By Moe Alqasem
Over the last several years, we have witnessed a dangerous shift in the political spectrum with the rise of alt-right sentiments and crypto-fascist groups, resulting in spikes of hate crimes and incidents of racism. At a minimum, these lead to harassment, intimidation, and violence; at their worst, they cause widespread human tragedy, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We don’t need to look too far back in human history to see what this looks like. In fact, it continues to this day.
In the post-9/11 era, Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians have struggled against an intensification of hatred against them, as if there wasn’t enough of that to begin with. There are plenty of groups among these communities, each with their own unique experiences, that have been scapegoated for social and political problems they have nothing to do with, and have borne the brunt of racism and the politically-motivated violence directed against them.
As activists committed to anti-racism, we must ensure that our practice of it is consistent. If, at any time, our practice of anti-racism comes at the expense of dehumanizing one group of people as we elevate another, then we must seriously question–and reject–this approach. And when we fail to address the underlying grievances and frustrations that give rise to racism, the result could be dangerous political upheavals, storms, or frenzies, which often produce grim and regressive outcomes. Instead, we must always seek opportunities for positive, transformative change, the kind that could create a better world and a greater future for all.
IHRA and WDA
It is against this backdrop that we turn to the question of Palestine and its relationship to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and its working definition of anti-Semitism (WDA), which has recently been adopted by various governments around the world. In Canada, the WDA has been endorsed in the federal Parliament and by a number of city councils across the country. In Ontario, it is close to being passed into law.
The question of Palestine will remain unresolved until all Palestinians are free. The fight for Palestinian liberation is also a fight against racism and all forms of oppression: anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. Sadly, the IHRA’s WDA pits the movement for Palestine against the fight against anti-Semitism–and ends up weakening both struggles.
While all forms of racism are on the rise, it is critical that anti-racist struggles find ways to connect with one another. Instead of allowing for this kind of solidarity to emerge, the IHRA’s WDA is being deployed to the keep the Palestinian question at a stalemate. Its real target is anti-Zionism, the legitimate criticism of the political policies and practices of the state of Israel. As anti-racists, we should see the WDA as totally ineffective in combating anti-Semitism. As Palestinians, we must ask what the widespread adoption of the WDA would mean for our community, our people, and our struggle for liberation. We, who have been stripped of our humanity for the best part of a century, could now face the torture of being completely silenced in our fight for freedom, while anti-Palestinian racism runs amok.
Palestinians, the Jewish community, and the Zionist movement
As a preface, we should identify the three main groups affected by the debate regarding the IHRA’s WDA: the Palestinians (and their allies), the Jewish community, and the Zionist movement, which is most often associated with the state of Israel. It is critical to make the distinction between the latter two: the Jewish community is an ethno-religious group with roots in countries all over the world and the state of Israel represents the culmination of a political movement or project. According to Prof. Yakov Rabkin, a prominent author and scholar and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV):
“The State of Israel is a product of the Zionist revolution that successfully challenged Judaism, Jewish tradition and Jewish Diaspora. Its ethos is rooted in that revolt…. To speak of ‘the Jewish state’ is to confuse religion and politics and to associate the Jews of the world with what Israel does and is. Quite a few Jews not only disagree with Israel but consider it irrelevant (and some even a threat) to their Jewish aspirations.”
You can read more about Prof. Rabkin’s perspective in his article, “You have said that it isn’t accurate to refer to Israel as ‘the Jewish state’. How can that be?”
The liberation of the Palestinians
Like every other oppressed group, the Palestinians must be held in the same regard: their aspirations for justice, equality, and liberation deserve dignity and respect and should never be subordinated to any other national group.
The Palestinian people remain largely in exile, as refugees in the Diaspora, but also live in their millions in the indigenous homeland. Wherever they live in the world, they will be affected by the political decisions made by and for their colonizers. The national question that has been forced upon us, since we driven from our homes following the creation go the state of Israel in 1948, makes it a crucial part of our identity and survival: to continue fighting for our liberation and against our oppressors, wherever they may be, so that we never cease existing as a people. In this struggle, we are often barraged with orientalist, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, or other hateful and racist responses, including the allegation of anti-Semitism–simply for seeking the same rights as other groups have. These painful experiences never seem to be addressed properly or given any serious attention outside our community.
