Vancouver has voted to adopt a definition of antisemitism that many jurisdictions have also embraced, but some human rights groups oppose over fears it may stifle free speech.
Council voted six to one Wednesday to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung of A Better City (ABC) Vancouver brought the motion forward.
“At its very root for me, when I distill it down, this is really about education,” said Kirby-Yung prior to casting her vote.
“Education is the most powerful tool that we have against hate. It’s more powerful than any punitive actions could be.”
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.”
Some groups, including at least one Jewish group, Independent Jewish Voices, have said the definition has been “weaponized” by Israel and its supporters against the Palestine Solidarity movement. There are concerns the definition stifles criticism of Israel by equating such criticism with antisemitism.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Zionist and Jewish advocacy organization, has told CBC that’s “disingenuous,” pointing to the guidelines for the definition that states, “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
All councillors and Sim stressed they opposed antisemitism in all its forms during deliberations.
Councillors who did not vote in favour by and large said they were concerned the definition was divisive, including among speakers who identified themselves as Jewish to council.
Those in support of the motion argued that while not everyone will agree completely with the definition, adopting it was an important way to express solidarity with the Jewish community and make them feel safe in the city.
Speakers for and against
Dozens of people spoke for and against the definition over the better part of Wednesday, including many who identified themselves as Jewish.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel Vancouver spoke of his parents surviving the Holocaust. Many of his father’s relatives did not.
He also spoke of his hometown of Pittsburgh, which was the scene of a tragic, deadly, antisemitic shooting in 2018.
He said his Vancouver congregation doesn’t feel safe and adopting the definition would be a step forward.
“Synagogues are the only sacred spaces in this city that have to have continuous security for every function and every service that we do,” he said.
On the other hand, Michael Fraser, speaking on the phone, said he, as a Jewish person, does not support the definition.
He said his family was displaced by pogroms in Ukraine and he has experienced “personal and systemic” antisemitism, including atrocious slurs and jokes about the Holocaust.
He believes the definition is vague and misleading and many Jewish people do not support it.
“I do not accept the dogma that we as Jewish people can only be safe with a nation state that comes at the cost of displacing an Indigenous people, namely Palestinians, and a state that is insulated from criticism by motions like the IHRA definition,” Fraser said.
The majority on council said they did not believe the definition would restrict free speech and that while it may not have unanimous support, they were convinced it does have wide support amongst Jewish people.
All members of the ABC slate voted in favour, aside from Coun. Rebecca Bligh, who was absent. Coun. Christine Boyle was the only vote in opposition. Green Party councillors Pete Fry and Adrianne Carr abstained.