Martha and Marty Roth: Two Jewish Canadians fear freedom to condemn Israel’s brutal occupation today may be hate speech tomorrow

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      By Martha and Marty Roth

      Two elderly Jewish Canadians are writing this opinion piece against the motion to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which Vancouver city council will consider at their meetings on July 23 and 24.

      The definition in question reads as follows: “Antisemitism is 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 addresses Jewish antisemitism only, ignoring the more flagrant expressions of racist hatred targeting the Muslim, First Nations, East or South Asian and black communities of Canada. But more to the point, the examples of antisemitism appended to the definition mostly concern criticisms of Israel rather than antisemitic statements, and thus, we believe, serve as serious checks on free speech.

      As Canadians who lived through the Second World War, we are extremely sensitive to antisemitism, but what disturbs us almost as much as antisemitism itself are the manufactured incidents of antisemitism and the inflated fear of antisemitism that have been increasing of late, often at the expense of our Muslim fellow citizens.

      We remember a time when Jewish students changed their names before applying to medical school or law school, because these had quotas for Jews; a time when a boatload of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe was turned away from North American ports, because "none is too many." These are examples of genuine antisemitism, and we don't believe their equivalents can be found today in Canada or the U.S. But minor slurs, the kind that are protected by our charter's guarantees of free speech, are solemnly reported as major incidents.

      A relevant case in point is Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung’s contention that “Statistics Canada reports that members of the Jewish community are the most frequently targeted ethno-cultural group when it comes to police-reported hate crimes.” We have searched the Internet for Statistics Canada postings, and we can find no such statement.

      The most recent of these covers police-reported hate crimes for 2017 and what it tells us is that in 2017 reported hate crimes targeting Muslims increased more than 207 percent, crimes targeting black populations more than 84 percent, and those targeting Jewish populations more than 41 percent, and that hate crimes in 2017 represented only 0.1 percent of the more than 1.9 million non-traffic crimes reported by police services that year.

      In Alberta and British Columbia combined, there were only 68 reported anti-Jewish hate crimes. In Vancouver that number was 19. But what we should bear in mind is that 85 percent of the antisemitic hate crimes were acts of mischief, that violence is enacted against Muslims not Jews. Organizations like B’nai Brith go to extravagant lengths to convince us that antisemitism is a growing problem in Canada. It isn’t. What is growing is disapproval of Israeli policies as recent surveys indicate.

      While it is true that antisemitism along with other prejudices have no place in Canadian society, the IHRA definition is both too broad and too vague to combat these hatreds. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (and the Ontario Civil Liberties Association) has judged the definition too vague to serve as a basis for administrative or legal action. The City of Vancouver already has sanctions in place that discourage or outlaw declarations of Islamophobia, white supremacy, antisemitism, and other forms of racism. They should be invoked in instances of genuine antisemitism.

      Today, if we say that Israel has been engaged for 61 years in the brutal occupation of lands conquered in war and held in defiance of international law, that is protected speech, even if you disagree with it. Will it be a hate crime tomorrow?