Ontario moves closer to adopting IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

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An Ontario bill to combat anti-Semitism has passed second reading. MPPs voted 55-0 to send Bill 168 to committee.

The Feb.27 vote saw members from all sides of the aisle speak passionately for the bill and the need to fight anti-Semitism in Ontario.

The private member’s bill, introduced by Conservative MPP Will Bouma in December and co-sponsored by fellow Tory Robin Martin, calls on 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.”

Ontario would be the first province to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism should the bill be passed in its current form.

“Anti-Semitism is wrong, no matter who you are or where you live,” Bouma told the legislature. “It has been a scourge on society in times passed and continues to be so across the world today. Unfortunately, that includes Ontario.”

He cited an increase in hate crimes and the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. An incident targeting the Jewish community takes place roughly every 24 hours in Canada, and Jews are the most frequently targeted group for hate crimes in this country, Bouma stated.

“This is completely unacceptable,” he said. “By unifying the government to be guided by the IHRA definition, this bill will permit a whole-of-government response to the scourge that is anti-Semitism.”

He noted that the IHRA definition is supported by 33 countries as well as numerous Jewish organizations around the world.

In her remarks, Martin cited recent anti-Jewish incidents at York University and the University of Toronto. “While valid criticism of Israel does not constitute anti-Semitism, failure to separate the needs of Jewish students on a university campus in Toronto from valid concern or criticism of the Israeli government certainly does,” she said.

His voice cracking with emotion, the NDP’s John Vanthof cited the recent 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He sought to allay concerns that the bill, should it become law, would be used to stifle criticism of Israel.

He said the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism was not intended to be legally binding. Bill 168 “should function as an expression of our shared commitment to fight anti-Semitism,” Vanthof said.”The official Opposition, the NDP, will not oppose this bill.”

Earlier this month, Karen Mock, president of JSpace Canada, a progressive group, wrote to NDP Leader Andrea Horwath urging support for Bill 168.

Jewish MPPs Roman Baber and Andrea Khanjin spoke in favour of the bill. “Today, we’re drawing a clear line,” Baber said. “We’re calling anti-Semitism what it is. We’re putting our finger on it and defining it. We made it explicit so no one will miss it. We’re saying, ‘this is wrong.’”

Thornhill MPP Gila Martow said the Jewish community “is tired of just talk. This bill allows action.”

It was a busy week leading up to the debate on Bill 168. On Feb. 25, a group opposed to the measure, including members of Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (IJV), which supports the BDS campaign against Israel, held a press conference at Queen’s Park to urge MPPs to reject the “flawed” bill.

The activists charged that with its adoption of the IHRA definition, the bill “conflates” anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israel, and that as a law, it would be used to silence dissent on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The next day, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) announced its support for the IJV position on the bill, which “infringes on both freedom of expression and academic freedom on post-secondary education campuses.”

If passed into law, the bill “threatens to criminalize activists fighting for Palestinian rights as well as critical analysis on Israel and Zionism,” charged the CFS, which represents some 530,000 students across Canada.

The CFS “has once again proven that their mandate has been hijacked by the fringes, and that they are completely incapable of representing the constituents they are intended to serve,” Ilan Orzy of Hillel Ontario, told The CJN.

Daniel Koren, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, said, “It is incredibly offensive that the CFS believes it can dictate what constitutes anti-Semitism and speak on behalf of Canada’s Jewish community, which overwhelmingly supports adopting the IHRA definition.”

Finally, more than 350 Canadian academics have signed an open letter denouncing the IHRA definition, calling it an “imposition” that would “imperil the pursuit of truth and the legitimate expression of dissent.”

The federal government adopted the IHRA definition in June 2018 as part of a $45 million anti-racism strategy. It’s been endorsed by the Montreal suburb of Westmount and the City of Vaughan, north of Toronto, but failed to win approval in Vancouver and Montreal. A resolution to “explore” the IHRA definition was withdrawn by its sponsor before Calgary’s city council could consider it last November.

The Ontario bill now heads to the standing committee on justice policy for review and public input.

Jewish groups welcomed the development. In a statement, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs that the the passage of Bill 168 on second reading “comes at a crucial time for Jewish Ontarians. Our community continues to be disproportionately targeted with hate by a broad spectrum of individuals and groups.” Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre said it was “absolutely thrilled that this important bill has received such strong support from our legislators on all sides, and we hope to see it quickly go to a final vote so it can become law.”