Human rights advocates oppose Vancouver motion to adopt controversial definition of antisemitism

A pro-Palestine rally in Vancouver in May 2021. Critics say the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism has been weaponized by Israel and its supporters to be used against the Palestine Solidarity movement. (Doug Kerr/CBC - image credit)
A pro-Palestine rally in Vancouver in May 2021. Critics say the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism has been weaponized by Israel and its supporters to be used against the Palestine Solidarity movement. (Doug Kerr/CBC - image credit)

The newly elected mayor of Vancouver is facing criticism for a campaign promise now making its way to council that would see the city adopt an international Holocaust organization's controversial definition of antisemitism.

Ken Sim committed to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism to help tackle hate and racism in the city.

A motion has now been put forward to Vancouver city council and some advocates worry the non-legally binding definition could do more harm than good and be used to silence critics of Israel.

An intergovernmental organization, the IHRA defines antisemitism as "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."

This definition has been adopted by the federal government, and by the provinces of Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec and, most recently, Manitoba.

In Vancouver, the motion was put forward by Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung — a member of the Sim-led ABC Vancouver party — who introduced a similar motion in 2019 that did not pass.

The motion asks various civic departments, including the police, school board and public library, to endorse the definition.

Submitted by Sid Shniad
Submitted by Sid Shniad

But Sid Shniad, with Independent Jewish Voices Canada, says the IHRA's definition has been "weaponized" by Israel and its supporters to be used against the Palestine Solidarity movement.

"What's being done is to capitalize on sympathy for Jews and any discrimination against Jews," said Shniad.

He also said the definition has been used to prevent job candidates from getting academic work.

"People who support Israel will find something in their history that indicates that this candidate for the job has supported Palestine. So they will inform the administration," he said.

Global and local concerns

In the international policy arena, a United Nations report from October cautioned governments against relying on the "highly controversial and divisive" definition.

The report by E. Tendayi Achiume, UN special rapporteur on contemporary racism, said the definition is susceptible to being used as a political instrument that can affect human rights.

"As a result, the special rapporteur cautions against reliance on the working definition as a guiding instrument for and at the United Nations and its constituent entities," concluded Achiume.

On Nov. 2, the World Jewish Congress released a statement condemning Achiume's report.

On Nov. 4, the U.S. Department of State followed suit with its own statement, saying now is not the time to discard a critical tool.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Independent Jewish Voice Canada and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) are echoing Achiume's perspective and have expressed their opposition in letters to Vancouver council.


"We do not condone protecting Israel from criticism in relation to its settler colonial policies and mistreatment of Palestinians," wrote UBCIC.

Meghan McDermott with the BCCLA says there are already laws against discrimination and hate speech in public life, the media, schools, the workplace and in the religious sphere. She says adopting the definition would affect freedom of expression.

"We could see censorship of even just people putting up posters or if they were organizing a rally or march — we could see them framed as being antisemitic," said McDermott.

McDermott says, if implemented, it could also give municipal agencies and law enforcement power to stop events.

"Let's say somebody wants to book a room at [the] Vancouver Public Library, they might suddenly scrutinize whether or not people are booking rooms to talk about issues about the Middle East," said McDermott.

'Best reflects lived experiences of Jews today'

In a statement to CBC News, Nicolas Slobinsky, the Pacific region senior director for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the centre fully supported Kirby-Yung's motion, adding that the IHRA's definition of antisemitism "best reflects lived experiences of Jews today" and is "grounded in the research of the world's foremost experts on antisemitism and the Holocaust."

Slobinsky highlighted part of the guidelines for the definition that states, "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic."

"It is, therefore, disingenuous to critique IHRA for allegedly 'stifling criticism of Israel,'" he said.

CBC News has contacted Sim, Kirby-Yung and the IHRA several times for comment.

Council is expected to table the motion on Nov. 15.