Montreal does not adopt IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

Lionel Perez

A motion to have Montreal adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism was withdrawn by the official opposition leader after he rejected the mayor’s proposal that the matter be given further study.

“It’s ludicrous, ridiculous,” said Lionel Perez, leader of Ensemble Montréal, of Mayor Valérie Plante’s suggestion at the Jan. 28 council meeting that an internal committee might explore a made-in-Montreal definition of anti-Semitism.

The council spent about a half hour debating the motion, which has 14 clauses in its preamble.

“I reject that a municipal body has the knowledge and expertise in such a complex issue. It took 31 countries 12 years to develop this definition, and none other is so widespread,” Perez told The CJN. “I’m very disappointed. I think there is a lack of political will and Projet Montréal [Plante’s party] buckled to pressure from a fringe group.”

In the days leading up to the council meeting, which began on Jan. 27, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) campaigned against adoption of the definition, which it claims stifles criticism of Israel and advocacy for the Palestinian cause. They were joined by the Canadian-Palestinian Foundation and some labour unionists.

A small demonstration was held outside city hall and IJV raised objections during the council meeting’s question period.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Federation CJA’s advocacy arm, had urged the council to adopt the definition, which would have made it the first municipality in Canada to do so.

In a joint statement, the two organizations said they are “deeply troubled by [Plante’s] inaction on anti-Semitism.”

They are critical of her proposal to refer the motion to the Commission de la présidence du conseil, described by the city as a standing committee that monitors the operations of Montreal’s democratic bodies, as well as citizen participation.

“We are deeply disappointed that [Plante] did not support the adoption of the most widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism, a tool endorsed by reputable international bodies and adopted by dozens of democratic countries, including Canada, to enhance the fight against resurgent anti-Semitism” federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz and CIJA Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko stated.

“The mayor failed to seize the opportunity and show leadership on International Holocaust Remembrance Day [Jan. 27] to demonstrate that the City of Montreal is committed to combatting anti-Semitism today, which is rapidly increasing around the world.”

Motions to adopt the IHRA definition tabled in Calgary and Vancouver last year were met with public opposition. Calgary ultimately passed a modified motion recognizing International Holocaust Remembrance Day, without reference to the IHRA, while Vancouver referred the matter to a committee.

On Jan. 28, the Toronto area Vaughan city council unanimously passed a resolution adopting the IHRA definition, making it the first Canadian municipality to do so.

Perez noted that the adoption of this working definition of contemporary anti-Semitism is more than symbolic. While not legally binding, an official definition would have an impact on, for example, the police department’s hate crimes unit and the centre for the prevention of radicalization, he said.

Perez, who is Jewish, noted that the Ensemble Montréal motion additionally called for the city to mandate its diversity and inclusion service to produce working definitions of other forms of hate and racism.

Ensemble Montréal holds 20 of the council’s 64 seats, while Projet Montréal has 35.

CIJA and the federation commended Perez “for refusing to submit the internationally sanctioned and widely adopted IHRA definition to a review and rewording by a municipal commission lacking expertise on the matter.”

Meanwhile, IJV applauded Montreal city council for its action, claiming victory after more than 300 letters against adoption were sent to councillors.

“We strongly believe that our safety as Jews is intimately tied with the safety and well-being of other communities targeted by hate and bigotry, and that includes the Palestinian people,” its national co-ordinator Corey Balsam stated.

The IHRA definition, adopted by its member countries in 2016, states that, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The IHRA, a non-governmental organization founded in 1998, today has 34 member states. Canada joined in 2009, and, last June, the government officially adopted the definition as part of its “anti-racism strategy,” without a vote in the House of Commons.

While the definition does stipulate “manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” it clarifies that criticism of Israel “similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The line is crossed, for example, if Jews are accused of being more loyal to Israel than their own country, Israel is called racist or subjected to “double standards, or is denounced using classic anti-Semitic tropes or comparisons to the Nazis.

In December, a private member’s bill was introduced in the Ontario legislature calling on the province to adopt the legislation. Debate is scheduled to begin in February.