisemitic. If you examine some of the material being put out in the name of Palestinians it is difficult to argue that this is untrue. IHRA simply makes explicit the fact that anti-Israel advocacy is sometimes antisemitic, not in theory, but in practice, and not rarely, but regularly. This has real consequences for real Jews and IHRA is a way of making this fact plain.

If Jewish advocacy organizations sometimes accuse critics of Israel or advocates of Palestinian rights of expressing antisemitic ideas, on occasions when they are not, then that is not a problem with IHRA, but with the particular claims and the particular circumstances in which they are made. These cases need to argued on their own merits. Discrediting IHRA will not make life easier for critics of Israel, but it would do real harm to Canadian Jews who want to live in an environment free of antisemitic hatred and harassment.

By claiming malign intent by Jewish organizations in Canada who are fighting for the right of Jews to live and work in an environment not contaminated by hatred, this letter risks falling into the kind of depiction of sinister Jewish power that is one of the core features of antisemitism. Jewish organizations such as B’nai Brith and CIJA may take positions in support of the State of Israel with which the signatories differ, but these organizations represent a large swathe of Canadian Jewish opinion and they are operating in a legitimate capacity advocating for the views of the people they represent.

To impute sinister motives to the organs of the organized Jewish community does a grave injustice to those organizations that have the interests of Canadian Jews at heart, including the signatories of the letter advocating against the adoption of IHRA.  These organizations are doing their job by advocating for the adoption of IHRA in order to protect the Jews of Canada from antisemitism.  Sadly, the claim in your letter that these organizations are trying to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel by promoting IHRA, is an example of the kind of unjustified attacks on Jews that IHRA was developed to identify.

I would ask each of the signatories to this unfortunate letter to carefully read IHRA, especially the qualifying language that was purposefully added to it to ensure that nobody would take it to mean that criticism of Israel was necessarily antisemitic.  I hope that you will reconsider your position and recognize that the IHRA definition is no threat to anyone’s free speech.

Moreover, anger at the policies of Israel’s government does not justify carving out an exemption for Jew hatred that is promoted in the name of Palestinian rights or that claims to be simply criticism of Israel.  The impact of such thinking was found to have created a hostile atmosphere toward Jews within the UK Labour Party.  It would be tragic if left leaning organizations in Canada were to go down a similar path.

Here is a link to the letter I’m discussing in this article:


About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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