A highly politicized definition of antisemitism is being used a cudgel to suppress the speech and activism of pro-Palestinian voices in educational settings, according to a report released today. 

Published by Independent Jewish Voices, the report focuses on the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which labels criticisms of Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity” as antisemitic.

Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada” provides evidence for how the IHRA definition has been instrumentalized by right-wing pro-Israel organizations used to stigmatize pro-Palestine discourse and advocacy. That definition has already been adopted by four provinces and the federal government.

The result is a chilling effect on open discussion of Israel-Palestine, from self-censorship by untenured faculty to unofficial bans on discussing the topic in entire departments.

Much of IJV’s 137-page report focuses on anonymized accounts from Canadian academics, students and other pro-Palestine advocates. The report authors spoke to 77 people, including 40 academics, 23 students, seven activists and seven representatives of Palestine solidarity organizations—many of whom feared consequences in their careers or personal lives if their names were cited. These respondents were granted anonymity to shield them from further retribution for their activism.

Respondents reported harassment, death threats, denigration and denial of Palestinian identity, effective blacklisting of new graduates and early-career professors, unfounded accusations of “defending terrorists,” and a constant threat of defunding. These are some of the common angles of attack coming from, or enabled by, right-wing pro-Israel groups in response to pro-Palestine activism covered by the report.

“What we found was a preexisting and longer historical circumstances of harassment and repression, which predate the IHRA definition” but were exacerbated by it, explained IJV spokesperson Rowan Gaudet, who co-wrote the report with his colleague Sheryl Nestel. 

The report is published amidst numerous, prominent examples in recent years of pro-Israel organizations successfully pressuring mainstream institutions to marginalize pro-Palestinian perspectives through spurious charges of antisemitism. Among the most well known are African-American academic Mark Lamont Hill’s firing from CNN, German legal scholar Valentina Azarova’s withdrawn job offer to lead the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Law program, and most recently, Jewish journalist Katie Halper’s dismissal from Washington, D.C., media hub The Hill.

The IJV report is unique in that it doesn’t focus so much on these sorts of well-known cases but those that haven’t yet been reported publicly. 

Many Canadian pro-Israel organizations named as culprits in the report, such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith, Hillel and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, double as Jewish advocacy organizations.

Others, such as media watchdog Honest Reporting Canada, campus group Hasbara Fellowships and the Canary Mission blacklist, focus exclusively on rooting out and tamping down critical perspectives on Israel. 

Then there’s the Jewish Defence League, a vigilante offshoot of the far-right of the far-right Kahanist movement, named after a Rabbi whose political party was banned from running in Israeli elections for being openly racist and anti-democratic. 

Regardless of their differences, these organizations all depict pro-Palestinian activism as a threat to the physical safety of Jewish people, particularly on university campuses. 

Nestel, who sits on IJV’s national steering committee, says allegations of antisemitism on campus must be taken seriously, but it doesn’t exist on the same scale as the “concerted, organized, funded campaign of harassment, intimidation” that Palestine solidarity activists experience.

At the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 2015. Pro-Palestinian voices in educational institutions face organized intimidation and economic consequences for their advoacy.

Alberta’s clarity about the meaning of the IHRA definition

Alberta is the latest province to adopt the contentious IHRA definition of antisemitism, following in the path of the federal government, as well as Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. In none of these cases was the new definition subject to public debate. 

While the IHRA website characterizes the definition as “non-legally binding,” a news release from B’nai Brith lauding the Alberta government’s adoption called the definition “a highly-effective tool to aid civil society, law enforcement and public institutions to better recognize and react to antisemitism.” 

The adoption of this definition has far-reaching implications for how we engage in discourse surrounding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which has been characterized as apartheid by Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations. 

It is a symptom of a climate where rigorous criticism of Israel is conflated with antisemitism and support for terrorism.

“Manifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” the IHRA definition reads. “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” 

Despite this disclaimer, seven of the 11 examples of antisemitism provided pertain specifically to the State of Israel, including criticisms of Israel’s racist foundations—a criticism leveled against many other countries, including Canada. 

Then Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was explicit that in adopting the definition, he sought to target those he deems overly critical of the State of Israel.

“For those who say that the Jews alone do not have a right to a homeland, that the very idea of a democratic country with a Jewish character is illegitimate, that the existence of a Jewish state is an act of terror or an apartheid state, these sentiments and attitudes belie an underlying hatred for the Jews,” said Kenney at the announcement in Calgary last month.

A demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians in 2021 in Vancouver.

Palestinians’ right to exist

Participants in “Unveiling the Chilly Climate” came from all different backgrounds, but Nestel describes the testimony of Palestinians as particularly heartbreaking, as they are constantly made to feel as if their very existence is a threat to Jewish people.

“Just being of Palestinian origin turns my life into a constant struggle to validate that there is such a thing as a Palestinian with a past, present and future,” said one respondent. 

