By Rachel Tetrault
The first time I really understood what it meant to be Jewish was when I was 14 years old. I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, where I was to give a speech about what Judaism represented to me in front of all of my family and friends.
Before this moment I hadn’t given it much thought—I grew up in southeast Vancouver, I went to Sir James Douglas Elementary school, and I was usually the only Jewish kid in my class. I understood that we lit candles and ate gelt (chocolate coins) during Hannukkah, searched for the afikomen (matzah) during Passover, and that somehow I got to celebrate all the Jewish holidays along with Christmas and Easter.
So in preparation for writing my bat mitzvah speech, I turned to my family for advice. My mom suggested I read a novel geared to youth about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and my dad suggested I ask my grandparents about some of their experiences surviving the Holocaust.
When the time came for my bat mitzvah and my speech, the main thing I had learned through my months of preparation was that being Jewish, to me, meant standing up to all forms of injustice.
This concern for injustice continued into my adult life. It’s what drove me to become a member of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and to speak out as a Jew in support of Palestinian liberation. And it is indisputable that extreme injustices are currently happening in Israel/Palestine.
This is also what drove me to speak out against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism prior to its adoption at the last Vancouver city council meeting. The IHRA definition lists the following phrase as an example of anti-Semitism: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
This is a very problematic and dangerous definition of anti-Semitism because it conflates critique of the state of Israel with being anti-Semetic.
You don’t need to dig too deeply to discover that the state of Israel is indeed a racist endeavor. And saying so does not make you or I an anti-Semite. Israel was formed in 1948 by driving out 750,000 Indigenous Palestinians from their lands and destroying 500 Palestinian villages. Israel openly privileges Jewish people over other citizens of Israel, particularly the Palestinians who make up 20 per cent of its population.
Just one example is the Israeli Law of Return. The Law of Return grants any person with one Jewish grandparent, who may have no connection to Israel or Palestine, immediate citizenship when they land in Israel. But members of Palestinian families that have lived in Israel/Palestine for hundreds of years are still not able to return to their homes. So, my husband, my two-year-old son and I can go to Israel tomorrow and be granted citizenship, even though I’ve never been there. My grandparents were from Poland, but my Palestinian friend whose grandparents were born in Haifa can’t return at all because his family was expelled, and he’s not Jewish.
In recent years, Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups (notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) have published reports that found Israeli laws and policy favour one ethnic group (Israeli Jews) over Palestinians, and thus Israel is committing the crime of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Israel itself. Yet some have suggested that calling Israel an apartheid state is anti-Semitic under IHRA’s definition. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Vancouverites, and people everywhere need to be able to call out human rights abuses in Israel without being subjected to such false accusations and smears.
IJV recently published a groundbreaking report on the suppression of speech on Palestine in Canada. The report features nearly 80 testimonials from students, activists, and academics in Canada who have been threatened, harassed, or censored because of their pro-Palestinian advocacy, and that IHRA’s definition could increase these instances if it was widely adopted. This is why other city councils in Montreal and Calgary, the University of Toronto, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and even Kenneth Stern, the author of the IHRA definition himself have either rejected the definition or cautioned against adopting it.
In the lead-up to Vancouver’s vote on adopting the IHRA definition, I was dismayed to see a pro-Israel lobbyist attack Harsha Walia with false accusations of antisemitism on Twitter, all because she spoke out against the definition. Walia is a well-respected anti-racist and anti-colonial activist. I fear that by adopting IHRA, Vancouver has only opened the door to more attacks like this against other anti-racist and pro-human-rights activists. Conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of a nation-state that is perpetrating injustice risks curbing legitimate discourse for all Vancouverites.
Yes, we need to fight against anti-Semitism and stamp it out where we see it—but the IHRA definition is clearly the wrong approach.
Rachel Tetrault is a community organizer and campaigner. She lives in Vancouver with her family.