Racism, Palestine and the IHRA: Letter to Barrie City Council

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) applauds Barrie, Ontario, Mayor Jeff Lehman for withdrawing a motion to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism on August 10, 2020.

Motion 8.2, Adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism was due to be voted on by Barrie City Council on Monday evening. However, he withdrew it Monday afternoon on account of uproar by concerned Canadians, including many Barrie residents.

Barrie now joins several major Canadian cities which have considered adopting the IHRA definition, but have either had the motions withdrawn or defeated, including Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary. IJV rallied significant grassroots opposition in all four of these cities. Well over 100 IJV members and supporters sent letters to Barrie city councillors urging them to vote against this particular motion.

“This is another major victory for all who oppose antisemitism and support Palestinian human rights,” said Corey Balsam, IJV’s National Coordinator. “We strongly believe that our safety as Jews is intimately tied with the safety and well-being of other communities targeted by hate and bigotry, and that includes the Palestinian people. We congratulate the City of Barrie for its decision to abandon the IHRA’s problematic definition and strongly encourage other cities and provinces in Canada to follow suit.”

IJV is concerned with recent examples of antisemitism and racism in Barrie, including swastikas being spray-painted on a public playground earlier this summer. However, we strongly believe that the IHRA does little to curb antisemitism, and instead is primarily geared toward shutting down activism in support of Palestinian human rights.

“Barrie, like the rest of Canadian society, is absolutely due for a hard discussion about racism,” says Dan Freeman-Maloy, an IJV member originally from Barrie who wrote a powerful open letter (see below) to Mayor Lehman and Barrie City Council. “Abandonment of the offensive, counter-productive IHRA definition of antisemitism will hopefully be one of many steps in the right direction. Those of us with long-established links to Jewish life in Barrie – and people of conscience of all backgrounds – should agree that Palestinians deserve the same freedoms as everyone else, including the freedom to speak freely against the crushing oppression they face from the Israeli government without facing smears.”

While backers of the IHRA definition have tried to present it as innocuous and legally non-binding, they have also attempted to weaponize the definition in order to shut down freedom of expression in relation to Israel-Palestine. Recently, an attempt was made to pass the IHRA at the University of Toronto in order to stifle the non-violent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign on campus. And in a bizarre ironic twist, B’nai Brith Canada jumped on comments made by York University professor Faisal Bhabha in a debate on the legitimacy of the IHRA itself to urge the university administration to punish him by revoking classes.

Opposition to the IHRA definition has become increasingly widespread around Canada, and throughout the world. Kenneth Stern, the original author of the definition now used by the IHRA, has denounced the fact that right-wing groups are weaponizing it in order to silence voices for Palestinian human rights, including Jewish students and faculty. In Canada, over 400 academics have so far signed an open letter denouncing the IHRA definition, and cautioning against the impact it could have on academic freedom.

IJV’s objections to the IHRA re-definition are detailed in its recent report, in which it deconstructs the definition line by line and warns of the dangerous consequences of its adoption both for the fight against antisemitism and the movement for Palestinian human rights.

Currently there is a private member’s bill before the Ontario legislature that would implement the IHRA definition at the provincial level where it has thus far passed second reading.

For more information, please see www.noihra.ca. •

This article first published on the IJV Canada website.

The following open letter was written by Dan Freeman-Maloy, an IJV member and academic researcher originally from Barrie, Ontario, in response to news that Barrie City Council was to consider a motion to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) redefinition of antisemitism on Monday, August 10th.

Dear Barrie City Council,

I am writing to oppose in the strongest possible terms your proposed motion on antisemitism (Item for Discussion 8.2, August 10, 2020). I trust that early support for this motion has been based on misunderstanding – I can see how, on first glance, it might seem like a good thing. If passed, however, the motion will have no credibility whatsoever, and those voting for it will have put themselves on the wrong side of one of the defining debates of our time.

