Then-Liberal MP Irwin Cotler holds a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on March 26, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

All Canadian School Boards Should Take Action to Protect Students From Antisemitism

On January 27, 1945, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, whose gas chambers claimed the lives of more than a million people, most of them Jews, was liberated. Never again, it was assumed. But, following the 2001 United Nations’ “anti-racist” conference that made “Durban” a metonym for orgiastic Jew hatred, right-thinking national and institutional leaders around the world recognized the need for a collaborative response to antisemitism’s contemporary, virulent iteration, one that puts the Jewish state, rather than race or religion, in its crosshairs.


In 2005, Jan. 27 was designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day to ensure continuity of education on the Holocaust. Still, global antisemitism has continued to escalate. Even in pluralist Canada, where antisemitism was traditionally social and non-violent, the incidence of hate crimes is mounting.


Statistics Canada reports, for example, that as of 2019, Canadian Jews accounted for 16 percent of victims of recorded hate crimes, this percentage second only to black Canadians at 18 percent and much higher than Muslim Canadians at 10 percent. On a per capita basis, however, antisemitism is three times more prevalent than colour-based racism and five times more prevalent than Muslim hatred.


Moreover, there are discomfiting signs that antisemitism is moving inward from the margins, and that institutions are being infected by a strain of thinking that permits systemic indifference to expressed Jew hatred when it masquerades as “criticism of Israel.”


The government considered the situation worrying enough that in November 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed the renowned international human rights lawyer and former minister of justice and attorney general Irwin Cotler as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. One of his principal duties is leadership of the Canadian government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).


By 2022’s year end, 1,600 global entities had adopted the working—but non-legally binding—definition of antisemitism crafted by the IHRA in 2016. Canada adopted it in 2019. It reads: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”


Entities that balk at the adoption of the definition focus on what they consider its implied proscription against criticism of the Jewish state of Israel. But the definition was accompanied by examples, such as Holocaust denial or banalization, and—notably, regarding Israel—“applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”


Reasonable people understand the difference between criticism and demonization. And so, acceptance has spread fairly rapidly and smoothly. In 2022 alone, according to Combat Antisemitism Movement, a global coalition comprised of 650 partner organizations, there were 91 new definition endorsements, with 30 U.S. states having adopted the resolution through legislation or executive action. President Biden’s administration has “enthusiastically embrace[d]” the IRHA definition, creating an inter-agency task force to develop a “national strategy to counter antisemitism.”


The strongest objection to the definition arises amongst activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and their allies. When a movement’s goal is not only delegitimation, but actual elimination of a nation, “criticism” doesn’t suffice. The troubling reality is that there isn’t to my knowledge a single organization dedicated to Palestinian rights that accepts Israel’s legitimacy as a nation, or that accepts an attachment to their ancient homeland as a legitimate component of Jewish identity.


Identity is a freighted word in our era. It is a hallmark of intersectionality, the reigning dogma amongst progressive influencers, that “oppressed” groups are permitted to define their own identity and the terms of their oppression, and therefore it is up to each minority’s spokespeople to decide what is offensive or hateful to them. Palestinians are accorded special reverence in this scheme.


Only Jews are told that an essential component of their religion and culture—attachment to their ancient homeland—is illegitimate, and therefore even hateful discourse directed at Israel cannot be judged a form of antisemitism. All too often, Jews are treated as avatars for the Jewish state, but freedom to express hatred of Israel is privileged over Jewish pain. Antisemitism is in this way excluded from consideration in the battle against racism.


Last January, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine invited Irwin Cotler to give a talk on contemporary forms of antisemitism. His speech, which naturally laid emphasis on the demonization of Israel, not criticism of Israel, as the contemporary manifestation of antisemitism, prompted complaints from 45 U of T faculty members that Cotler had “reinforced anti-Palestinian racism,” an absurd and offensive canard.


The insult to Cotler was compounded when, last spring, the senior staff of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) disinvited Cotler from participating in a professional development program, because of his affiliation with the IHRA definition. (This was not publicized. It took a Freedom of Information proceeding by a board member of the Jewish News Syndicate  to uncover the reason.)


It’s fair to say that the OCDSB has a problem identifying and dealing with antisemitism in its district. In December, two students at Sir Robert Borden Collegiate Institute were charged with promoting anti-Jewish hatred (swastikas, Nazi salute), criminal harassment, and mischief. Last March, the OCDSB was judged by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to have discriminated against a student for failing to address numerous acts of antisemitism-themed bullying over years that so terrified the youth he completed his final semester online at home. Last May, instead of taking action against anti-Jewish aggression by the Palestinian Youth Movement in a demonstration calling for the destruction of Israel, OCDSB advised its students to hide in a safe room. And OCDSB officials failed to act when a student took the opportunity of a land acknowledgement during a graduation ceremony to rant at “Zionists” for “stealing her land.”


Ironically, there is an online anonymous reporting tool created for students to share their concerns about safety issues at district schools, called OCDSB Cares. It includes resources for black, Muslim, Somali, and Arabic-speaking students, for indigenous students, for LGBTQ students, and for families new to Canada. But no resources for Jewish students with safety issues.


Publicity, and a petition garnering 1,000 signatures, resulted in a unanimous Jan. 17 OCDSB motion to hire a Jewish equity coach. The full-time staff position will be similar to those created to advocate for black and indigenous students. Great satisfaction has been expressed by Jewish organizations. It’s a heartening postscript to a disheartening story. It will be even more heartening if other, similarly afflicted school boards, follow suit.