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In my opinion

Canada’s new definition of anti-Semitism is a threat to campus free speech

The definition adopted from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is alarmingly vague and easily misinterpreted.


If you’ve been paying any attention to headlines this past year, you know that campus free speech is in the news. In Ontario, the Ford government has threatened to withhold provincial funding from any college or university that fails to protect free speech. A similar plan is reportedly under consideration in Alberta, with federal Conservatives vowing to do likewise should they form government in October.

And yet, when a new and dangerous threat to campus free speech emerged this past June, we barely heard a peep.

I am speaking of the Trudeau government’s decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which it included in a new strategy document for combatting racism. The definition itself is alarmingly vague, describing anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” (emphasis added). This is ambiguous language and easily misinterpreted. Fortunately, the IHRA includes a list of examples meant to illustrate anti-Semitism and help put the definition into practice. But that’s where the problems really start.

Alongside traditional examples of anti-Semitism, the IHRA includes statements like “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination,” “claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor,” and holding Israel to a standard of behavior “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” In other words, the IHRA definition explicitly conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Make no mistake, this is about targeting critics of Israel and pro-Palestinian activists, especially those on university campuses. Supporters have been quite clear on this point, suggesting, for example, that universities should use the new definition to censure and silence popular campus events like Israel Apartheid Week and movements like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). In an interview with CTV News, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather went further, expressing hope that communities might consider the IHRA definition when deciding whether to let critics of Israel use their facilities. Others are urging universities to incorporate it into their anti-discrimination policies, where it can be used to discipline faculty and students.

Supporters insist that the definition is strictly for educational purposes and will have no legal impact. However, they said the same thing when it was adopted in the United States, and that’s not how it turned out there. In the last year alone, the Department of Education has launched investigations into alleged anti-Semitism at Rutgers University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Williams College, with another investigation into New York University likely to be announced soon. If found to have enabled anti-Semitism on campus, these universities could forfeit millions of dollars in federal funding. Yet, in each case, the “anti-Semitic” speech being investigated is criticism of Israel.

And it’s not just the U.S. Department of Education pressuring universities. American pro-Israel politicians and advocacy groups have begun using the IHRA definition to push schools into canceling events, punishing faculty and expelling students for speech that is critical of Israel. Just this past spring, a group of students at the University of Massachusetts cited the definition in a lawsuit against their school. The reason? The university had agreed to host a conference entitled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” where anti-Zionist activists were scheduled to speak. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the chilling effect will no doubt linger.

Think it can’t happen here? Think again. Since 2017, student governments at Ryerson University and McGill University have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and incorporated it into their anti-discrimination policies. In theory, this will allow them to deny critics of Israel access to certain resources (e.g. room rentals, advertising space, etc.).

This is not idle speculation. Something similar has already happened at the University of Winnipeg, which in February 2018 hosted a conference on the U.S. government’s decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. According to attendees, some of the speakers accused Israel of committing “genocide” against Palestinians and referred to Israeli Jews as “European settlers” – controversial language, to be sure, but well within the bounds of acceptable scholarly discourse. Yet, under strong pressure from pro-Israel groups, U of W apologized for the conference and, citing the IHRA definition, declared these statements to be a violation of the institution’s anti-harassment policy.

Expect more episodes like this in the future. So it’s no wonder that civil liberties organizations across North America are sounding the alarm about the IHRA definition, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. In fact, even Kenneth Stern, a scholar of anti-Semitism and the IHRA definition’s primary author, now warns that its adoption represents a threat to campus free speech.

Anti-Semitism is a serious problem in Canada, one that I have experienced first-hand. And it is true that anti-Semitism today sometimes disguises itself as criticism of Israel. But just because anti-Semites may conflate their hatred of Jews with hatred of Israel does not mean that the Canadian government should as well – on the contrary, it has a special responsibility to keep the two distinct. And anyone who genuinely cares about campus free speech should be able to see why.

Jeffrey Sachs is a lecturer in the departments of history and politics at Acadia University.

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  1. Dr. Don Alexander / September 11, 2019 at 15:16

    I agree with Jeffrey that this has the purpose of seeking to ban any outright criticism of Israel, and to conflate criticism of that state with anti-Semitism. This is authoritarian in the extreme. It also ignores the fact that Arabs are also Semites, so the wholesale violation of Palestinian human rights is, by definition, also ‘anti-Semitic.’

  2. Mark / September 13, 2019 at 11:36

    Good discussion Jeffrey!

  3. Mike / February 2, 2020 at 02:45

    Totally agree with Dr. Alexander: “Arabs are also Semites, so the wholesale violation of Palestinian human rights is, by definition, also ‘anti-Semitic.”
    The definition of IHRA should also include the violation of Palestinian rights.