Right-wing hate groups
The irony is that the vast majority of anti-Semitic acts are committed by right-wing groups, mainly white supremacists, but this fact is conveniently ignored by those who attempt to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights. They conflate Zionism and Judaism and, as a result, they equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. In almost every discussion that involves the question of Palestine or that probes at the situation of the Palestinian people, Palestinians and their allies are faced with the baseless charge of anti-Semitism. And in the majority of these cases, there is not a scintilla of truth to such an accusation: the Palestinian struggle is grounded in an ethos of fighting all forms of oppression, which includes opposing anti-Semitism, and has long sought common cause with Jewish allies in historic Palestine and in the international solidarity movement.
This is what makes the IHRA’s WDA such a problem: it entrenches in law the erroneous conflation of Zionism and Judaism and of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It also has the effect of distracting attention away from the greatest source of anti-Semitism–far-right and white supremacist groups–and instead attempts to put the blame on the Palestinians’ legitimate and just struggle for liberation.
A vague definition
The IHRA began as an inter-governmental organization in the late 1990s with the goal of promoting Holocaust education and remembrance. The WDA first emerged in the early 2000s as an informal working definition within an anti-racism agency of the European Union, but was eventually abandoned in 2013. In 2016, the IHRA officially adopted the non-legally binding WDA during a plenary of 31 member states. To date, a total of 18 countries formally recognize the WDA, which describes anti-Semitism as follows:
“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.”
There is nothing controversial about this definition, in and of itself. However, in the examples that follow the definition, which are supposed to guide institutions and member countries in its applicability, seven out of eleven of them mention Israel. In other words, a majority of the examples conflate legitimate criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. This is where we start to see the core of the issue.
In some instances, the WDA attempts to avoid this conflation:
“Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”
This kind of distinction would commonly be raised in a legal setting and not likely generate disagreement from anyone opposed to anti-Semitism.
Conflation, confusion, and ambiguity
But other examples appear to blur this distinction and make the WDA much less clear. One of them states the following: “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.” If we unpack this point, we can see how quickly any criticism of the state of Israel–in this case, the racism towards Palestinians that is part of the state’s structure–is labelled as anti-Semitic. If such a definition were adopted, it would make any discussion about the widely documented Apartheid system that exists throughout Israel an anti-Semitic act, even though the term “Apartheid” is widely used in political discussion inside Israel, including in the Knesset and mainstream media. Similarly, it would likely censor any discussion of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and any advocacy for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, which is enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 194.
Another irony of the WDA is that is labels legitimate opposition to an act of racism or discrimination as act itself of racism or discrimination. As a consequence, the WDA would categorize a basic demand for civil rights and equality, such as the call for equal access to education, as anti-Semitic, with the long-term effect of silencing anyone holding these views.
Adding to the ambiguity, the WDA refers to “a State of Israel” as opposed to “the State of Israel”–thus further prohibiting political dissent or opposition to Israel, no what matter what political formation it takes. Such a broad an open-ended definition would criminalize all potential criticism of Israel, including anything Israel might do in the future: further confiscation of Palestinian land, an increase in human rights violations, or the expansion of the Apartheid system.
It also has the effect of deflecting attention away from the real, documented crimes of the current state of Israel, the only one that exists at the moment, and making any criticism of it seem abstract or imagined.
A double standard?
Another problematic example provided in the WDA states the following: “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The issue here is that a double standard for Israel and its actions already exists, but in its favour. The international community, including Canada, has long turned a blind eye to the actions of Israel, granting it an exceptional status. In almost every other instance, states that engage in behaviour that is similar to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians usually ends in some form of sanction or condemnation.
Were this example of the WDA to be applied, any action, inquiry, or mere expression of opposition to Israeli state actions would be characterized as an anti-Semitic act–including a any investigation led by the United Nations or anything associated with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In itself, such an example promotes a “double standard” for Israel. Unfortunately, the WDA fails to recognize that the discourse about Israel within the Palestine solidarity movement seeks to hold it as accountable, as it would all other nation states.