The racist graffiti in Ward 2 was both an expression of an underlying racism that exists in Barrie and a reminder of our responsibility to combat it. Coming in the midst of a reckoning with racism across Canadian society, the vandalism offers yet another reason, if any were needed, to look for opportunities to act against racism. Under these circumstances, I can see why this motion might look like a step in the right direction. It is not. The problem is not only that its wording is vague to the point of being meaningless. The motion is worse than meaningless. I urge you to redirect the decent impulses behind early support for this motion in a less harmful direction.

Should the motion pass, people of conscience will have no choice but to view it as a cynical exercise that should be ignored, another in the pile of obstacles to acting decently in an oppressive world. This probably seems like a harsh judgment. Once you review the details, I think you will agree it is fair.

To that end, this letter consists of four brief parts. The first deals with problems of racism that we need to address. The second deals with decent initiatives in this area. The third reviews why, on the face of it, this motion is meaningless. The fourth shows that the motion is in fact worse than meaningless. What you are being asked to participate in is an oppressive maneuver in tolerant guise.

If anything, I am understating the case. Below I will show how you are being asked to join the wrong side of an ongoing debate about the politics of exclusion. Partisans of Israel are overplaying their hand. If you pass this motion, it will force the introduction into Barrie politics of a debate about Palestine that had not been taking place before this ill-advised motion was introduced.

Racism in Barrie

It’s been nearly a century since the days when the Ku Klux Klan made their ignoble appearance in Barrie politics. For its part, the Klan was never as strong here as out west, where thousands rallied around burning crosses in Saskatchewan. But after setting up a burning cross on Bayfield St. in 1926 – where Bayfield meets the 400 and looks down on the lake – the Klan did bomb Mary’s Roman Catholic Church that June. Racism is part of our local heritage. On the theme of anti-Catholic bigotry, I hope it is not too impolite to note that we are one of those few parts of the world in which the Orange Order achieved mainstream respectability, as any with roots in the area will know.

Those of us who grew up as self-identified Jews in late twentieth-century Barrie didn’t face the brunt of racial prejudice. Some bullies could be antisemites, but those I knew in the school system who faced antisemitic prejudice knew it was nothing compared to the bigoted filth they saw directed at Indigenous children. My own memories point in other directions. “I’m not a racist, but I hate Pakis,” is a comment I remember hearing when inter-regionals brought some Central Collegiate sports team into competition with students from Brampton.

I can remember hearing the racist verb “Jewed” used once or twice, but not nearly so often as “gyped.” It should go without saying that the swastikas recently scrawled on Ward 2 playground equipment were the symbols of a Nazi government that targeted Roma or “Gypsies” with the same ferocity that it targeted Jews. While others have tended to be the priority targets of racists in Barrie, this legacy absolutely demands attention, investigation, and to be pulled up by the roots.

We all know that the problems persist. In 2004 the United Nations criticized Canada for failing to come to grips with how “racism has come to imbue the culture, mentalities, behaviours and even the deepest subconscious” of Canadian society, in the words of the Diène Report. After some delays, the federal government put some decent words on paper: in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report, for example, or the federal Anti-Racism Strategy for 2019-2022. Unfortunately, the federal Anti-Racism Strategy looked more like a branding exercise than a plan of action. The exercise fell flat when the photos emerged of a young Justin Trudeau in blackface.

In any case, the problem persists. Far-right hate groups, we have recently learned, have proportionally more online participation from Canada than from almost anywhere else in the English-speaking West. This was the finding of a June 2020 report produced by the British Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), entitled An Online Environmental Scan of Right-Wing Extremism in Canada. And then we see the nooses at Toronto construction sites. And now we see swastikas scrawled on Ward 2 playground equipment. Action in this area is indeed urgent.

Still, the proposed motion is worse than useless. It is counter-productive.

