By Michael Mostyn
On Saturday, Martha and Marty Roth took to the website of the Straight to oppose Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung’s bid for the City of Vancouver to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
Unfortunately, their contribution was replete with misconceptions that must be cleared up in order to understand the issue properly.
First of all, Coun. Kirby-Yung is absolutely right to note that Jews were the ethno-cultural group most frequently targeted for hate crimes in 2017, since that is exactly what Statistics Canada reported. In fact, the same was true in 2016, though antisemitic hate crimes spiked 63 percent from 2016 to 2017. This belies the Roths’ suggestion that modern Canadian antisemitism is a mere annoyance, rather than a serious and often criminal problem.
Of course, the Roths are correct to point out that anti-Muslim violence is also a serious concern in many Canadian cities. But this is not a zero-sum game. Vancouver should combat antisemitism—including by adopting the IHRA definition—with the same vigour that it combats anti-Muslim hate crimes.
It is critical to understand that the IHRA definition does not characterize criticism of Israel broadly as antisemitic, and to do so would be ludicrous. In fact, it explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic".
The IHRA definition was officially adopted by Germany over a year ago and by the United Kingdom more than two years ago, and there is no evidence whatsoever that critics of Israel in those countries are facing criminal sanctions or any restriction of their right to free speech.
Rather, the IHRA definition and its illustrative examples clarify that attempting to cloak antisemitic rhetoric or actions with terms like “Israel” or “Zionism” will not result in an automatic free pass. For example, accusing Canadian Jews of being disloyal Canadians intent on undermining the country for Israel’s benefit is a dangerous antisemitic canard. Characterizing this as mere “criticism of Israel” is tantamount to describing Canada’s shameful internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians on the same trumped-up charges during the Second World War as mere “criticism of Japan”.
Two prominent recent examples from right here in B.C. will suffice to show why the IHRA definition is necessary.
In 2017, a woodworking school on Gabriola Island summarily rejected a young man’s application, solely because he was an Israeli citizen. They claimed it was “Due to the conflict and illegal settlement activity in the region,” but then affirmed that they had no similar policy against citizens of any other country caught up in territorial disputes.
As the IHRA definition helpfully clarifies, this is antisemitism.
Last year, geography professors at UBC shunned an event organized by their Geography Students Association, just because it was set to be held at space owned by Hillel, the largest Jewish group on campus. The mere fact that Hillel supports the existence of the Jewish State (but not necessarily its government’s policies) was apparently enough to justify a boycott, in the eyes of certain professors.
Again, as elucidated by the IHRA definition, this is antisemitism.
Here at B’nai Brith Canada, we compile the Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which is cited by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among others. In 2018, the number of antisemitic incidents Canadawide reached a whopping 2,041 incidents, including a 126.7 percent increase in B.C. alone.
There is no time to lose as this problem grows and festers. Now is the moment for Vancouver to lead the way by adopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, and for every city in Canada to follow suit.