Civil Society Groups to Canadian Heritage: Ditch IHRA Anti-Semitism Definition
Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) has joined together with 30+ other Canadian organizations to call on the federal government to abandon prospective measures that would integrate a controversial antisemitism definition into granting procedures of the Department of Canadian Heritage (PCH). Signatories of the letter include those that currently receive PCH funds or have in the past, as well as other organizations who share concerns about the impacts of the measures; among them, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Arab Institute, the Jewish Faculty Network and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
The letter is in response to an October 2022 briefing by Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth, Ahmed Hussen, to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, regarding Laith Marouf, a consultant for a Heritage-funded organization accused of posting hateful messages about Jews, Québécois and others on Twitter. During that briefing, Hussen indicated that the government would be undertaking several measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, including the application by several means of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism to organizational grantees and applicants.
Adopted by PCH as part of Canada’s Anti-racism Strategy 2019-2022, the IHRA definition has come under vigorous critique both in Canada and globally for conflating anti-racist criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Signatories are concerned that integrating the IHRA definition into the government’s granting procedures could add to the prevailing chill on speech regarding Israel-Palestine and threaten the funding of various Canadian organizations, as well as those associated with them. The letter comes after previous efforts led by IJV to engage the government on this issue have gone unanswered, including approximately 1500 letters to the Minister by concerned Canadians and an open letter by IJV national coordinator, Corey Balsam.
Quotes from some of the 30+ signatories
“CAUT vigorously opposes antisemitism and all forms of discrimination and hate. We also recognize the need to safeguard the academic freedom rights of scholars to develop critical perspectives on all states, including the state of Israel, without fear of outside political influence, funding cuts, censorship, harassment, threats or intimidation.” David Robinson, Executive Director, Canadian Association of University Teachers
“Applying the IHRA working definition to Heritage funding is an easy way out for the government to say they’re doing something about antisemitism. In practice, we know the IHRA definition is wielded far more often to silence criticism of Israel than to actually protect Jews in Canada from hate speech. We must protect truth-telling in Heritage-funded work; right now, that means honest, open, and critical discussion about racism and apartheid in Israel. If the government is serious about its commitment to anti-racism, it needs to drop the IHRA definition. The government’s efforts can’t be anti-racist while using a definition that gaslights an entire nation of people whose rights and very existence are denied by Israel. You can’t fight racism with racism.” Sarah Boivin, Acting Communications and Media Lead, Independent Jewish Voices Canada
“There are many examples where the IHRA working definition of antisemitism has been weaponized to silence Palestinian perspectives and critiques of Israel. This has impacted diverse voices in support of Palestinian human rights in the arts, academia and community-based organizations – and many of them rely on government grants to carry out their research and projects. Heritage Canada grants should not also be weaponized to censor Palestine. The Canadian government should make further efforts to work with our communities and support their projects; and not place additional barriers in their path that further marginalizes them and erases their narratives from the public discourse.” Dania Majid, President, Arab Canadian Lawyers Association
“This is a watershed moment for the federal government. If Heritage Canada decides to apply the IHRA working definition and examples to vet recipients for funding, then this could set a dangerous precedent of muzzling the very work that organizations who receive Heritage Canada funding are committed to. The IHRA working definition and examples have been broadly criticized – including by the original author – for stifling legitimate criticism of a democratic country, going against democratic values of Canada, and are contrary to constitutionally guaranteed free speech. The organizations who would be most impacted by this are those who are already marginalized: anti-racist and human rights activists, researchers, academics and students – and would put into peril the very purpose behind the important work of Heritage Canada as the lead federal agency for combating racism.” Statement by the Canadian Arab Institute
Full statement in PDF format is available at the IJV website.
Dear Ministers Rodriguez and Hussen,
As organizations and individuals committed to both anti-racism and freedom of expression – amongst us recipients of Canadian Heritage grants – we are deeply concerned by recent statements indicating the department’s possible use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA WDA) for the purposes of attestation and vetting of Canadian Heritage applicants/grantees, as well as training of departmental officers.1
We understand that these measures have been proposed in response to a series of troubling tweets posted by a contractor to an organization that received funds from Canadian Heritage. However, we believe that the possible application of the IHRA WDA in response to this incident risks casting a chill within Canadian civil society that will negatively impact the anti-racism work of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, racialized, feminist, 2SLGBTQ+, labour, human rights, academic, arts and civil liberties organizations.
Not only has the IHRA WDA been widely discredited as “vague and incoherent,” it also fails to sufficiently capture right-wing and white supremacist antisemitism, and therefore does a disservice to the fight against antisemitism and anti-racism work more broadly. In her October 2022 report to the General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume, urged all States to “suspend the adoption and promotion of the working definition and the examples attached to it,” highlighting “the controversial status, divisive effects and negative human rights impacts” of the IHRA WDA.
