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Letter to John Tory Re: CIJA & the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

January 22, 2021

Dear Mayor Tory,

Re: CIJA and the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

The United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) is a 90-year-old secular Jewish organization based in Toronto and Winnipeg. We stand with national leaders of the Palestinian Canadian and wider Arab Canadian communities. We understand that you are scheduled on January 25, 2021 to participate in an event entitled “Combatting Anti-Semitism” [i]

We applaud all genuine efforts to fight antisemitism. It, along with Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry and racism, needs to be eradicated. However, we have a concern stemming from the sponsor of the event, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). CIJA is an extreme right wing organization that has a history of defending Israel’s violations of international law and humanitarian legal conventions relating to its treatment of Palestinians.

Additionally, in recent years, CIJA has promoted the increasingly discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition deliberately over-reaches beyond legitimate examples of antisemitism to define criticism of the state of Israel’s policies and practices as antisemitic. [ii]

Respected Jewish organizations such as Independent Jewish Voices have raised this same concern. Calls from Jewish organizations across North America have joined to protest the IHRA definition.

For example, New Israel Fund of Canada no longer supports the IHRA definition due to the recognition that it is being used to suppress free speech by conflating any criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A growing movement of mainstream progressive pro-Israel organizations in the United States, including J Street, New Israel Fund, and Americans for Peace Now have taken a position in opposition to the IHRA definition citing its potential for misuse. [iii]

For Arab Canadians in general and Palestinian Canadians in particular this issue is not about a “potential” for misuse. The IHRA definition, which has been actively touted by CIJA, has been used extensively to silence legitimate criticism of Israel’s subjugation and oppression of Palestinians.

Israel’s leading human rights organization, B’tselem, recently released a seminal report finding Israel is an “apartheid regime” [iv]. The need for an open and unfettered discussion of Israel/Palestine Issues has reached a critical point. Extremist organizations, such as CIJA, hope to use the IHRA definition to silence opposition to Israel’s conduct. The IHRA definition is an attack on free speech which is the foundation of our shared Canadian democratic values.

In the present context, the IHRA definition is an assault on the fundamental human right to disagree with the political ideology of one’s oppressor. Palestinian Canadians and Arab Canadians face many challenges in defending their rights, even in Canada. However, the IHRA definition has already and routinely been used to undermine academic freedom in our institutions of learning. [v] Just being a supporter of Palestinian human rights has been enough to be targeted for harassment and false allegations of antisemitism.

Accusations of antisemitism are being used to silence criticism of Israel. This use of the term is not only misleading, it is disrespectful of Jewish history, of the Holocaust and of the ways Jews have suffered through time. If the definition of antisemitism is allowed to become expanded and distorted in this way, who will recognize it and stand up for us when we encounter the real thing?

Now is the time for solidarity with and amongst those who are targets of Islamophobia, anti-Black and other forms of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and antisemitism. In these volatile and scary times, I hope we can find the heart and courage to stand up for one another and resist distortions of what antisemitism is and looks like.

All Torontonians will be harmed by your participation at this CIJA event as it predictably will be used to leverage your support to pressure Toronto City Council to adopt the IHRA definition. Such a move would seriously marginalize our communities and undermine your natural role as mayor of all Torontonians.

We hope that you will take our concerns seriously and reject endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in favour of a definition that does justice to the history and experience of Jewish people, as well as to the rights of Palestinian people to free speech and activism.

Yours sincerely,

Rachel Epstein

Executive Director,

United Jewish People’s Order – Toronto

Cc: Joe Cressy

Paula Fletcher

Mike Layton

Nick Mantas

Anthony Perruzza

Gord Perks

Kristyn Wong-Tam

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