Ontario anti-Semitism bill passes first reading

Will Bouma

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is making good on its promise to fight anti-Semitism.

Bill 168, an act to combat anti-Semitism, passed first reading in the legislature on Dec. 11.

The private member’s bill, which was introduced by Conservative MPP Will Bouma, would require the government to be “guided” by the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) when it interprets acts, regulations and policies, in order to “protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to anti-Semitism.”

If passed, it would make Ontario the first province to adopt the IHRA definition.

The bill’s preamble describes anti-Semitism as “a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted strategy, encompassing a range of ministries and agencies. For that reason, it is desirable to require the Government of Ontario to implement a whole-of-government approach in combating anti-Semitism.”

In an interview with The CJN, Bouma said that recent events, including the Pittsburgh synagogue attack of 2018, moved him to introduce the bill.

“With everything going on, it seems that anti-Semitism is something that’s been really on the rise,” he said. “I think it’s very timely that we introduce something like this right now.”

And as “a Dutch immigrant kid,” he remembers hearing stories about Anne Frank and the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Noah Shack of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) called the bill’s introduction “an important step in addressing anti-Semitism in our province. Anti-Semitism can manifest in many different ways and it cannot be effectively countered if it is not properly identified. The IHRA definition is a crucial tool in this regard.”

Last June, the federal government announced that it would adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, as part of a $45 million anti-racism strategy. The definition has also been endorsed by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

More than 30 countries have endorsed the IHRA definition, as has the Secretary General of the United Nations and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, CIJA pointed out.

The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “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.”

Details are contained in the many examples of anti-Semitism listed by the IHRA. One of them “might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Three years ago, under the Liberals, Ontario became the first province to approve a motion rejecting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Six months earlier, a bill calling on the province to bar doing business with companies and other entities that support BDS was defeated on second reading.

Opponents of the IHRA definition, including the pro-BDS Independent Jewish Voices, charge that its adoption would silence criticism of Israel and squelch support for the Palestinians.

Bouma, the parliamentary assistant to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, dismissed that argument.

“When you think about what anti-Semitism is, it doesn’t mean being able to have a healthy discussion about the issues at hand. What we’re talking about is a willful denigration of a certain group. These things need to be kept close to the public consciousness, or I fear we’ll be doomed to repeat the failures and mistakes of the past,” Bouma said.

“I don’t think this silences anyone. We live in a democratic country and we’re free to debate, but certain groups are much more the targets than others, and we need to stand up and combat these things.”

Bouma said he’s looking forward “to doing everything in my power to make sure this is adopted as government policy.”

B’nai Brith Canada welcomed the bill.

“Officially defining anti-Semitism will make it easier to combat this scourge,” said Michael Mostyn, B’nai Brith’s CEO. He said recent incidents at York University and the University of Toronto “demonstrate that action is needed to combat anti-Semitism even within certain government-funded institutions in this province.”