The lead drafter of the IHRA WDA, Kenneth Stern, has also raised concern about the definition being “weaponized” to shut down criticism of Israel.2 Originally drafted for academic purposes, illustrative examples were appended to the definition to examine possible correlations with antisemitism. As Stern has pointed out, the examples were not intended as incontrovertible illustrations of antisemitism in and of themselves, but that is how they have been used in practice. While several of the examples are indeed clearcut manifestations of antisemitism, others such as calling Israel a “racist endeavour,” or treating Israel with “double standards,” can and have been instrumentalized by pro-Israel advocacy groups to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy and/or the ideology of Zionism.3
A recently published document by the Adopt IHRA Coalition highlighting 50 so-called “antisemitic tweets” is a case in point. As Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East demonstrates, much of what is identified as antisemitic according to the IHRA WDA is simply speech critical of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. This has broadly resulted in speech suppression and often racist harassment campaigns – particularly in the form of Anti-Palestinian Racism – which have been documented extensively by Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, and the Islamophobia Studies Centre, among others.
Ministers, applying the IHRA WDA for the purposes of vetting, attestation, and training sets a dangerous precedent that would suppress the fundamental rights of Canadians to freedom of expression protected under section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In effect, it would institute a different double standard, singling out Israel and its policies for protection from anti-racist critique, while permitting similar speech in reference to other countries. For example, while an organization that receives Heritage funding can presumably suggest that Canada is a “racist endeavor” (eg. a settler-colonial project), suggesting the same about Israel would be off-limits. Applying the IHRA WDA to applicants and grantees moreover risks undermining the very anti-racism work the government seeks to support.
Ministers, we strongly urge you to:
- Not use the IHRA WDA for the purposes of vetting and attestation of Canadian Heritage applicants and grantees, or for the training of program officers.
- Base any future anti-racism measures, including the renewal of the Anti-Racism Strategy, on full and transparent consultation with all affected parties and stakeholders, including this letter’s signatories. •
- Amnesty International Canada (English speaking)
- Amnistie internationale Canada (French speaking)
- Arab Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA)
- BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA)
- Canadian Arab Federation (CAF)
- Canadian Arab Institute (CAI)
- Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)
- Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)
- Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC – Quakers)
- Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME)
- Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW)
- Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association (CMLA)
- Catholics for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land (CJPHL)
- Centre for Free Expression (CFE)
- Coalition of Canadian Palestinian Organizations (CCPO)
- Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN)
- Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV)
- The Jewish Faculty Network (JFN)
- Just Peace Advocates (JPA)
- Ligue des droits et libertés (LDL)
- The Legal Centre for Palestine (LCP)
- No Pride In Policing Coalition (NPPC)
- Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP)
- Queer Ontario (QO)
- Standing Up for Racial Justice Toronto (SURJ)
- Palestinian-Canadian Academics and Artists Network (PCAAN)
- Palestinian Canadian Congress (PCC)
- Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF)
- United Jewish People’s Order / Morris Winchevsky Centre (UJPO – MWC)
- The United Church of Canada (UCC)
- Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR)
- West Coast Coalition Against Racism (WCCAR)
- According to statements Minister Hussen made at the briefing in question, there are several ways in which the IHRA WDA would be applied in relation to organizational grantees:
- “[E]nhanced online and social media vetting training and enhanced diversity and inclusion training for all program officers, including anti-Semitism and anti-racism awareness training, all of which will be informed by the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.” These trainings, we are told, will be developed in partnership with “the special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, the Honourable Irwin Cotler… Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Public Servants’ Network.”
- An “attestation to applicants so they’re able to proactively commit to live by the standards expected of them with respect to making sure their organization – including any consultant, employee, partner, or anybody associated with it – cannot engage in racist, anti-Semitic or hateful behaviour or comments against Black Canadians or francophone community members, and that if that happens, we can take quick action.” The Minister further specifies that this attestation “will proactively require applicants to commit to the standards of the Canadian Human Rights Act and to the anti-racism framework.” Our assumption is that the latter document refers to Canada’s Anti-racism Strategy, which currently includes the IHRA WDA.
- Opposition to the institutionalization of IHRA in Canada has also been expressed by, inter alia: the New Israel Fund of Canada; the Jewish Faculty Network; the Union of BC Indian Chiefs; the Canadian Labour Congress; the BC Civil Liberties Association; the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the University of Toronto and over 40 Canadian faculty associations and academic unions.
- There are many better definitions of antisemitism that don’t conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, signed by 300 of the world’s top Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholars, is one such definition.
- The risk of censorship, including loss of funding, meant that several organizations declined to sign this letter in fear of retaliation from the Canadian government.