Some Decent Initiatives and “the Racist Iceberg”

The nooses displayed at Toronto construction sites, like the swastikas in Ward 2, are surface manifestations of a deeper problem. Beneath the surface lies what Doudou Diène, the author of the 2004 UN report on racism in Canada, referred to as the “submerged part of the racist iceberg,” the size of which “Canada does not appear to have grasped.”

Every once in a while we are shocked into talking about surface bigotry. There was that moment in 1995 after CBC broadcast the neo-Nazis in the Canadian Airborne Regiment, playing out their master-race fantasies in Somalia. “In this video,” Sherene Razack reminds us, “we see a Black soldier being smeared with faeces spelling out the words ‘I love the KKK,’ then tied to a tree and sprinkled with white flour. He is later made to crawl on all fours and to suffer a simulated sodomizing.” This was the hazing of a Canadian soldier. You can refer back to what was done to Somali youth.

Then, in January 2020, we discover that former Canadian Armed Forces reservist Patrik Mathews was plotting armed action as part of a neo-Nazi organization called The Base. Surface manifestations of white supremacy like this demand an organized fight.

But the sharpest critics of racism in Canada tell us that we are not allowed to be surprised. One of the most important political leaders in this country this century, the late Arthur Manuel of the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia, made this crystal clear. He reminded us that the legal basis on which Indigenous land is stolen is still a Christian doctrine of discovery. Because Indigenous peoples were not Christian their lands were considered up for grabs by Europeans. Manuel dismisses happy Canadian words about tolerance that fail to challenge “the idea that white people have the inherent right to claim title to Indigenous lands, or the lands of black or brown peoples.” Canada cannot address its racism against Indigenous people, Manuel insists, while still using a doctrine of Christian discovery to restrict Indigenous land rights to what he estimates as 0.2 per cent of the Canadian landmass.

Likewise, all the talk about combating anti-Black racism will ring hollow so long as, to take a recent southern Ontario example, a developer like Metrolinx is allowed to profit by stabbing local communities in the back. As Jane Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP) argued: “Taking away public land and selling it for profit to developers while we sorely need public spaces for programs and services is not only unacceptable it is outrageous and a continuation of the above oppressive, gentrifying and racist policies and practices.” If we care about racism, there is much work to do.

The proposed Barrie motion is not a challenge to racism, however. It is a smear job on people who are trying to deal with horrific problems of exclusion in another context – namely, in Palestine.

Meaningless on the Surface

On its own terms, the motion as presented to you looks meaningless, not worse than that. You are asked to support an IHRA definition of antisemitism that reads like well-intentioned hot air. Well, why not?

It is worse than meaningless, but looking only at the 38-word definition included in the motion, it is hard to see why. The 38 words fill out two sentences. Together they mean, well, nothing.

Let’s go through the two empty sentences. “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews,” the first sentence begins. Weak, but fair enough. What kind of perception? The first sentence adds only that it is a perception “which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” So far we have an undefined “perception” that may be expressed as hatred – the word “may” tells us that it also may not. So we are working with an undefined perception that sometimes is hateful and sometimes not hateful.

Hoping that the second sentence clarifies things? No. This is it: “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.” So now we have an undefined perception which might not be hateful and might not target Jews. Indeed, as worded this definition seems to suggest that there is a form of antisemitism which is expressed as non-hateful rhetoric directed against non-Jewish property. What on earth does any of this mean? “Meaninglessness is not so bad,” you may say; “maybe this is just a sloppy effort in the right direction.”

Actually, it is something much worse than that. It is when you refer to the attached IHRA examples that we move from the meaningless to the harmful.

Telling People How to Discuss the Palestine Tragedy While Presumably Knowing Little About It

Before going any further, a brief personal note. No particular identity or qualifications are needed to discuss problems of racism. For what it’s worth, however, I condemn this motion with as much concern about antisemitism as anyone in Barrie and with detailed knowledge of debates in this area.

