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  • Avi Benlolo

Antisemitism Definition A Serious Threat? Really?

It's not enough that Jewish people are violently attacked on city streets, from New York to France. It's not enough that social media and the internet is littered with antisemitic comments. Its not enough that Saturday Night Live takes an antisemitic swipe at Israel fuelling conspiracy theories. And it's not enough that students on university campuses still find antisemitic graffiti on their frat houses (during Covid-19).


Even the very definition of antisemitism is now under attack. We cannot define the very thing that is victimizing us - despite the fact the International Holocaust and Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism has been accepted by more than 30 nations and counting.


Several weeks ago, a professor sent me a copy of an email he received from Ryerson University's Faculty Association. It was a full copy of an “Executive motion on Antisemitism and the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). The motion was disconcerting. It reads in part:


"The Ryerson Faculty Association unequivocally supports the academic freedom of its members. This freedom includes the right to pursue research and open inquiry in an honest search for knowledge that is free from institutional censorship, including that of the government. While the RFA opposes antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism poses a serious threat to academic freedom in our university. The IHRA definition of antisemitism misconstrues antisemitism to include a broad range of criticism of the State of Israel. The IHRA definition thus undermines important anti-racist and decolonial initiatives in Canadian educational institutions. It can also be used to censor political speech and restrict the academic freedom of teachers and researchers who have developed critical perspectives on the policies and practices of the State of Israel. Such targeted attacks will have a chilling effect on the academic freedom of our members in the classroom, in their research, and in campus politics more broadly".


In the past, Ryerson has made great effort to confront antisemitism. In reply, I wrote the faculty association a courteous letter in an attempt to understand some of its concerns. While it's good that the association affirms that it “…opposes antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred”; it contends that the IHRA definition poses a “serious threat to academic freedom in our university”.


It's hard to believe that the motion poses a "serious threat" given that the definition itself is a guideline for understanding antisemitism. I explained that while perhaps imperfect, it is a necessary tool given the scourge and rising tide of antisemitism – especially on university campuses. It does not require or criminalize anyone from objection or critique or fair discussion – particularly at the academic level. It is certainly not a “serious threat” to free speech.


In my letter, I also expressed that given the well-established and documented antisemitism on university campuses, the RFA’s strong language contending that the definition may subject educators to “targeted attacks” seems to be the very opposite of what has been happening on campuses. Jewish students are the ones who have felt under attack for two decades on university campuses.


As well, the faculty member who provided me with the email told me that he is "terrified" by this latest attempt to shut down discussion of antisemitism. Indeed, Jewish faculty on university campuses in general have felt scared for many years.


Some academics may feel that the IHRA definition misconstrues antisemitism because it includes some criticism of Israel. It appears that what seems challenging for them to understand is that Jewish people see Israel as the embodiment of Judaism itself. Thus one sided attacks on Israel like BDS or the mislabeling of it as an apartheid state is not taken lightly.


RFA's belief that the definition "undermines important anti-racist and de-colonial initiatives in Canadian educational institutions" is also misplaced. Jewish people are not colonizers of their own land. They are a people bound to the land by history that is factual and evidence based. There is little dispute of indigenous Jewish presence in the holy land. Denial of Jewish history and connection to the land is hurtful and false.


It's hard to see how Academia is being "attacked" and how it's "seriously" threatened. Academic freedom and free speech are values enshrined and cherished by the Jewish community and its friends. We are open to fair and honest debate about antisemitism and historical truths concerning the Jewish people's connection to the land of Israel.


We should be having this discussion in an open and fair manner. Thankfully, all Canadian universities can now look to prestigious British universities - our commonwealth partners - like Cambridge and Oxford who have adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. It's time for our community institutions to positively embrace the well-intentioned global shift to counter antisemitism.


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