Debating the IHRA and Anti-Semitism: Why the CIJA Lost

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2155 ... July 27, 2020

Debating the IHRA and Anti-Semitism: Why the CIJA Lost

Michelle Weinroth

For more than five years, and on numerous occasions, the Jewish anti-racist social justice organization Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) invited the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) -- Canada’s pro-Israel advocacy group -- to a public debate. But the latter rebuffed each of IJV’s overtures. In recoiling consistently before the prospect of a confrontation with IJV, CIJA must have feared that in accepting to take up the challenge, its pro-Israel apologetics might be undermined. To engage directly with IJV would have meant yielding discursive space to dissenting Jewish voices, and opening itself up to some less-than-flattering public exposure. At worst, CIJA’s talking points would be revealed for what they are: i.e., well-rehearsed fictions or nursery tales, refurbished for adult ears. At best, they would not persuade.

Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestine, its merciless blockade of the Gaza strip, and not least its brutal Operation Protective Edge (2014) that slaughtered 100 Gazans per day over 4 weeks, had caused a shift in... international public opinion -- from the romantic vision of Israel as a glorious miracle to the sordid reality of its settler colonialism. Defending the indefensible would not be easy for CIJA. For the fledgling IJV was, already at the time of Operation Protective Edge, steadily garnering public consent and legitimacy within Canada. Arguably, it could triumph over CIJA on the public stage. (Shades of the slight David outsmarting Goliath come to mind.)

CIJA’s defeat was indeed the outcome of a virtual debate hosted by the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression on June 10, 2020 in which it finally faced off against IJV on the topic of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of anti-Semitism (IHRA-WDA): i.e., on whether this definition serves to combat anti-Semitism or whether its aim is to stifle criticism of the State of Israel. The contending parties included IJV spokesperson Dr. Sheryl Nestel and Osgoode Hall law Professor Faisal Bhabha who denounced the IHRA definition, deeming it a cudgel of censorship, and Richard Marceau, Vice-President of CIJA, and Bernie Farber, former President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, who argued in favour of it.

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