Hate is on the rise. How we respond matters

Lately I’ve been researching and reflecting on the causes of hatred, and how to turn the tide in Canada and more broadly. What I’ve found in my research is that a lot can be done, but sadly, there are no easy answers. There are many different paths into a life of hate, and many factors need to be addressed to counter hate movements. Substantial evidence shows that one-size-fits-all strategies seeking to prevent recruitment have been ineffective, and can even make matters worse.

New approaches are urgently needed, because white supremacist organizing is increasing, and recent data from Statistics Canada indicates increased hate crimes as well 1. The biggest swell has been directed at black people, Muslims, and Jews. And those are just the reported incidents.

Canada has just released a national anti-racism strategy with a promised $45 million investment in “a new Anti-Racism Secretariat that will lead a whole-of-government approach in addressing racism and discrimination.” While short on details, the strategy sounds promising in many regards, such as its “funding to support racialized communities, religious minorities and Indigenous Peoples on the ground who have expertise in addressing various forms of racism and discrimination.” 2 The policy also introduces a new definition of antisemitism, which is worth considering further.

Canada has a long and shameful history of antisemitism 3. As with other forms of hatred and prejudice, it must be addressed as thoroughly and as effectively as possible. To do so, it’s important to understand what antisemitism is, and what methods are effective in reducing it. Hopefully Canada’s new anti-racism strategy will help with this.

The definition Canada uses is one gaining increasing traction at the moment as various institutions – from municipalities to universities, in Canada and elsewhere – consider adopting it. The definition was developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Various countries and pro-Israel lobby groups have indicated their support for it. Given the resources put into it, and the powerful actors involved, the wording is surprisingly vague:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.4

Many feel that this is too open to misinterpretation to be useable in legal or policy contexts in Canada. 5 The more succinct definition given by Dictionary.com seems just as useful: “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.”6

The IHRA does provide various “illustrations” though, which are intended to help explain its definition. (The illustrations weren’t included by Canada in its anti-racism strategy.) Several of these usefully describe dangerous and insidious forms of antisemitism. For instance:

  • “Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.”
  • “Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).”

In explaining its definition, the IHRA at one point makes the important distinction between Jewish people and the State of Israel, listing as an example of antisemitism: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.” This is absolutely correct – Jews are not collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel and Jews should never be blamed as a collective for Israel’s human rights violations. Blaming an individual, due to their being Jewish, for the acts of the government of Israel, is hateful.

By the exact same logic, the State of Israel cannot represent or act on behalf of “Jews collectively.” But it seems as if certain illustrations of antisemitism given by the IHRA blur this important distinction. Here’s one: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

This is actually a tricky and complicated issue. The illustration seems to conflate Israel with “the Jewish people” and to hold that Israel exists for “the Jewish people.” But if that is indeed what’s implied, how does this illustration fit with the correct assertion that Jews collectively aren’t responsible for the actions of the State of Israel?

One might wonder too to what extent there really is just one global monolith called “the Jewish people.” Independent Jewish Voices notes how views on this have shifted, stating, “Saying that Jews are a separate people who need their own country used to be considered antisemitic. Now, saying that Jews are not a separate people is widely considered to be antisemitic within mainstream Zionist circles.”7

Many valuable human rights instruments were created in response to the inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust, and today the international community places importance on universal human rights. It is unclear how any government that systematically violates human rights by discriminating based on race (as Israel does8), is not, technically speaking, racist. Perhaps the claim being advanced is that it’s antisemitic to call the existence of the State of Israel racist, but calling Israel’s race-based discrimination racist is fair? If so, the IHRA would need to make this point clear.

Similarly, the IHRA rightly notes that antisemitic discrimination includes “the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others,” a practice that is “illegal in many countries.” Since opportunities and services are denied by the government of Israel to non-Jews on the basis of race or religion, what is that to be called? How can that issue even be discussed if doing so could be deemed hate speech?

While the IHRA says, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” several of their illustrations don’t make this at all clear. Such clarity is important, because failing to provide it while adopting the IHRA definition could result in chilling or even criminalizing human rights protests, like the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.9 Two professors with expertise on the Holocaust, Amos Goldberg and Raz Segal, have written about how they see this happening. Among other concerns, they note that the IHRA definition means “the burden of proof lies with critics of Israel, who are constantly asked to prove that they are not anti-Semites.”10

A noteworthy aspect of the IHRA definition is that many of its illustrations of antisemitism are largely about Israel (not about Jews), and yet the elephant in the room – Palestine – is never mentioned. The IHRA does nothing to clarify what it thinks can reasonably be said about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Perhaps a new list of illustrations of what is not antisemitic, but legitimate criticism of the government of Israel, would help.

These are delicate and difficult issues. Antisemitism must be combated and the IHRA has clearly spent significant resources on this definition. However some serious and dangerous flaws remain. If we’re not careful, we may wind up working against antisemitism in ways that are ineffective or that even increase it. We may also stifle necessary criticisms of immoral and illegal actions of the government of Israel. I hope that Canada will not be diverted down this path and will instead look for more holistic and effective approaches to combating hate.

Matthew Legge is CFSC’s Peace Program Coordinator.

  1. John Rieti, “Hate Crimes Reached All-time High in 2017, Statistics Canada Says,” CBC, November 29, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/statistics-canada-2017-hate-crime-numbers-1.4925399
  2. Canadian Heritage, “Minister Rodriguez Announces Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022,” June 25, 2019, https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/news/2019/06/minister-rodriguez-announces-building-a-foundation-for-change-canadas-anti-racism-strategy-20192022.html
  3. Canadian Friends Service Committee, “Just Peace is the Dream of BDS: A Statement on Ontario’s Anti-BDS Debate,” December 1, 2016, https://quakerservice.ca/JustPeaceBDS
  4. International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/index.php/working-definition-antisemitism
  5. BC Civil Liberties Association, “The BCCLA Opposes the International Campaign to Adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism,” June 18, 2019, https://bccla.org/our_work/the-bccla-opposes-the-international-campaign-to-adopt-the-international-holocaust-remembrance-association-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism
  6. Dictionary.com “Anti-Semitism,” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/anti-semitism
  7. Independent Jewish Voices, “IJV Statement on Antisemitism,” November, 2016, https://ijvcanada.org/about-ijv-a-propos/ijv-statement-on-antisemitism
  8. For a brief overview of this and other human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government see Amnesty International, “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories 2018,” https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/report-israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories
  9. For a brief description of BDS and CFSC’s positions on it see https://quakerservice.ca/FAQ
  10. Amos Goldberg and Raz Segal, “Distorting the Definition of Antisemitism to Shield Israel from All Criticism,” +972 Magazine, August 5, 2019, https://972mag.com/antisemitism-israel-jews-ihra/142622