The following open letter was signed by Canadian Friends Service Committee—the national peace and social justice agency of Quakers in Canada.
January 23, 2023
Dear Ministers Rodriguez and Hussen,
As organizations and individuals committed to both anti-racism and freedom of expression–amongst us recipients of Canadian Heritage grants–we are deeply concerned by recent statements indicating the department’s possible use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA WDA) for the purposes of attestation and vetting of Canadian Heritage applicants/grantees, as well as training of departmental officers.
We understand that these measures have been proposed in response to a series of troubling tweets posted by a contractor to an organization that received funds from Canadian Heritage. However, we believe that the possible application of the IHRA WDA in response to this incident risks casting a chill within Canadian civil society that will negatively impact the anti-racism work of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, racialized, feminist, 2SLGBTQ+, labour, human rights, academic, arts and civil liberties organizations.
Not only has the IHRA WDA been widely discredited as “vague and incoherent”, it also fails to sufficiently capture right-wing and white supremacist antisemitism, and therefore does a disservice to the fight against antisemitism and anti-racism work more broadly. In her October 2022 report to the General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume, urged all States to “suspend the adoption and promotion of the working definition and the examples attached to it”, highlighting “the controversial status, divisive effects and negative human rights impacts” of the IHRA WDA.
The lead drafter of the IHRA WDA, Kenneth Stern, has also raised concern about the definition being “weaponized” to shut down criticism of Israel. Originally drafted for academic purposes, illustrative examples were appended to the definition to examine possible correlations with antisemitism. As Stern has pointed out, the examples were not intended as incontrovertible illustrations of antisemitism in and of themselves, but that is how they have been used in practice. While several of the examples are indeed clearcut manifestations of antisemitism, others such as calling Israel a “racist endeavour”, or treating Israel with “double standards”, can and have been instrumentalized by pro-Israel advocacy groups to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy and/or the ideology of Zionism.
A recently published document by the Adopt IHRA Coalition highlighting 50 so-called “antisemitic tweets” is a case in point. As Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East demonstrates, much of what is identified as antisemitic according to the IHRA WDA is simply speech critical of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. This has broadly resulted in speech suppression and often racist harassment campaigns–particularly in the form of Anti-Palestinian Racism–which have been documented extensively by Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, and the Islamophobia Studies Centre, among others.
Ministers, applying the IHRA WDA for the purposes of vetting, attestation, and training sets a dangerous precedent that would suppress the fundamental rights of Canadians to freedom of expression protected under section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In effect, it would institute a different double standard, singling out Israel and its policies for protection from anti-racist critique, while permitting similar speech in reference to other countries. For example, while an organization that receives Heritage funding can presumably suggest that Canada is a “racist endeavor” (eg. a settler-colonial project), suggesting the same about Israel would be off-limits. Applying the IHRA WDA to applicants and grantees moreover risks undermining the very anti-racism work the government seeks to support.
Ministers, we strongly urge you to:
Endnotes: According to statements Minister Hussen made at the briefing in question, there are several ways in which the IHRA WDA would be applied in relation to organizational grantees:
Learn about CFSC’s concern for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.