Alberta recently became the fifth province to adopt the International Holocaust Alliance’s definition of antisemitism (IHRA) — a definition that’s been fraught with controversy and called a blatant attempt to suppress speech and discourage public support for Palestinians.
It’s a simple, perhaps too simple, definition: “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.”
However, at the centre of this new definition are 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which relate to the state of Israel.
According to the IHRA, it is antisemitic to “[deny] the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The new definition also states it is antisemitic to “[apply] double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Numerous statements critical of the State of Israel run afoul of this definition, including this one: Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid towards the Palestinians.
Leading Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations have established that the Israeli government has met the crime’s international legal definitions. As Human Rights Watch describes, apartheid consists of one group maintaining dominating control over another group, and imposing a system of oppression, which includes inhumane acts.
Is apartheid racist? Yes. Is it a double standard to demand that a country practicing apartheid to cease the practice? No. So is fighting apartheid antisemitic? Of course not.
The practical effect of the Alberta government’s adoption of the IHRA definition will be to silence groups speaking out against apartheid in Israel. Indeed, silencing these groups is precisely the intent of the increasingly right-wing Israel lobby groups who advocate that governments adopt the definition.
These lobby groups consider terms like “colonialism,” “apartheid,” and “racist” when applied to Israel — or non-violent protest through boycotts against Israel — to be antisemitic.
Here’s the strategy of the pro-Israel lobby as evidenced by their track record. A government body adopts the IHRA definition. Then a pro-Palestinian or pro-human rights group wants to access a university, library, or appy for a permit to plan an event. That’s when the pro-Israel lobby objects, citing the IHRA definition.
They argue that pro-boycott or anti-apartheid groups are antisemitic and must be denied access to resources, spaces, or platforms. The pro-Israel lobby wants the government body to capitulate, denying the Palestinian movement a voice out of fear of being branded antisemitic. In this way, the IHRA definition lends a veneer of legitimacy to the pro-Israel lobby, which allows it to erode democratic discourse on Israel-Palestine.
The pro-Israel lobby already knows that the IHRA definition has been refuted by the same people that would have provided legitimacy to their cause. Kenneth Stern, a lead author in drafting the definition, spoke out against its weaponization by right-wing lobby groups and against Trump after he adopted it in an executive order. Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism Envoy for the United States, has stated that the IHRA definition does not capture the white supremacist attacks on synagogues such as seen in Pittsburgh and Poway in the USA, or Heille, Germany.
In 2020, academics from relevant fields (including Middle East Studies and Holocaust Studies) responded to the IHRA definition controversy with a framework for understanding antisemitism as it relates to issues of politics in Israel Palestine — the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. While the document is far clearer and more useful for any policy-maker, it has been ignored by the Israel lobby because it doesn’t serve their interests. Under this alternative framework, protest and criticism is taken both at face value and in context. For example, boycotts or statements that Israel is committing apartheid cannot on their own be considered antisemitic.
It is obvious that progressive Jewish organizations, human rights experts, and Palestinians were not consulted by the UCP government. If Palestinian Canadians were consulted, the UCP would have had to consider the anti-Palestinian racism involved in suppressing the right to protest and articulate their own national narratives. This spring, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association published a report on precisely this form of anti-Palestinian racism.
Epitomizing disingenuous are the right-wing Jewish organizations speaking at the UCP’s press conference. The UCP on the other hand, is dangerous. They know this move will make it more difficult, not less, to identify racism towards Jews and to stop oppression against Palestinians.
Peter Driftmier is a mental health therapist, social worker, and human rights researcher. He serves on the board of his synagogue and spent October in Israel-Palestine volunteering with human rights and mental health NGOs.