By BERNIE BELLAN As if there weren’t more important issues in the world to consider, debating the merits of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has now become one of those wedge issues by which individuals who have differing views on Israel define themselves.
Saying you’re in favour of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism seems to have become codeword for saying you’re defending Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
That something which was ostensibly intended to defuse anti-Semitic sentiments has instead led to often bitter confrontations, especially on university campuses, is not really all that surprising.
When it comes to Israel, using certain terms such as “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and “apartheid state” became flash points for bitter exchanges between defenders of Israel and her critics. (And, in saying that I refuse to categorize all critics of Israel as “anti-Israel”. There are many Israelis themselves who are critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. It would be ludicrous to call them “anti-Israel”, as if one cannot be critical of one’s country without being accused of being “anti ….” – insert whatever country you want.)
Frankly, although the recently proposed motion by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association that it should oppose the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism caused a great deal of consternation within certain groups, it is just one more episode in what will likely be a never-ending debate about Israel that leads individuals to take sides without respecting the merits of the opposing side’s views.
When I was asked by Elaine Goldstine and Adam Levy of the Jewish Federation how I would respond to the proposed motion by UMFA before it was to come to a vote, I responded that I would play it very low-key. Lobby behind the scenes to defuse the situation, I suggested. Maybe it could be headed off without coming to a vote, I said, before more outspoken groups and individuals seized upon what was happening in an attempt to further polarize the issue.
What worried me was that an organization like B’nai Brith Canada would want to use what was happening at the University of Manitoba to inflame passions – which B’nai Brith is very good at doing.
Not only that, I said that if the proposed motion did come to a vote – and did pass, then what you would likely see happen is that some very major supporters of the University of Manitoba would then withdraw financial support for the university in response to what they perceived as anti-Israel behaviour on the part of the university’s faculty association.
That is the last thing one would want to see happen, but that is how these sorts of events often play out.
However, lost in all the controversy over what the UMFA executive was proposing was that the impetus for passing a resolution of the very sort that was being considered was coming in very large part from Jewish academics on Canadian university campuses.
Recently a group of 155 Jewish Canadian academics signed a letter opposing the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. In part, the letter stated:
“We know that there is serious and occasionally fractious disagreement on our campuses about antisemitism and its relationship to criticism of the State of Israel. These disputes cannot and will not be resolved by definitional fiat. If the goal of adopting the IHRA definition is to quell further conflict around the legitimate scope of criticism of Israel, it will surely fail. This is already evident at many academic institutions.
“Adopting a seriously flawed framework to confront antisemitism is antithetical to the broader pursuit of justice and tolerance at the core of the mission statement of many universities. Freedom to criticize the policies and practices of any state without exception, including the State of Israel, is central to accountable scholarship, learning and education. We believe it is also central to building a more just academy.”
At this point I am not sure how I weigh in on this debate. I do agree with the sentiment of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, but I can also see the dangers inherent in attempting to define anti-Semitism too specifically. It reminds me very much of an earlier era when American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in commenting about “hard core pornography”, wrote that “I know it when I see it”. Maybe we should apply that same loose generalization to antisemitism without trying to define it to a very fine degree.
In the coming months we can expect to see more university campuses across Canada dealing with the same issue as the University of Manitoba Faulty Association. There is a concerted effort by certain groups within academic circles to have the issue brought to the fore. The University of Ottawa Faculty Association has already passed the same kind of resolution as the one that was on the agenda for UMFA (and still may be).
What is truly ironic about the debate that is now taking place is that both sides are using very similar language in arguing either for or against the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the B’nai Brith press release denouncing the University of Ottawa Faculty’s resolution:
“The IHRA definition, understood and used correctly, is a useful tool for combating antisemitism. The European Commission has just published a handbook on practical uses of the definition, recommending its use in universities ‘to identify and intervene against antisemitism’ and ‘to create safer places for Jewish students, (Ed. note: emphasis mine) as problems can be identified and better solved at an early stage.’“
Now, compare the language used by B’nai Brith with the language used by “Jewish Faculty in Canada Against the Adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism”: “On campuses where this definition has been adopted it has been used to intimidate and silence (Emphasis mine) the work of unions, student groups, academic departments and faculty associations that are committed to freedom, equality and justice for Palestinians.”
In other words, the IHRA definition, it is argued, can be used as a weapon either to make university campuses safer or less safe, depending on whose side you’re on.
Thus, the IHRA definition has become a symbol of one’s leanings. Saying you’re in favour of its adoption has come to mean you’re pro-Israel, while if you’re against it, you’re anti-Israel. That comes as no surprise at all. One wonders whether all the hard work that went into coming up with a definition of anti-Semitism that was meant to serve as an educational tool might be coming to naught as it is now being used as a litmus test for one’s position on Israel.