I grew up in loose association with the Barrie Jewish community in the days when it lacked permanent facilities. The Jewish studies classes that my mother taught in the Jewish community’s Sunday school were held at the old Municipal Bank building at Dunlop and Owen, I believe, where I also remember holiday services. Having never been less than fifty per cent of the informal Jewish caucus in any of my public school classes, I was as fixated on antisemitism as anyone I encountered. In the rubble that was once Central Collegiate, I remember arguing with a teacher that Shakespeare deserved none of our respect because, after all, the character of Shylock showed Shakespeare to be an antisemite. (Not that I’d read the play.)

More recently, and I hope with more grounding, I’ve done extensive research into the Canadian politics of antisemitism as part of my postdoctoral work with the Canada Research Chair in Québec and Canadian Studies in Montreal. This builds, from another direction, on my work with the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter in Britain, where I did my PhD. And I have been an active affiliate of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) Canada since its establishment.

All of this to say that I dismiss this motion as harmful nonsense based on long-term engagement with debates in this area. The problem, again, is not just that IHRA definition reads like nonsensical hot air. The problem is that its vagueness is not innocent, and that it opens the door in the worst directions.

In the interests of space, I will focus on two of the IHRA examples of what is meant by antisemitism. The IHRA examples are crucial since the IHRA definition on its own is, as we have seen, meaningless. The two bogus IHRA examples of antisemitism that I’ll address are (a) “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”; and (b) “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” There are other IHRA examples, some totally legitimate, some equally spurious. But let’s stick with these two – and the silencing of debate about Palestine which they imply.

(A) Definitions of racism and the Palestine question

Crucially, the IHRA does not just say that Israel is not racist. It says that those who argue that Israel is foundationally racist are themselves racist for suggesting anything of the kind. Having failed to produce a meaningful two-sentence definition of antisemitism, the IHRA marches on to tell us all how to discuss racism if we do not want to be accused of racism. In so doing, they charge across the line separating their meaningless definition from their harmful examples.

“Racism” is a loaded term, but let’s review the basics. Step one in all credible analysis of race is the acknowledgement that race is a social rather than a biological construct: this is anti-racism 101. It is, for example, ridiculous to say that you can’t be racist against Jews because Jews aren’t a race. What, and “Hottentots” are? Racism is built on false divisions of humanity. Races are socially real to the extent that racism has made them so. But we are talking bigotry rather than biology.

So, for example, it was racist for the classic British skull scientists, with their many Canadian fans, to claim biological superiority over Indigenous, African, and other peoples, even though the “Anglo-Saxon” race whose superiority they celebrated was a myth. An antisemitic example: the prestigious British skull scientist Robert Knox once wrote that in even the prettiest “gipsy” woman he could find, “the mouth is too large, and the upper jaw, as in the Jewess, quite disproportioned to the lower jaw.” Neither Roma nor Jews are “races.” But this was racism of the crudest kind.

The word racism, however, applies to more than biological racism. For example, Europeans first enslaved Africans as “pagans” before coming up with the biological nonsense that found in biology the justifications for slavery that began with scripture. It is generally accepted that the process was racist even before the days of skull science. Similarly, when early governors of Nova Scotia advertised bounties for any British settler that turned in the scalp of a Mi’kmaq man, they were more likely to invoke the Christian doctrine of discovery than white supremacy. Still we generally describe this as racist. In the same way, thinking people tend to accept that police violence against Black people today can be racist even when those carrying it out don’t believe in biological racism as such.

So can there be Israeli racism toward Palestinians? The Israeli Central Elections Committee (CEC) said yes. In 1984, the CEC disqualified as “racist” an Israeli political party, Meir Kahane’s Kach party, on the grounds that it openly advocated extra-legal violence against Palestinian civilians and the expulsion of all Palestinians from their homes. Kach was not racist in the biological sense. Yet the CEC ruled that it was “racist” to openly advocate attacks on Palestinians, as Kach did, on the basis of exclusive Jewish claims to all of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In a similar sense, an effort to strip non-Christians of voting rights in Canada would be considered racist even if it were framed in terms of Protestant or Christian rather than white power.

