Major Canadian academic group rejects Israel lobby’s anti-Semitism definition

A demo in Toronto, Canada (Nick Lachance - ZUMA Press)

Nora Barrows-Friedman

The Electronic Intifada  /  December 1, 2021

In a significant challenge to Israel lobby efforts, a major Canadian academic association has rejected a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents more than 70,000 academic faculty and staff around the country, voted on a motion to oppose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) so-called definition of anti-Semitism during its annual conference last week.

The IHRA definition has been pushed by Israel and its lobbies around the world to silence criticism of Israeli human rights violations.

It has been used against academics and activists in Canada since the government approved the adoption of the IHRA in 2019.

Israel lobby groups have even urged the Canadian government to use the IHRA as a political weapon to sabotage international aid funding.

Just weeks ago, B’nai Brith Canada, an anti-Palestinian lobby group that has long pushed for the formal conflation of Israel criticism with anti-Jewish bigotry, asserted that the government should only fund international humanitarian aid organizations that adhere to the IHRA definition.

In its motion, CAUT states that it “supports the academic freedom of its members and recognizes the need to safeguard the rights of scholars to critique all states, including the state of Israel, without fear of outside political influence, cuts to funding, censorship, harassment, threats, and intimidation.”

Human rights defenders across Canada have applauded the association’s move.

“Pro-Israel groups have repeatedly pointed to the IHRA as a tool that can be used by universities to shut down various forms of student activism, and specifically boycotts of Israel and Israeli Apartheid Week,” Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, told The Electronic Intifada.

“They have also suggested that the IHRA should be applied to scholarship, and have tried to get professors fired for their criticism of Israeli policies or Zionism,” he added.

CAUT’s “principled opposition” to the IHRA definition, Bueckert said, “will present a serious challenge to those efforts, and will help to protect the right to engage in anti-racist, anti-colonial scholarship and protest on campuses.”

Series of defeats

CAUT’s motion is just the latest in a series of defeats for the Israel lobby’s push to use the IHRA to censor scholarship on Palestinian rights in Canada.

While top Canadian lawmakers have repeatedly pledged to support the IHRA definition – with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even naming Irwin Cotler, an Israel lobbyist last year to lead the country’s IHRA implementation process – scholars, academic bodies and human rights groups have stood firmly in the way.

Last year, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which represents 17,000 professors and academic librarians in more than 30 faculty associations across the country, publicly rejected the province’s unilateral move to adopt the IHRA, calling it an abuse of power.

University workers unions have also opposed the IHRA definition.

letter renouncing the IHRA, authored by Independent Jewish Voices Canada, has gathered more than 650 signatures from academics and nearly 200 Jewish scholars have stated their opposition to the definition.

And governments of several Canadian cities – Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver – have rejected motions endorsing the IHRA.

The motion adopted by CAUT “is a crucial action to protect academic freedom and critical scholarship in Canada,” stated Corey Balsam, national coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

“This definition has shamefully been used as a weapon against Palestinians and other people of color, rather than used to fight actual anti-Semitism,” Balsam added.

University of Toronto censure lifted

During the CAUT conference, the association also formally lifted its censure against the University of Toronto over the rescinding of a job offer to human rights scholar Valentina Azarova in April.

Azarova’s hire was revoked after a donor to the college – with strong connections to the pro-Israel lobby – objected to her work.

Following the censure, which was widely supported by Canadian academics and human rights activists, the University of Toronto reinstated Azarova’s job offer in September.

Azarova declined the offer, stating that in “light of events over the past year, I realized that my leadership of the program would remain subject to attack by those who habitually conflate legal analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian context with hostile partisanship.”

Though Azarova refused the position, faculty members who organized the censure say restoring it “was a pivotal demand of the censure and speaks to the impact of this movement.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014)