Another Palestinian scholar told the researchers they’re made to feel as if their identity is a disease: 

The emotional impact is I feel that I am like a bacteria. I don’t really know how else to describe it. I feel like I am this dirty existence, like I’m a dirty word, I have a dirty identity. And if I talk about it, it ruins everything. Like it ruins the department, and it ruins their PR, and it ruins the university.

For this reason, one Palestinian professor said they simply avoid talking about their identity, leading to a sense of isolation. 

“It was like this cloud hanging over you,” they said. “It wasn’t just that I wouldn’t talk about my politics, but I wouldn’t talk about myself. It does take a toll; it does.” 

Katie Halper delivers the monologue which led to her dismissal as a host of Rising, part of DC-based media hub The Hill.

A de facto blacklist

Perhaps the worst offender of all the pro-Israel lobbying groups mentioned in the report is the Canary Mission, a US website that compiles lists of students and faculty who speak out on Palestine. The Middle East Studies Association of North America’s Committee on Academic Freedom says the Canary Mission’s efforts amount to “what is in effect a blacklist, reminiscent of the ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism.” 

The website publishes photos and links to social media accounts of students and professors, accusing them of antisemitism and supporting terrorism for their pro-Palestinian activism. 

There are more than a thousand profiles on Canary Mission. Most of those are from the US, but IJV researchers counted 125 Canadians, including 88 students, 34 professors and three community activists on the list. 

Often, when one searches the name of someone who’s listed, their Canary Mission profile is one of the first links to appear on in a Google search. This is especially true for students and early career academics, and “can be particularly damaging for students or recent graduates who are looking for employment,” the report notes. 

A Palestinian activist and recent university graduate told Gaudet and Nestel of their difficulties finding employment and housing due to being included on the webpage, which accused them of having defended terrorists.

“Basically, [Canary Mission’s] intention is to starve us to death. And, we live in a capitalist world where there’s no safety net,” they told the authors. “I don’t think it’s safe right now to talk about Palestine.” 

Then-Alberta Premier Jason Kenney discusses his province’s adoption of the IHRA definition, while taking aim at characterizations of Israel as “apartheid” as an examples of antisemitism. Photo: CPAC

Laundering intimidation

Other pro-Israel lobbying groups play a similar role as Canary Mission. Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre is led by former Liberal MP Michael Levitt and is often quoted as an authority on anti-racism. In a case examined in the report, the group accused a racialized academic of supporting terrorism by taking their remarks at a Palestine solidarity event out of context. 

The same accusation was then picked up by other major pro-Israel groups across Canada, resulting in death threats and racist abuse against the academic in question, and calls for them to be fired. 

This became a “high-risk incident,” which required the involvement of the scholar’s Provost faculty, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, campus police, campus safety, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office. 

“Instead of focusing on my research and pedagogical innovation, my energy became directed at time consuming meetings… with these offices,” they said. 

Academic institutions implementing the IHRA definition, as they’re being pressured to do in the U.K., empowers attacks on pro-Palestine activism by declaring it ipso facto antisemitism. To date, no Canadian universities have adopted the definition.

“Show me an example where [IHRA] has been used that has nothing to do with Israel. Show me an example where someone said something potentially antisemitic that didn’t have anything to do with Israel and the IHRA actually provided some clarity on whether or not that was antisemitic,” said Gaudet. “Because I haven’t seen that whatsoever in my research.”

Palestine solidarity activism has recently spread to Canadian high schools, the report notes. Two high school students who spoke to the authors said they were explicitly discouraged from speaking out about Palestine by teachers and administrators. 

While the toll is the greatest on racialized—and especially Palestinian—faculty and students, pro-Israel organizations have vilified Jewish people who support Palestinian human rights.

A Jewish professor who advocates for the Palestinian cause described the unyielding attacks they received from pro-Israel groups. These attacks “damaged my professional reputation and it was shattering to me emotionally,” they said. 

“It has left me feeling insecure with past colleagues. I felt humiliated and ashamed.”

One Jewish student described how they felt forced to choose between their Jewish identity and pro-Palestine views.

“I felt this most in Jewish-aligned spaces on campus,” they told Gaudet and Nestel. 

Jewish protesters demosntrate in solidarity with Palestinians in 2015.

Discussing the world: more trouble than it’s worth?

This chill surrounding critical discussion of Israel has a major impact on scholarly inquiry, particularly when combined with the precarity of academic employment. 

Many academics who are otherwise sympathetic to the Palestinian cause self-censor, avoiding talking about the topic at all, which Nestel calls “anathema to the academic setting.” 

One respondent who is employed in a Women’s Studies department described how they won’t discuss Israel-Palestine because they don’t want to place a burden on their department. 

“It seems like if I stand up for this issue, I’m just creating more problems, especially when you work at a Women’s Studies department. They’re so underfunded,” the respondent said. “They’re so under-resourced; they are always under attack.”

The desire on the part of Israel advocacy groups’ isn’t just to shut down the Palestinian narrative, or to make it unavailable or unimportant, says Nestel. Their goal is to make it dangerous.

The report authors say that without a concerted effort to push back against the IHRA narrative, the stigmatization of critical discourse on Israel will only get worse.

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