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Manitoba adopts the IHRA Definition on antisemitism: What does that signify?

By BELLE JARNIEWSKI Last week, I was honoured to be present when our provincial government announced its adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) Working Definition of antisemitism. As a member of the IHRA Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, the body which originally drafted the definition, I was particularly pleased to see Manitoba following Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, and New Brunswick in endorsing/adopting the non-legally binding definition.

I thank the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg for their ongoing engagement with the provincial government to arrive at this successful outcome and for welcoming my guidance when needed.

The legally non-binding definition was adopted by consensus by the member countries of the IHRA in 2016 at the Bucharest Plenary under the Romanian Presidency, It has helped guide countless governments, organizations, and individuals in their efforts to identify antisemitism. Since its adoption, dozens of countries, cities, government institutions, universities, civil society organisations and sport clubs have used the definition as a resource in projects that seek to educate on the ways that antisemitism appears, as well as for initiatives focused on recognizing and countering manifestations of antisemitism.

This practical tool has also been formally adopted or endorsed by many individuals and groups, both at the national and organizational level, such as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who acknowledged the efforts of the IHRA Member Countries to agree on a common definition of antisemitism and underlined that it could serve as a basis for law enforcement, as well as preventive policies; the Organization of American States, and in the European Union, the Parliament, Commission, and Council. To date, some 38 countries have endorsed/adopted the definition, including recent additions such as Albania, Cyprus, Colombia, the Philippines, and South Korea, to name but a few.

Many people have asked me what the adoption means and how it can be implemented into day-to-day life in Manitoba. To quote directly from the IHRA : “The IHRA is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues, so with evidence that the scourge of antisemitism is once again on the rise, we resolved to take a leading role in combatting it. IHRA experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem of antisemitism, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is.” The definition is a valuable guide for civil society groups, universities, social media platforms, sports organizations, and others who want to encourage civil discourse and prevent racist, antisemitic, and other intolerant actions. The definition also recognizes that the perspective of the affected community is key when addressing discrimination and hatred.

Unfortunately, there are individuals and groups out there who have mischaracterized the definition’s aim and its reach. They have suggested that the definition threatens free speech and academic freedom. In fact, it is the exact opposite. First and foremost, the definition is not legally binding. It is not a “law.” Its purpose is to serve as a very useful tool with practical applicability. Regarding criticism of Israel and Israeli policies, the definition is quite clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The definition can help identify antisemitism when it appears in coded language that refers to Israel and help ordinary citizens to better draw the line between Israel-related antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies – just as we in Canada sometimes criticize the policies of our federal and provincial governments. As for academic institutions, many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge have adopted the definition.

“The IHRA Working Definition notes that overall context” must be taken into account and that antisemitism is not limited to the examples given. It furthermore states that the examples may serve as illustrations to guide IHRA in its work, and points to the practical utility of the definition.”

So how has the definition been implemented elsewhere? The definition has been used widely in training police forces, lawyers, the judiciary, educators, and policy makers to guide them in their work. Football (soccer) clubs have used the definition. For instance, The English Premier League employs the definition to instruct its players and millions of fans on how to combat racism and antisemitism. The European Union has in fact researched the practical implementation of the definition and collected data from member states. The EU has also developed a handbook which illustrates how the definition has been used in a variety of documented incidents.

Looking ahead, here in Manitoba and throughout Canada, we need to mainstream the definition into daily life including sport and popular culture, including social media platforms.

Belle Jarniewski
Member of Canada’s Delegation to the IHRA
Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

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