Now the IHRA is not saying that the Israeli Central Elections Committee was antisemitic when it disqualified Kach as “racist.” It is saying that people who argue that the Israeli goverment itself is foundationally racist are antisemitic. There is a difference between the two positions. But is this a debate that Barrie City Council feels it is prepared to adjudicate? If you would like, we can organize an extended discussion of whether Israeli law itself discriminates unjustly between Jews and Palestinians, as, say, in its naturalization laws or the terms on which Israel leases state lands. But how, presumably knowing little about this debate, can you vote to tell us what position in this debate is acceptable?

Below I turn to the Palestine tragedy, which is the main reason the IHRA efforts are objectionable. But note too how this whole mess devalues genuine concerns about antisemitism. Saying that it is antisemitic to have positions about Palestine that are at the very least plausible does not only smear Palestinian and allied critics. In the process, it also lends weight to the dangerous idea that allegations of antisemitism are always as baseless as this, which they are absolutely not. One can oppose antisemitism with unflinching militancy and also support Palestinian freedom struggles, including where many within those struggles call Israel foundationally racist. It is impossible to maintain the credibility of the fight against antisemitism without admitting this point. Those who blur the lines between anti-Jewish hate and outrage over the Palestine tragedy are playing a dangerous game.

(B) The Palestine tragedy and the Nazi comparison

A brief review. The IHRA is not saying that the Israeli Central Elections Committee was antisemitic for barring Kahane for his racist electoral platform. It is, on the other hand, saying that the UN General Assembly was antisemitic when in 1975 it equated Zionism with racism. But all of this is old news. Let’s bring it up to the present.

According to the IHRA, one of the prominent antisemites of recent years is a man named Yair Golan. Do people know this name, or are you voting on something you have not taken the trouble to investigate?

Golan is a decorated commander of the Israeli army. Until 2016, he seemed the most likely candidate for the top military post in the country, the position of chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Then came Yom HaShoah, Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2016. Golan delivered a speech as part of the official commemorations that caused a stir.

“The Holocaust must lead us to think about our public lives,” Golan said. Golan was startled by the rise of racism in Israeli society. He baldly declared that “if there is anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is discerning nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016.”

Disagree with this if you like – any of us can. But without even looking into Israeli politics, are you going to vote to declare what Golan said about his own society antisemitic? What if a Palestinian said the same thing? I am not making a case for the historical parallel that Golan drew. I am insisting that for Barrie City Council to tell people what to think about it is offensive, presumptuous, and bizarre.

Your dilemma is simple. If you do not look into the details of what you are voting on it is moral cowardice. If you do look into the details, and vote for the motion anyway, it is something worse.

What was Golan discussing? The debate in Israel at the time focused on the on-camera execution of a wounded Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, by the IDF’s Elor Azaria. Al-Sharif lay wounded on the ground in occupied Hebron and Azaria executed him. That day, a rally in support of Azaria was held in Tel Aviv. As the Jerusalem Post (2016/4/22) reported, “the crowd was heavily right-wing, with a large number of ‘Kahane Lives!’ stickers and T-shirts and ecstatic crowds singing hooligan chants calling for ‘death to the Arabs.’ Many of the signs also left little to the imagination, including one held aloft by a young woman that read simply ‘Kill Them All.’”

Azaria felt he was doing his duty. Amnon Abramovich wrote for Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth (2017/02/22), that “Azaria was a victim of the education he received at home and of his political views. It’s enough to take a look at the Facebook posts that his father, his mother, and he himself wrote even before the incident: ‘Kahane was right,’ ‘Kill them all,’ ‘Hit them where it hurts.’” What horrified Golan and many others across the planet was the wide support for Azaria. The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found 65 percent of Jewish Israelis wanted him exonerated.

