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NDP membership wades into debate over controversial definition of anti-Semitism

OTTAWA — A debate over the definition of anti-Semitism has spilled over to the federal New Democrats ahead of the party convention next month.

OTTAWA — A debate over the definition of anti-Semitism has spilled over to the federal New Democrats ahead of the party convention next month.

Nearly 50 NDP riding associations have endorsed a motion that opposes a working definition of anti-Semitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Critics of the definition say it chills legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. Those who back it say it crystallizes understandings of anti-Semitism, which they say includes demonization of the Jewish state.

Canada adopted the definition as part of the federal government's anti-racism strategy in 2019, one of more than two dozen countries to enshrine the non-legally binding parameters.

B'nai Brith Canada is calling on NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to ensure resolutions against the definition are rejected.

"The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism really is the bedrock of a global effort to confront the scourge of anti-Semitism, which is just Jew hatred by a different name," said Michael Mostyn, who heads the advocacy group.

"It does not stifle criticism of Israel whatsoever. That is a major mischaracterization, and it is something that some on the political left and within the NDP movement unfortunately seem to be picking up on."

Some advocates and New Democrats disagree.

"The IHRA definition does very little to actually protect Jews against anti-Semitism. What it serves to do is simply to conflate anti-Semitism with legitimate protest against Israel," said Aaron Lakoff, a spokesman for Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

B'nai Brith Canada has characterized the movement promoting boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel as anti-Semitic under the IHRA definition, an example of how organizations can "weaponize anti-Semitism to shut down Palestinian voices," Lakoff said.

The statement's lead author, Kenneth Stern, has disavowed its deployment, writing in a Guardian opinion piece that "right-wing Jewish groups" had moved to "weaponize" a definition created initially to assist European data collectors.

The point of contention is not the 39-word definition itself, which describes anti-Semitism as expressions of hatred toward Jews, but rather the way some groups have applied it and the appended list of examples that contextualize it.

"The IHRA definition has already been used to attempt to silence voices of solidarity with the Palestinian people," said former NDP MP Svend Robinson.

Referring to Twitter posts in January that created a storm on social media, he added: "It’s been used to target NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Leah Gazan, who spoke out on the issue of Palestinian access to vaccines."

Similar accusations have been levelled about the definition being unfurled to stifle academic research and campus demonstrations.

“We also have to fight anti-Semitism with every bone in our body. Anti-Semitism is a real and grave threat. But a definition that is overly broad undermines the fight against anti-Semitism," Robinson said.

"Frankly, the position of the federal NDP caucus has not been clear on this issue."

More than 600 Canadian academics have signed an open letter opposing it. Prominent Canadians including Michele Landsberg and Avi Lewis have also come out against the IHRA approach.

The definition, with illustrative examples that include Holocaust denial and stereotypes about Jews, states that "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination" — for example by suggesting that the state is a "racist endeavour" — amounts to anti-Semitism. Critics say the phrase implicitly excludes Palestinians and their right to self-determination.

But B'nai Brith rejects that argument, citing the definition's qualifier that "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."

A letter endorsing the definition and signed by more than 100 Canadian Jewish organizations ranging from social service agencies to synagogues to summer camps landed on the desks of Singh and other NDP MPs earlier this week.

Blowback against the working definition comes from "activists" and "fringe groups," said Richard Marceau, general counsel for the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

"The NDP is in front of a choice between continuing to fight for its egalitarian … open, social justice-oriented values, or make it about being Jew-obsessed," he said.

In a meeting with members of the Jewish community in Toronto in December 2019, Singh expressed support for the IHRA definition as a non-binding measure.

Asked about the issue and the riding association resolution, the NDP responded with a statement from the party's national director, Anne McGrath.

"Our conventions are guided by a democratic process that allows members to openly and freely discuss and vote on a variety of issues," McGrath said.

"As always, there will be no tolerance for hateful speech or any form of discrimination. Jagmeet Singh and the NDP will always stand up against antisemitism and all forms of racism."

NDP lawmakers have tussled with controversy over anti-Semitism accusations several times this year.

Two prominent Jewish advocacy groups voiced concerns ahead of a public conversation between MP Niki Ashton and former U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this month.

The Labour party has been grappling with allegations that anti-Semitism was allowed to fester under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of Palestinians and a critic of Israel who led the party for almost five years from 2015.

A Twitter post by Angus on Israel's vaccination policy set off a Twitter dust-up in January.

The online post linked to an article in the Guardian newspaper that highlights how Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza were not among the beneficiaries of Israel's rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, whereas Jewish settlements are. 

"This is appalling," Angus wrote, capping off the tweet with the words "#apartheidstate."

The post sparked more than 1,000 likes, but also backlash, including from B'nai Brith and Liberal and Conservative lawmakers.

Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Gila Martow said in a Jan. 3 tweet that the comment underscores why Ontario needed to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which the province did months earlier.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press