Toronto (In Palestine Today)- The University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group has opposed the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism which equating criticism of ‘Israel’ with anti-Semitism.
The University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group was established in December 2020, as part of the university’s commitment to address all kinds of racism and discrimination faced by members of its academic community.
Its findings draw on nearly 700 survey responses, more than 200 email submissions, six focus groups, and several interviews with Jewish student organizations, as well as Jewish religious leaders.
In a recently-published final report, both advocates and critics of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism noted its potential as a basis for banning controversial speech and events, particularly when critical of the occupation state of ‘Israel’.
The working group in Toronto warned that the IHRA definition would have a chilling effect on free speech on campuses.
The working group warned that it undermines the very culture and ethos promoted by academic institutions.
“The university’s distinctive position in society precludes the adoption of any definition as a basis for banning the expression of controversial, troubling, or offensive views. It also precludes the adoption of any definition that demands that anyone who criticizes one country must criticize any other country that engages in similar conduct.”
Arthur Ripstein, the chair of the working group said, “The reason that we are not recommending the adoption of the IHRA, or other definitions, is that all of them are designed for different purposes.”
He explained that the IHRA along with other definitions that were considered are unsuited to the distinctive context of the university.
“Adoption of them would not integrate with the requirements on us and our other existing policy commitments,” Ripstein added.
On November 26, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) adopted a motion that that “opposes” the adoption of the IHRA definition by Canadian academic institutions, “supports the academic freedom of its members and recognizes the need to safeguard the rights of scholars to critique all states, including the state of Israel, without fear of outside political influence, cuts to funding, censorship, harassment, threats, and intimidation.”
On the same day, a new coalition of Jewish academics has been formed to reject IHRA definition, saying it has been used to stifle criticism of ‘Israel’ and is affront to academic freedom.
The impetus for the foundation of the Jewish Faculty Network (JFN) was the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ unanimous vote at its annual council meeting on Nov. 26 to oppose IHRA’s adoption at post-secondary institutions.
Over 170 Jewish faculty at Canadian universities and colleges signed a letter opposing the IHRA definition, the JFN stated.
The JFN was launched publicly on Dec. 9, with a news conference featuring several of its founding members, co-hosted by University of Toronto (UofT) geographer Deborah Cowen and University of Alberta linguist Robert Kirchner.
UofT anthropologist Alejandro Paz said he heard “different narratives about how the State of Israel was formed” for the first time as an undergraduate at Queen’s University.
“There are many organizations and political leaders in Canada today who want to make it impossible for university and high school students to have the academic freedom to hear… the kinds of criticisms that shocked me as an 18-year-old,” said Paz.
The Canadian federal government, as well as provincial governments in Ontario and Quebec, have adopted the IHRA definition.
The move comes amidst aggressive lobbying efforts by pro-Israel advocacy groups in Canada to have the definition adopted by all levels of government, as well as by public institutions such as universities, colleges and school boards.
The IHRA definition has been formally adopted by the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the United States, the European Parliament and more than 30 other countries.
However, the IHRA definition includes problematic examples of antisemitism that have been criticised by human rights groups as well as some liberal Zionist organisations.
Some of the most controversial examples of antisemitism provided by the IHRA include banning anyone from “applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
Another example presented in the IHRA definition: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
The definition is simply designed to silence criticism of ‘Israel’ and of Zionism by equating this criticism with antisemitism.
The examples have also been used by Israel lobby groups to disrupt the activities of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement around the world by claiming that a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic.