National summit on anti-Semitism must develop a ‘real action plan,’ says leader Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler
Global Affairs Canada

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, says it’s past time Canada had a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. He has been named to lead an emergency national summit and says he will begin developing a plan by the end of the month.

Cotler, a former Justice Minister and Attorney-General of Canada, said in an exclusive CJN interview from Jerusalem on Saturday that he doesn’t want the summit, which was announced on Friday, June 11 to be just another condemnation of the problem, but the origin of a plan to overcome the world’s oldest hatred.

“We don’t need another discussion, seminar or forum, we need an urgent summit in order to act,” he said. “What comes out of this must be the implementation of a real action plan.”

“I’m not saying that words aren’t important, you have to have public condemnation of anti-Semitism by political leaders, but you need to have action too.”

In May, leaders of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre Canada and B’nai Brith Canada reiterated their call for a national strategy against anti-Semitism.

CIJA announced on Friday that the summit would be held, leaving government spokespeople scrambling to get their voices into the news.

Late on Friday, the press secretary for Bardish Chagger, the Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth issued a statement saying the decision to host the event is Ottawa’s response to a troubling rise in hatred across the country.

“In Canada, diversity is one of our greatest strengths, yet we know that discrimination and racism continues to be a daily reality for many across the country,” the statement from the minister said. “In recent weeks, we have seen a disturbing rise in discrimination fueled by anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This is unacceptable and has no place in Canada.”

The anti-Semitism event will match a similar national summit on Islamophobia. The government is also working with Indigenous, Black, Asian and LGBTQ2 communities on plans to attack discrimination against their communities.

A detailed plan for the summit is still being developed, but Cotler said the prime minister, ministers of Justice, Public Security and Foreign Affairs, provincial and municipal leaders as well as “the full spectrum of Jewish leadership” must attend to ensure the development of a coherent national strategy.

He added space should also be made at the table for student leaders “because they are the targets of anti-Semitism and we should hear their voices.”

The elements of that plan already have broad support in the Jewish community. Cotler outlined such a program in 2015, saying it must stress the importance of Holocaust remembrance, push for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism, encourage other countries to appoint special anti-Semitism envoys, engage members of parliament in the struggle, encourage other countries to develop national action plans, get concrete pledges from states to take action, learn the best practices of other countries with long histories of battling anti-Semitism and find the best legislation for the work.

The plan must also stress the danger of allowing anti-Semitism to work its way into the mainstream of society.

Another version advocated by CIJA also stressed the need for mandatory education on hatred and Jewish history to help Canadians understand the truth of the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict. Enhanced community security programs are also required as well as a national campaign on social media literacy.

Cotler said the IHRA working definition, which was developed over 15 years with a solid grounding in human rights and equality law, will be an important tool in any national plan.

“IHRA is the gold standard for defining and combatting anti-Semitism,” he said.

The IHRA definition has sparked opposition on some fronts from groups that claim its accompanying examples equate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. That’s an idea Cotler rejects out of hand.

“To make that claim is to turn the definition on its head,” he said. “It is intended to protect the speech not only of Jewish students, but also of critics of Israel.”

While most incidents of anti-Semitism are never reported, available statistics show a continued sharp rise in cases. The 2020 audit by B’nai Brith, for example, found 2,610 recorded incidents in Canada, the fifth straight year of record-setting numbers and an increase of more than 18 per cent from 2019.

It was also the third year more than 2,000 incidents were recorded. The majority of reported incidents were classed as harassment or vandalism. Only nine incidents last year involved violence.

 UJA Federation of Greater Toronto reported a five-fold spike in anti-Semitic incidents in May, during the Israel-Gaza conflict. Last month, it received at least 50 reports, up from the usual 10-12 per month.

“There is a clear correlation between anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitism in Canada,” states a four-page summary of the incidents prepared by UJA Security, an arm of Federation launched two years ago.

The report samples incidents of harassment, graffiti, vandalism, physical assault, suspicious phone calls, letters and emails.

Similar anti-Semitic incidents were also reported across the country.

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