In his recent opinion piece in University Affairs, “Canada’s new definition of anti-Semitism is a threat to campus free speech,” Jeffrey Sachs would have us believe that the adoption by the Canadian government of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism threatens academic freedom in Canada and elsewhere. He paints the IHRA definition as “alarmingly vague and easily misinterpreted.” But, he is himself alarmingly vague to his readers about the source of this “threat” – the IHRA. He never quite gets around to explaining to his readers what the IHRA is.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is an intergovernmental organization made up of 33 countries, including Canada, and includes a further nine with observer status (including two Muslim-majority countries, Albania and Turkey). These countries formulated this definition with great care and with the usual discussion, negotiation and compromise common to all international agreements concluded by intergovernmental bodies.
Dr. Sachs admits in his article that “it is true that anti-Semitism today sometimes disguises itself as criticism of Israel.” That does not stop him from objecting to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that, as he states: “explicitly conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism,” a definition supported by the vast majority of the world’s Jewish community.
What is his objection to a definition of antisemitism supported by the Government of Canada and the Jewish community? Dr. Sachs fears that the adoption of this definition by Canadian universities will result in a situation in which universities, in his words, “incorporate it [the definition] into their anti-discrimination policies.” He further asserts that conflating, in his words, “hatred of Jews with hatred of Israel” is an outcome to be opposed.
What he never quite lets his readers know is that the IHRA does not at all “criminalize” criticism of Israel and its policies. On the contrary, the IHRA document states explicitly that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” Thus, no person who subjects the government of Israel to criticism, in the same way that the Government of Canada is subject to criticism, could be “criminalized” under this definition.
So, what is Dr. Sachs afraid of? It seems to me that he opposes the conflation of, as he puts it, “hatred of Jews with hatred of Israel,” because he does not wish there to be any limitation to the expression of “hatred of Israel” in Canadian university communities. But, Canadian university communities normally adopt limitations on language deemed offensive by communities such as First Nations and others. Canadian universities are coming to understand that some of those who promote hatred of Israel often espouse anti-Semitic rhetoric and align themselves with those who seek not a change of policy by Israel, but rather Israel’s destruction.
The Canadian university community stands for research, analysis, and exploration of ideas and concepts, even ones we may oppose. It must not be a place that countenances hatred in any guise.
Ira Robinson is a professor in the department of religions and cultures, and director of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, at Concordia University.