What set apart the al-Sharif killing in Hebron was what set apart the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island and the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis: it was filmed. The response from Israeli officials was typical: in 2018 the Israeli Cabinet began introducing measures to prohibit the filming of abuses by Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile, Azaria did less time in prison than Palestinian children caught throwing stones at the Israeli troops who have no business occupying their communities. Before long, Azaria waltzed out of prison to a hero’s welcome in Hebron, greeted by a rally organized by the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit group. “Supporters posed for photos with Azaria and stopped to praise him for his actions while in uniform” (Times of Israel, 2018/07/03).

I ask with outrage about the presumptuousness of the motion before you: on what terms, pray tell, may we discuss these developments? Before answering, do a search for “1 Shot, 2 Kills.” You will find an image on a T-shirt circulating among IDF soldiers after the 2009 massacre in Gaza. It features a pregnant Palestinian woman with her belly in the crosshairs of a rifle. Get it? During another major Israeli massacre in Gaza, in 2014, Ayelet Shaked referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes.” She then served from 2015-2019 as Israeli justice minister. What do you think the effects of this are?

Do a search for “Gaza” and “bed-wetting” and you will find a report by the well-known charity Save the Children. It found in 2015 that three-quarters of Palestinian children in areas of Gaza hard hit by Israeli assaults were wetting their beds and having recurring nightmares. The Israeli assault on Gaza the previous year had resulted in physical injuries for 3,346 Palestinian children, the orphaning of 1,500, and the killing of 551. I do not mean to diminish the trauma for adults. But you can imagine the effects of this single campaign against Gaza, with its six thousand air strikes, on even the sturdiest mind.

Now multiply this by decades. And think about what offensive nonsense it is to sit by Kempenfelt Bay and tell Palestinians on what terms they should discuss it.

Note that I am not invoking Golan’s historical parallel here, although I do have a mind to. All events are unique, and there are few events in recorded history that match the horrors of the Third Reich. That horrifying bar is set terribly high. The abuses by Canadian troops in Somalia, for example, were the work of neo-Nazis, but that does not mean they were another Holocaust. In the same way, we could dismiss the scrawling of swastikas on Ward 2 playground equipment – “hardly a Kristallnacht,” right? But is this not a callous and ridiculous way to think? What kind of Holocaust remembrance is separated so rigidly from the fight against oppression before it reaches the worst levels?

An outstanding historian of Holocaust memory, Peter Novick, identified a tragic outcome of some of the ways in which the Holocaust was later commemorated in North America. While Holocaust commemoration can sensitize people to injustice, Novick argued, it can sometimes have the opposite effect: “compared to the Holocaust, anything else looked not so bad. The comparison, by raising the threshold of outrage, could easily desensitize.” We cannot succumb to this desensitization – not in Canada, not in Palestine, not anywhere. It is a measure of the depths to which this debate has sunk that it does not even rise to the level of the anti-racism of a recent IDF deputy chief of staff.

The matter is plain. As concerns Palestine, the problem in Canada is not that criticism of Israel is getting out of hand. It is that all levels of Canadian government relate warmly to the Israeli government even as it descends into amply documented xenophobia and collective punishment of Palestinians. As concerns anti-racism in general, and in a related way, the problem is that mainstream Canadian politics seem only to deal with problems of social exclusion when forced to or when it is convenient.

On these grounds, I urge you not to pass this motion. Know, however, that if you pass the motion, you will only spark a debate that is long overdue, and in which you will be on the wrong side. Neither the Palestine tragedy nor the wider politics of exclusion get adequate attention in Barrie. If you wish to force a change by pushing on this question, there are those of us who will do our best to oblige.

Sincerely yours,

Dan Freeman-Maloy

This article first published on the IJV Canada website.

Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in Montreal. He blogs at notesonhypocrisy.com