The Ryerson Centre for Free Expression hosted a virtual forum earlier this month on the definition of anti-Semitism drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). With governments and institutions around the world encouraged by pro-Israel groups to adopt the IHRA guidelines, four experts debated whether the IHRA definition is “fighting anti-Semitism or silencing critics of Israel”.
Professor Faisal Bhabha from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, and Dr Sheryl Nestel from Independent Jewish Voices Canada, argued against the definition and warned of its chilling effect on free speech. They voiced concerns over the way in which it is being weaponised by pro-Israel groups to suppress critics of the Zionist state, citing examples from Europe and America. Their interlocutors were Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and Richard Marceau, Vice President at the Centre for Israel and Jewish affairs; they defended the IHRA definition as a key instrument in the fight against anti-Semitism, offering both clarity and examples as a guideline.
In the 90-minute debate Nestel, pointed out that one of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism included in the definition is to “[deny] the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This, she suggested, makes her an anti-Semite under the IHRA’s definition because she believes that “Israel is a racist endeavour”. As a Jew with many holocaust survivors in the family, this is nonsensical.
The debate highlighted the complexities and confusion around this contested issue; more importantly, though, it exposed the contradictions and dangers of a definition that conflates criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism in the vague and loose manner that it does. Throughout the debate, Farber and Marceau dismissed the concerns of their opponents and argued that the fearmongering by Bhabha and Nestel was exaggerated. Indeed, although one of the people who drafted the IHRA definition, American attorney Kenneth Stern, has himself warned that “right-wing Jews are weaponising” it to suppress criticism of Israel, this was dismissed by its advocates.
It was ironic, therefore, that following the debate, a prominent pro-Israel group demanded Bhabha’s expulsion from the teaching profession. The professor’s “crime”, claimed B’nai Brith Canada, was that he had made remarks about Zionism that the group deemed were beyond the pale of any academic debate. Confirming the very threat that Bhabha and Nestel had warned about so powerfully, the group launched a petition demanding Bhabha’s dismissal. B’nai Brith Canada, by the way, claims to be an advocate for human rights which, presumably, includes free speech.
The offending comments equated Zionism with white supremacy. “Zionism isn’t about self-determination,” argued Bhabha, “it’s about Jewish supremacy.” Given the history of white supremacy and the recent Black Lives Matter protests highlighting the crimes associated with racist ideology, B’nai Brith Canada’s outrage might be understandable. No one who claims any moral high ground would wish to be associated with a racist ideology that seeks the domination of one ethnic group over another.
However, ask any Palestinian if equating Zionism with white supremacy is outrageous, and I suspect that they would cite the 750,000 who were ethnically cleansed from their land by Zionists in 1948 as reason enough to make such a comparison. As is the fact that the Palestinian refugees have never been allowed to return to their homes simply because they are of a different ethnicity and will “upset” the demography of Zionist Israel. Ask the Palestinians who are confined in Bantustans and camps which are little more than open-air prisons; who can’t drive on roads built for use by Jews only, or live in modern housing settlements built for Jews only: ask them; they know a thing or two about a political ideology founded on ethnic supremacy.
Just as many white people, especially on the political right, struggle — some would say refuse — to understand the legacy of slavery and fail to grasp why protestors wish to tear down statues of slave traders, many pro-Israel groups only view Zionism through the lens of Jewish self-determination. Palestinians are absent in their victorious “reclamation” of the “land without a people for a people without a land”, one of the many Zionist myths. B’nai Brith and many such organisations seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the story of ethnic domination and supremacy stares them in the face. As a group advocating human rights, its members would — wouldn’t they? — surely call out white supremacists who claim that their vision of North America as a representation of white self-determination is not racist. And yet they reject any such criticism of Zionist Israel.
“B’nai Brith have proven my point,” Prof. Bhabha told me. “My argument in the debate was that the IHRA definition is dangerous if adopted into law or policy, especially on university campuses, because it would result in the suppression of free speech, the demonisation of Palestinian human rights defenders, and the spread of Islamophobia.”
Repeating concerns raised during the debate about the misuse of the definition by pro-Israel groups, Bhabha explained that his comments were intended to present “different perspectives” on the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. “The statements attributed to [me] by B’nai Brith are taken out of context for the sole purpose of distortion in order to cast aspersions on my motive and meaning. This is not surprising coming from a group that cares more about cheerleading extremist Israeli policies than about promoting equality in Canada, and which never misses an opportunity to denigrate Muslims or Arabs.”
Bhabha and Nestel’s description of the IHRA definition as a tool weaponised by Zionist groups to suppress criticism of Israel while endangering free speech cannot simply be dismissed as scaremongering, as their opponents insisted on doing during the online Ryerson debate. Rather than helping in the fight against crude anti-Semitism and protecting Jewish communities around the world, the definition’s misuse is undermining this crucial struggle by conflating criticism of the Zionist state of Israel with criticism or abuse of Jews.
Genuine anti-racists can see the flaws in adopting the IHRA definition and its examples without question. Stopping anti-Semitism should not require a blind eye to be turned to Israel’s abuse of Palestinians and their legitimate rights. If Muslims, for example, insisted that it is “Islamophobic” to criticise a Muslim country or political ideology without exception, or that criticising the serial human rights abuses of, say, Saudi Arabia, was cited in seven out of eleven examples of “Islamophobia”, I have no doubt that they would be told in no uncertain terms that such a move would be a threat to freedom of speech.
Israel does get singled out, as Bhabha and Nestel agreed, but not in the way that Zionist groups claim. Putting aside Israel’s many human rights violations and contraventions of UN Resolutions which would normally trigger the kind of sanctions we’ve seen imposed on Russia and Iran, no serious definition of racism would even contemplate putting the protection of a political entity at its core. This is the exceptionalism enjoyed by the Zionist state that is rarely, if ever, extended to anyone else. In that way, therefore, Israel does indeed get singled out for special attention.
The campaign to disqualify Bhabha from teaching is the latest example of how this privilege operates. The IHRA’s conflation of anti-Jewish racism with criticism of Israel in its definition of anti-Semitism has empowered Israel’s supporters to weaponise one of history’s ugliest forms of racism to shield the Zionist state’s ethnic domination from criticism. The Jews who suffer from anti-Semitism don’t benefit from this, Israel does, at the expense of the Palestinians whose land it occupies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.