By Saif Khan
Editor - Ashleena Bilal
In the province of Ontario, Bill 168 is known as the “Combating Antisemitism Act,” which aimed to alter the legal definition of antisemitism in accordance with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliances views. According to Toronto’s BDS Network, the bill was first introduced in December of last year, and it passed it’s 2nd reading in the Ontario Legislature this February. Instead of a third reading taking place for the bill, the Ontario government unilaterally adopted the IHRA definition through an Order in Council on the 27th of October, due to the public outrage the bill was originally met with. On November 2nd, Ontario MPP Kaleed Rasheed stated that the controversial “illustrative examples'' of the IHRA definition, which equates criticism of Israel to antisemitism, had been excluded from Ontario’s adoption of the definition. However, on November 3rd, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) reported that statements from Ontario MPPs suggested that the examples remain in Ontario's adoption of the definition, leaving it unclear whether Ontario’s adopted definition equates criticism of Israel to antisemitism.
The definition in question is one that raises concern to Canadian academics and groups such as CJPME and Independent Jewish Voices Canada. In an open letter opposing the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, Canadian academics stated that they believed the definition “is worded in such a way as to intentionally equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism.” The hundreds of academics who signed the letter believe that the implementations of the IHRA’s views undermine the Palestinian struggle against occupation, as well as the true global struggle against antisemitism. Antisemitism by definition is a form of racism, and according to the #noIHRA campaign’s official website “the real fight against antisemitism must be joined to the struggle for equality and human rights for all people in Canada, in (occupied Palestine) and around the world.”
Independent Jewish Voices Canada, along with other groups such as Toronto’s BDS Network, put on a digital panel to unpack the IHRA. I had the chance of attending the webinar, where I learned more about the speaker's thoughts on the IHRA’s definition, how it threatens academic freedom, and how it’s weaponized by right-wing zionists against pro-Palestinian speech.
The panel’s first speaker was Dr. Sheryl Nestel from IJV, who started by speaking about the rise of the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. The definition was embraced by the IHRA in 2016, which then sparked a campaign for the definition to be embraced by institutions and governments. The IHRA is also heavily endorsed by the Israeli government, which only makes matters worse. Nestel spoke about an incident in the UK, where a fundraiser for Palestinian children was shut down due to the fundraiser being considered antisemitic under the IHRA definition. She also mentioned various incidents where universities in the US shut down pro-Palestinian initiatives, since the Trump administration also uses the definition, and how a conference in Germany was also almost shut down due to complaints backed by the definition. The original creator of the definition acknowledged that it’s being used in ways that were not of his intention, and though some people believe the IHRA definition is universal, there are tons of alternatives available by other organizations that challenge the definition. Nestel stated that by having special demands for antisemitism, the definition puts antisemitism over general racism, which is racist in itself. She believes that Palestinian hate is at the heart of the definition, since it focuses on defending Zionism rather than other issues such as white supremacy. Nestel also noted how the people that are often targeted by Zionists who use the definition are often racialized professionals, such as Angela Davis or Osgoode Hall Law School’s Faisal Bhabha.
Bhaba, who was also a panelist at the webinar, highlighted the fact that most right-wing free speech activists are silent on the topic of shutting down pro-Palestinian speech. Bhaba believes that the free speech of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims on the political left don't matter to said activists, and that institutions that value the IHRA definition practice selective free speech. The IHRA definition is used to distort the speech of the Palestinians in a way that is unique to the Palestinian people.
Other panelists, such as Dr. Greg Shupak and Dr. Nahla Abdo, elaborated on the points of the previous speakers. Shupak spoke about how use of the definition threatens the integrity of universities. The definition reinforces the pro-colonization narrative that many institutions aim to dismantle. He explained that the definition should not solely be framed under the context of threatening academic freedom and free speech, but as a threat to the educational and progressive environments of institutions as well. The professor believes that the definition’s use threatens students' education as well as collective anti-colonial liberation- which he believes is upsetting since universities are one of the last places where authentic understandings of truth and justice are fostered after neoliberalism has “hollowed out so much of our spaces”. The academic claims that this goes against educational institutions' mission of the truth and education.
Dr. Abdo reflected on the history of anti-Palestinian racism, and how the weaponization of the IHRA definition is in response to the increase of support for Palestine on campuses in North America and Europe. According the Abdo, the “unmasking” of Israel caused the Zionist lobby to retaliate, the IHRA definition being one of their strategies. The sociology professor went on to state that Palestinians aren’t policed solely by their local governments, but by the Zionist lobby as well. Various right-wing Zionist organizations work closely with institutions, and said organizations use the IHRA definition to police anything pro-Palestinian related on campuses. Abdo closed by speaking on Zionism itself, while connecting it to Canada’s own history as a settler colonial state. Zionism is an ideology that considers Jewish people entitled to their own state, which puts them above other people while racializing the Palestinians along with Jewish minorities. This isn’t different from many other settler colonial movements, such as the genocide of Indigenous people here in Canada. Settlers in Canada aimed to erase Indigenous culture and structure, and Israel hopes to do the same. This attempt to erase Palestinian history and struggle is supported by institutions who use the IHRA definition. If we can openly criticize our own nation without censorship, why can’t we do the same for Israel?
While it remains unclear what role the definition will play in suppressing pro-Palestinian speech in Ontario, it’s obvious that the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is a threat to Palestinian solidarity across the world. The IHRA’s definition goes against combating collective hate and racism, and that fact makes itself clear. Incidents such as the cancellation of a joint vigil for a bombing in Gaza and a synagogue shooting (due to claims that the event would portray Israel as a racist state), or a Holocaust survivor’s talk being censored by a Manchester university make this obvious. Both antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism are very serious and dangerous issues, and it’s important to fight against both collectively in a matter that doesn’t harm one or the other.