The controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism has been rejected by the University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group. The move follows a year of consultation over the best way to combat racism faced by Jewish students.
The working groups were established last December 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 organisations, as well as Jewish religious leaders.
In the 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 State of Israel. Seven of the eleven examples included within the definition conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism.
While noting that several governments, including those of Canada and Ontario, and some universities in the US and Britain have adopted the controversial definition, believing it to be “a non-legally binding working definition”, the working group in Toronto warned that it would have a chilling effect on free speech on campuses.
“The principal drafter of the IHRA working definition, Kenneth Stern, has repeatedly cautioned against its official adoption as a legal or quasi-legal instrument, particularly in the university context,” said the working group. Stern warned against its adoption on the grounds that it was developed not as a way of regulating speech, but as a way of measuring trends in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe over time and across borders.
Rejecting the IHRA, 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 criticises one country must criticise any other country that engages in similar conduct.”
Explaining the reason for rejecting the IHRA, 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.
University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, Acting Vice-President and Provost Trevor Young, and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity, and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat said that they were pleased to accept all of the working group’s recommendations.