This perspective is by no means alarmist: there is no shortage of instances where the IHRA’s WDA has been deployed to silence criticism of Israel that emerged in response to its political actions as a state. In many cases, the WDA has been invoked to condemn pro-Palestine academics, scholars, activists, or organizations as “anti-Semites” or as “anti-Semitic”. One particularly alarming incident was the use of the WDA against Jewish anti-Zionists in Germany who were active in the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. In a heartfelt message, members of the groups stated:
“The German civil servant [Dr. Felix] Klein however recommended that a survey be taken to determine whether the members of the Jewish Voice, all of whom are Jews, are anti-semites. The standard to be used in determining this was to be the controversial definition of anti-semitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)….”
As bizarre as it may sound, the use of the IHRA’s WDA in this case made it possible to call into question the Jewish activists’ connection to Judaism, creating the possibility of disinheriting them from their heritage by centering Israel in it.
Attacks on academic freedom
Similar cases exist in Canada. One of the most recent attempts to silence advocacy and scholarship regarding Palestinian human rights took place at the University of Toronto, where the administration remains under fire for allowing external interference to scupper the hiring of a new director of its International Human Rights Program (IHRP). Following her unanimous selection by a hiring committee at the University’s prestigious law school, Dr. Valentina Azarova, a distinguished international legal researcher and practitioner, was reportedly offered and accepted the position of IHRP Director in August. According to multiple reports, the administration rescinded the offer following the intervention of Justice David Spiro, a member of the Tax Court of Canada and a previous board chair for the Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). Spiro is a 1987 graduate of the University’s law school and his family has been a large donor to the University since then. Media coverage attributes Spiro’s intervention to Prof. Azarova’s scholarship and research regarding Israel and Palestine.
The scandal has generated a large volume of complaints by students, faculty, alumni, and the general public; an online petition; and a campaign to defend academic freedom. It has also led to the resignation of the hiring committee in its entirety, as well as a resignation by a faculty member from the University, in protest of its withdrawal of the offer to Dr. Azarova.
At York University, a similar case of interference has emerged with the attack on renowned human rights scholar Prof. Faisal Bhabha by a pro-Israel group that has attempted to label his scholarship as “anti-Semitic.” Not surprisingly, these cases have been followed by calls from pro-Israel groups for the adoption of the IHRA’s WDA, which has already been attempted at the University of Toronto earlier in the year. And more cases will likely emerge on campuses around the world, as opponents of Palestinian liberation seek to weaponize the WDA against any and all criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Quite simply put, the reason many pro-Israel groups have seized the moment to distort and attack sympathetic speech or commentary about Palestine is the existence of Bill 168, the “Combating Antisemitism Act,” which has currently been referred to the standing committee on justice policy and could proceed to a third reading at any point in the future. The Bill would seek to implement the IHRA’s WDA in the Ontario legislature, further entrenching in law the conflation of any criticism of Israel and its related policies with anti-Semitism. Without a doubt, the Bill would be used to guide future law-makers as they develop legislation and policy in relation to the state of Israel and in response to what would be categorized as anti-Semitic acts. Similarly, the final passage of Bill 168 would further encourage opponents of Palestinian liberation to weaponize the law to halt even the slightest bit of advocacy for peace, justice, and human rights for Palestinians.
In Canada, the WDA has been adopted by the federal government, Vaughan City Council, York Regional Council, Barrie City Council, and three municipalities in Quebec (Côte St-Luc, Hampstead, and Westmount), while the city councils of Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver, among multiple other institutions or governing bodies, have withdrawn or rejected motions to adopt the WDA. The attempt to pass motions at the municipal level in Ontario is part of a strategy that seeks to pressure the Ontario legislature to adopt the WDA, as if a consensus is emerging across the province. Recently, in an odd turn of events, the Brampton City Council, which had initially agreed to adopt the WDA, reopened the debate and decided to remove the illustrative examples after some councillors and community members, who described the examples as “overreach,” raised their objections.
