Queen’s University faculty must first understand antisemitism before they define it, says the director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada

Last spring, a group of Jewish law students at the University of Windsor were debating how to respond to a series of antisemitic incidents on campus, ranging from professors sharing misinformation about Judaism, to fraternity members making disparaging comments about Jewish students in an online forum.

Guided by the philosophy that education was the most effective weapon available, the students decided that explaining anti-Jewish bigotry would be the best way to combat it.

The solution? Work with the Windsor administration to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

With support from human rights experts such as former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and others, these students illustrated how the IHRA definition could serve as a helpful tool for administrators to identify antisemitism in their midst.

But before they could make any meaningful headway, a few university faculty members embarked on a campaign repeating erroneous and misguided theories that the definition would stifle free speech and academic expression. As such, despite the valiant efforts of these Windsor law students, the definition was not adopted.

This scenario where Jews cannot define their own oppression is not unique. On April 21, the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) will vote on a motion that would formally oppose the IHRA definition because some argue it “misconstrues antisemitism to include a broad range of criticism of the State of Israel.”

Not only is this untrue, but if passed, faculty members would be making it easier for Jewish students to be subjected to anti-Jewish hatred at Queen’s.

There is a clear double standard when it comes to defining antisemitism as opposed to defining any other form of prejudice. Typically, it is the communities bearing the brunt of hatred that can explain what it means to them.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it was members of the Black community leading the way on the state of racism in North America. Following the rise in anti-Asian hatred after the eruption of the COVID pandemic, it was Asian community leaders who educated the masses about common anti-Asian tropes and stereotypes. Antisemitism a.k.a. anti-Jewish hatred is no different—it should be Jews who define it.

Of course, these communities are not monolithic and there will always be dissenters. But there is a consensus, and that consensus is important to understand.

In Canada, there are several mainstream Jewish organizations that represent the majority of Canadian Jews. These organizations have not only accepted the IHRA definition but advocate for its adoption. It’s why the Canadian government endorsed it in 2019 as a key element in its anti-racism strategy, why the Ontario government adopted it a year later, and why numerous NGOs, student unions, and groups use it today.

In the 2018 landmark survey of Canadian Jews, a majority agreed that anti-Zionism and anti-Israel hatred greatly contribute to the targeting and discrimination of Jewish people, especially on campus. In an open letter published last year, over 300 students and alumni argued that the IHRA definition should be used by every university in Canada.

QUFA should look no further than Queen’s itself to understand how the definition could be useful. Last year, a Queen’s student group launched a fundraising campaign calling for the release of Ahmad Sa’adat, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a designated terror entity in Canada. The PFLP has staged several terror attacks on Jewish places of worship, including a 2014 synagogue massacre that left six dead, including one Canadian.

When Jewish students said the campaign created an unsafe environment, particularly for victims of terrorism on campus, the student group scoffed and said their allegations were unfounded.

There were no consequences for the actions of this group. 

It is here where IHRA comes into play, as it would provide a working definition that helps administrators identify antisemitism.

Simply put, the IHRA definition is the most universally accepted definition of antisemitism that exists. Antisemitism has morphed repeatedly over the years, requiring an up-to-date explanation of what constitutes anti-Jewish discrimination. The IHRA definition is that explanation. 

In the 21st century, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and other anti-Israel movements have contributed greatly to the rise of antisemitism, which is why BDS has been condemned repeatedly by world leaders such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and human rights experts alike. As such, the IHRA definition provides a robust and up-to-date illustration—including examples—of modern and classic antisemitism, centred on these 15 words: Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

For those concerned that it would stifle free speech or criticism of Israel, look no further than this passage from the definition: “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

In my experience as the executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, I have worked with hundreds of Jewish students on campuses across the country. I can attest that these students are as determined as any other to establish social change and end the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

To the members of QUFA, I implore you to continue to stand with Palestinians and make sure their voices are heard. I also urge you to stand with your Jewish and Israeli students, and make sure their voices are heard too.

By opposing the IHRA definition, you tell Jewish students that their experiences simply don’t matter. This will not bring us any closer to peace or prosperity for Israelis or Palestinians. But it will make life that much harder for Jewish students at Queen’s.

Daniel Koren is the executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada.