Recently, The Varsity published an opinion piece on President Meric Gertler and Dr. Ayelet Kuper’s discourse surrounding U of T’s decision not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
We believe that the refusal of the university to adopt the IHRA’s definition or proposal of an alternative definition of antisemitism is not only a step backward but also a worrying sign that U of T is failing to protect its Jewish students and listen to our concerns. It is our belief that not having a clear and agreed-upon definition of antisemitism allows antisemitic people to capitalize on the ambiguity surrounding antisemitism, and to escape accountability for their words and actions.
IHRA definition of antisemitism
The IHRA definition of antisemitism uses a series of clear examples and illustrations explaining the unique ways in which antisemitism manifests. The definition has been adopted by the Canadian federal government, as well as the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick. The legislatures of 38 other countries have taken similar steps to adopt the IHRA’s definition.
Furthermore, over 1,000 entities around the world, including numerous universities, have chosen to adopt the IHRA definition because its acceptance promotes a safer society for citizens without stifling freedom of speech.
Although it is disappointing that U of T has chosen not to adopt the definition, altogether, we’re not surprised. U of T has a shameful history of antisemitism, as demonstrated by the discriminatory system of quotas that restricted the number of Jews allowed to attend the university during the post-war period into the 1970s. Just as Dr. Ayelet Kuper’s report has reminded the broader community, antisemitism at U of T did not end with the abolishment of the quota system — antisemitism is still very much present at U of T.
There’s a hurtful assumption commonly made by many that Jewish institutions label any criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitic for the purpose of silencing it, but that’s all this notion is: an assumption. The IHRA definition explicitly states that criticisms of Israel that are similar to criticisms raised against other countries are not automatically seen as antisemitic.
This means that if you’re interested in engaging in constructive and nuanced conversations about Israel, then having a practical and agreed upon definition of antisemitism shouldn’t scare you. We encourage readers to take a critical look at the definition for themselves. The definition does not focus on stifling free speech about criticisms of Israel, but instead clarifies when comments about Jewish people become double standards, demonization, and delegitimization.
Why is it important to discuss antisemitism?
David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at the University of London, developed the “Livingstone Formulation” to describe a defensive stance of a person accused of antisemitism. According to Hirsh, when being accused of antisemitism, some individuals deploy a counter-accusation that the person raising the issue of antisemitism is doing so to shut down legitimate criticisms of Israel. Hirsh first developed the “Livingstone Formulation” to describe Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, who responded to backlash for calling a Jewish reporter a “German war criminal” by claiming that the real reason he was accused of antisemitism was because of his criticisms of the Israeli government.
These individuals blur the line between what is or isn’t a “criticism of Israel” to legitimize their antisemitism. When Jews identify antisemitism, they need to have their concerns heard. We believe that nothing more could illustrate the failure of people to listen to Jews than the current debate over the IHRA definition.
Antisemitism is often presented as a societal issue that walks hand in hand with racism and white supremacy. With this in mind, others assume that if we work to get rid of racism and white supremacy, then antisemitism will naturally disappear as well. However, we, as Jewish students, believe that antisemitism doesn’t present itself like other forms of discrimination. Antisemitism is constantly evolving and often appears as tropes about Jewish power, disloyalty, pestilence, and malevolence — some of which date back thousands of years.
For centuries, antisemitism has been part of Jewish life, both in Christian Europe and the Islamic world. The antisemitic beliefs in the Arab world resulted in severe threats of violence and state discrimination against Jewish people. Consequently, millions of Jews were forced to flee their homes. In the modern era, antisemitism continues to plague the West.
It’s easy for people to claim that they are informed about social justice, that they care about putting an end to racism in Canadian society, and that the very idea that they could hold antisemitic views is unfathomable. However, it’s important to recognize that antisemitism may still be very much present, even if it is not obvious.
Antisemitism at U of T
We, as Jewish students, see gaps in the education that has been provided to our non-Jewish peers about who we are as a nation that saw its ethnogenesis in the Land of Israel. Criticizing a government and a state’s actions is one thing, but the line is crossed when Jewish people are denied their collective right to self-determination. We won’t allow ourselves to be demonized for believing in our right to self-determination.
Our Jewish identity is greater than our suffering. Jewish culture is our persistence, curiosity, tradition, speculation, and value of family. Key components of Jewish culture include tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity/justice). Jewish culture encompasses our religious beliefs as well as our ethnic identity.
Taking a step back, we acknowledge that the issue of free speech in academia is complex. When it comes to free speech, the university has a responsibility to decide where it wants to draw the line of what it is willing to allow. However, what the university must recognize is that debating where to draw the line at free speech is completely different from outright choosing to accept bigotry. U of T needs to take a stand to identify, condemn, and address antisemitism on campus.
In cases where words spill over into action, we, as Jewish students, also need to be able to say we have experienced antisemitic discrimination without being forced into an argument over definitions of antisemitism.
January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the only mention of antisemitism on The Varsity’s social media that day was a post promoting the opinion piece celebrating U of T’s decision not to adopt the IHRA definition. On the same day, Jewish communities across Canada were shocked by a shooting attack that took place outside of a synagogue in Jerusalem, where seven were murdered, while some were desperately trying to save the lives of others.
The assumption that antisemitism can’t be combated without harming efforts to advocate for Palestinian rights is absurd. Antisemitism is antisemitism, and we will continue to stand against it no matter where it comes from because we don’t have the privilege of doing otherwise.
Yardena Rosenblum is a fourth year student at UTSC completing a specialist in neuroscience and minor in psychology.
Yotam Gubbay is a third-year student at University College pursuing a major in political science with minors in Near and Middle Eastern civilization and Jewish studies.