In light of this growing list of incidents, the IHRA’s WDA is clearly not effective in dealing with anti-Semitism, which we all must urgently confront, along with any other form of hatred or bigotry. But we need to do so with accuracy and with a clear understanding of the real sources of anti-Semitism. So far, the WDA has been deployed overwhelmingly to stifle the movement for Palestinian rights, further allowing Israel and its supporters to act with impunity. This has led many solidarity activists, including in the Jewish community, to oppose and reject the IHRA’s WDA.
It has even led Kenneth Stern, who drafted the WDA, to condemn its weaponization against speech or acts in support of the Palestinians. Stern, who is a renowened lawyer, author, and the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, explained his perspective in a recent essay in the Guardian:
“[The WDA] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”
In a previous essay in the the New York Times, Stern clarified the original purpose of the WDA: “The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe. It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.”
Stern’s more recent criticism is in relation to an executive order by US President Donald Trump to adopt the IHRA’s WDA, but it nevertheless anticipates the ensuing attacks on free speech on campus and further exposes the limits and ineffectiveness of the WDA in actually fighting anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, Stern’s clear criticism of the WDA has not stopped Ontario lawmakers from proceeding with Bill 168. During the second reading of the Bill in February of this year, Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP Will Bouma (Brantford-Brant) made this statement: “This (antisemitism) can be seen in the increase in hate crimes that target the Jewish community and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS. In fact, an incident targeting the Jewish community takes place roughly every 24 hours in Canada.”
When Bouma mentions the rise of anti-Semitism and an increase in attacks on the Jewish community, in the same breath as he references the growth of the BDS movement, he attempts to establish a relationship that does not exist: there is no causal relationship between the emergence of a widely supported peaceful tactic in solidarity with Palestinian struggle for liberation, on the one hand, and the alarming rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes, on the other. As we have already seen, the vast majority of attacks on the Jewish community, which BDS and Palestinine solidarity activists vigorously oppose, come from right-wing hate groups and white supremacist organizations.
Even more worrying is the trend to rely on the WDA as a legitimate legal reference, even though it is non-legally binding, in a growing number of cases, including in some where it has informed the law. As predicted, Bill 168 entrenches the conflation of legitimate criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, with the alarming consequence of institutionalizing and, in effect, legalizing anti-Palestinian racism.
What do we do now?
These developments, and the likelihood that more will follow, lead us to ask two urgent questions:
First, how many cases of anti-Semitism have actually been exposed and condemned as a result of the IHRA’s WDA, as opposed to expressions of solidarity with Palestinians? And second, how many expressions of support with Palestinians have been targeted and named as anti-Semitic, with the effect of shutting them down, derailing them, or curtailing them?
The answer to these questions will no doubt reveal the real intended target of the WDA: any expression of solidarity with Palestine, especially the most effective ones, such as the BDS movement. In jurisdictions where the WDA has been endorsed, there will surely be legal challenges to its constitutionality, and while these challenges must be supported, they will not be the key method of defending Palestine solidarity. The key method will be to continue building and mobilizing the biggest possible movement in support of the Palestinian struggle–visibly, loudly, and confidently demonstrating all forms of solidarity–at the same time as we link arms in the fight against racism and all forms of oppression, including anti-Semitism.
It will also involve a robust defence of free speech, of the right to assembly and association, and of basic civil liberties, and a firm and uncompromising resistance to any attempt to label just and legitimate expressions of solidarity with Palestine–which are in and of themselves anti-racist acts–as racist, hateful, or anti-Semitic.
Despite the odds our movement faces, we should remind ourselves that, at the heart of the strategy to criminalize, outlaw, or censor Palestine solidarity, is the grudging recognition that the Palestine solidarity movement, especially the BDS campaign, has been incredibly successful at exposing the crimes of the state of Israel against the Palestinians and in generating widespread public support for the Palestinian cause. Our opponents can’t respond on the strength of their arguments or with the facts of history. Instead, they are simply trying to shut down the debate.
And that’s exactly why we need to step up our fight and keep organizing as we have been in recent years. Like the Palestinians themselves, we are on the right side of history. No one, and no law, will silence us. No one, and no law, will stop us.
Palestine will be free.
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