Content warning: This article discusses antisemitism and Islamophobia, and mentions explicit antisemitic language.
In the wake of a horrific Islamophobic attack in London, Ontario, the least we can hope for is a little empathy: a little empathy toward others who face hatred and, in particular, empathy for those who face hatred that has been spread through contemporary politics.
We should feel empathy for our Muslim peers, who face Islamophobia that has been exacerbated by the last two decades of the “War on Terror.” We should also feel empathy for our Jewish peers, who face rising antisemitism that is continually inflamed by anti-Zionist movements, including many that are well-intentioned in their support for Palestinian human rights.
However, the message of the recently published opinion piece entitled “We need to be able to talk about Palestine” lacks empathy for the fear and pain experienced by Jewish students on campus, as anti-Israel sentiments have turned into antisemitism amidst the latest bout of fighting in the Israel-Palestine conflict this spring. I agree with this piece in that students should feel free to express their support for Palestinian human rights or their criticism of the Israeli government; however, it is not difficult to speak about Palestinian human rights without being antisemitic. The International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, rather than being a barrier to an academic’s freedom to discuss Palestine and criticize Israel, is a guide for how to do so without harming Jews.
I’m a Jewish student. I’m a grandson of Holocaust survivors. And, though it shouldn’t have to be said, I support Palestinian human rights.
I am also vehemently in support of academic freedom and freedom of speech — including the freedom of U of T community members to discuss Palestinian human rights or debate the actions of the Israeli government.
However, as with any sensitive issue, there are reasonable limits on expression.
Although students are free to oppose terrorism or the actions of an Islamic regime in the Middle East, holding all Muslims responsible for the actions of a few or demonizing Muslim-majority states with criticism that would not be consistently levelled at other nations would be inappropriate and Islamophobic.
The same must be said about antisemitism. Students and scholars are free to criticize the Israeli government, but they should not hold any and all Jewish people responsible for actions of the Israeli government, deny Jewish people the right to self-determination in their indigenous homeland, or apply double standards to the only Jewish majority state in the world.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism encapsulates precisely and sensitively the nuance between free academic discourse and harmful antisemitic rhetoric. In fact, it states unequivocally that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” In recognition of the IHRA definition’s careful treatment of the distinction between academic freedom and antisemitic prejudice, this definition has been adopted by governments and academic institutions around the globe, including the government of Canada, the government of Ontario, the government of the United Kingdom, the United States government, the European Commission, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Stanford University, and the University of California Los Angeles. This is also why there is a strong consensus among mainstream Canadian Jewish groups from across the political spectrum in support of this definition — and it’s this consensus, representing the views of a victimized group, that should be used to define the discrimination faced by that group.
Criticism of Israeli policy for alleged violations of human rights norms or international law is not antisemitic — and the IHRA definition supports your freedom to make these claims. However, it also acts as a guide for you to engage in your criticism in a way that won’t endanger your Jewish peers and neighbours.
In my experience, most Canadian Jews consider Zionism to be an important part of their identity; according to the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada, a strong majority of Canadian Jews feel either very or somewhat attached to Israel and believe that caring about Israel is an essential or important part of their Jewish identity. To us, Zionism means support for the Jewish right to self-determination in our indigenous homeland — not support for the actions of the Israeli government or its military. So when you demonize and stoke hatred against Zionists, you’re effectively demonizing and stoking hatred against the overwhelming majority of Canadian Jews. It’s worth repeating: when you spread hatred against Zionists — “anti-Zionism” — you’re spreading hatred against Jews. You’re spreading antisemitism.
When a Jewish person in Toronto is assaulted because of their support of Zionism, that’s still antisemitism. When a Jewish person in New York is allegedly attacked for wearing a Star of David necklace, that’s antisemitism even if the attacker says, “What is that around your neck, does that make you a f**king Zionist?” — as the attacker in New York allegedly said — instead of, “Does that make you a f**king Jew?”
When a Jewish student at U of T fears wearing their ethno-religious symbols in downtown Toronto, knowing that, according to the Toronto Police, Jews faced more hate crimes than any other minoritized group in 2020, that is the result of antisemitism.
And when your one-sided, simplistic rhetoric encourages hatred of ‘Zionists,’ you are directly contributing to these antisemitic acts, just like how similar one-sided, dehumanizing rhetoric has harmfully contributed to Islamophobia. This doesn’t mean that you have to support the Israeli government, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to stop advocating in support of Palestinian human rights.
It’s actually not that hard to stand up for human rights without spreading hatred. You are more than welcome to criticize the Israeli government’s actions — just make sure that you would level similar criticism against any other country for similar actions. You are more than welcome to stand up for Palestinian human rights — just do it in a way that respects the rights of both Palestinians and Jews to self-determination, that doesn’t demonize Jewish students, and that doesn’t resort to antisemitic tropes. Is that so much to ask for?
The IHRA definition of antisemitism does not limit academic discourse — unless that discourse includes hatred.
None of us come from countries that have perfect records on human rights, and none of us deserve to face hatred just because of our connection to our countries of origin — even as their records on human rights are questioned and protested. Instead of reducing conflict to simplistic, antagonistic rhetoric, let’s stand together in supporting human rights and fighting against all forms of hatred. And let’s make sure that as we freely engage in our academic discourse, we do so in a way that doesn’t lead to more hate — because that’s the last thing we need right now.
Evan Kanter is a computer science; ethics, society, and law; and political philosophy student entering his final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. He is a member of the Governing Council of the University of Toronto, a member of the Arts & Science Council, and a Hillel UofT student leader. He is also the former computer science director of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.