Vancouver’s new city council got to work last week with the business of governing this fair city. Its first debate, moved from its regular council meeting to a separate day in order to accommodate more than 70 speakers, was about, of all things, antisemitism.
A well-meaning councillor, wanting to show solidarity with a Jewish community dealing with a rise of antisemitism, introduced a motion to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition, which calls antisemitism “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.”
The main issue is the illustrations of antisemitism that follow, more than half of which deal with Israel. One example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
The definition explicitly states that Israel should be held to the same standards as other nations. Holding Israel to account is fine. Holding Israel to account in a way that is out of proportion to other countries is antisemitic. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel is also defined as antisemitism.
Several organizations expressed their opposition in writing, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the BC Civil Liberties Association and Independent Jewish Voices Canada.
Among other concerns, there were worries of a chill to free speech if the motion passed. Speakers said they feared being labelled antisemites for sharing their political opinions. Some in favour, however, noted that the IHRA definition has previously been adopted by countries around the world, including Canada. And it is the Jewish community that gets to define its oppression, some said.
In council chambers, Palestinian-Canadians spoke of being dispossessed from their homeland and unable to return. They worried that the IHRA definition would prevent them from speaking about their heartbreak – or voicing legitimate concern about Israel. “This tells the Palestinians that our voices are not valued,” said Hanna Kawas, chairperson of the Canada Palestine Association.
Jewish Vancouverites also told heartbreaking stories. One rabbi spoke about having to install bulletproof glass at his synagogue after its previous location was firebombed. A woman woke up to find a swastika drawn in the snow outside her home. Council heard about swastikas etched into wet cement and anti-Israel graffiti spray-painted on the sidewalk outside a synagogue – the kind of conflation this definition calls out.
One speaker, in voicing his opposition to the definition, actually gave a compelling argument for adopting it: when there is trouble in Israel, he said, global antisemitism increases. That is exactly the problem this definition seeks to address: to suggest Jews in general are responsible for what happens in Israel is itself racist.
At this point you may be asking yourself: why is Vancouver City Council spending all this time and energy – physical, emotional – on this geopolitical issue? In particular when the city is facing numerous crises: housing, health care, drug-related deaths.
It’s a good question.
I understand the thinking behind the motion. There is a concern that, with antisemitism being taboo (although scarily less and less so these days), some people might use anti-Israel statements to express what is really antisemitism and attack Jews in general.
And I understand what Jews are feeling right now; I, a Canadian Jew, feel it too. Unnerved by what is happening. Kanye, Kyrie Irving, Dave Chappelle, It’s feeling pretty lonely out here for Jewish people. There’s a real sense that nobody has our backs.
But did Vancouver really need to adopt this definition? Listening to the debate, I was struck by divisions growing ever deeper, even within this little Canadian Jewish community. There are not that many of us.
I worry, as some of the speakers did, that going this route might only lead to an increase in antisemitism. Which itself speaks to the problem. Why should I be worried that discussing antisemitism should lead to more of it?
And what about all the other groups dealing with discrimination: Indigenous, Asian, Black, Muslim, LGBTQ Vancouverites?
One rabbi in favour of the motion said he felt traumatized by the debate. I felt traumatized too. All of these people just wanting to live in peace without fear of brutality and loss because of who they are – Palestinian, Jewish, Canadian.
I also felt gaslit by some of what I heard, including the person (who did not identify himself as Jewish or Palestinian) who declared that there is very little antisemitism in Canada. I wish that were true.
In the end, the motion was adopted, with one councillor voting against it, one absent and two abstaining.
I don’t think it matters. It feels like more damage has been done.