Boycott Israeli apartheid. Photo: Palestine Solidarity Campaign/cropped from the original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at the bottom of article Boycott Israeli apartheid. Photo: Palestine Solidarity Campaign/cropped from the original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at the bottom of article

As the IHRA definition becomes law in Ontario, and attacks on our ability to fight for Palestine and criticise Israel intensify, the left mustn’t give an inch, argues John Clarke

On October 26, the Ontario government adopted the infamous anti-Palestinian IHRA definition of antisemitism.

A private member’s bill in the Ontario Legislature had been put forward and it was due to come before its Standing Committee on Justice Policy, where public delegations into the matter would have been heard.

The Tory government of Doug Ford, however, decided to prevent this, along with the need for legislative debate, by adopting the definition through order in council. Under the Canadian parliamentary system, each provincial legislature has a lieutenant-governor who can sign such measures into law in the name of the Queen.

Very understandably, there was considerable outrage that the Tories used such undemocratic tactics to adopt a measure that so many opposed and had worked to prevent.

This was by no means the first time that Palestine solidarity had found itself under attack in the Ontario Legislature.

In 2016, another private member’s bill, the so called Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act, was put forward by Liberal and Tory co-thinkers. It was designed to suppress the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and it stipulated that “a public body shall not enter into a contract with a person or entity that supports or participates in the BDS movement,” and that  “no college or university shall support or participate in the BDS movement.”

The bill was voted down, following vigorous campaigning against it, much of it university based. It was clear at the time, however, that those behind this initiative would regroup and look for another opportunity to advance their pro-Israel agenda.

In 2018, as the newly elected Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, suggested that one of his first acts would be to shut down the annual, pro-Palestinian Al-Quds Day in Toronto.

Ford preposterously claimed that event was working for the ‘killing of an entire civilian population in Israel’ and he vowed that it would no longer be ‘part of the landscape in Ontario.’ This proved to be some characteristic bombast on the part of Ford but his readiness to stifle Palestine solidarity was abundantly clear.

The IHRA Definition

The international campaign to ensure the adoption of the IHRA definition, with its appended examples labelling anti-Zionist views or even measured criticism of Israel as antisemitic, provided just such a way forward for those looking to silence free speech on Palestine.

Efforts were made across Canada to win adoption of the definition. The Justin Trudeau government embraced the definition, at the federal level, last June, as part of its ‘anti-racism strategy,’ on the grounds that treating challenges to the oppression of the Palestinians as hate speech would contribute to ‘a more inclusive and equitable country for all Canadians.’ 

There was, however, very serious and effective opposition to the definition. Attempts to have it adopted at the municipal level were beaten back in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.

This fight back has involved a wide range of participants but particular respect is due to the incredible work of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) in promoting an understanding of the definition and in organising opposition to it on the ground.

It was precisely the clear and resolute nature of this opposition that led to the Ford Tories in Ontario resorting to such underhanded methods to adopt the definition without having to answer to their critics in the public arena.

Now that the measure has been passed and the province of Ontario is saddled with it, the question of how it will be implemented remains to be seen. In Canada, the provincial level of government has no ability to impose criminal penalties but we may expect efforts to ensure that public institutions are governed by the IHRA standard. Very likely, colleges and universities will be a major focus.

The kind of pressure that has been applied in the UK for universities to adopt the definition is entirely possible and calls for such a course of action in Canada have previously been taken up. There is no doubt, however, that major battles lie ahead if such a course is pursued. Organisations of Palestine solidarity will be allied with those whose focus is on freedom of speech and academic freedom in challenging the stifling impact of the IHRA definition.

There can be no doubt, however, that those working for the adoption of the definition have more ambitious goals in mind than merely limiting access to public platforms.

It is clear that the thrust of the false accusation of antisemitism is to equate criticism of Israel with hate speech. This, ultimately, means ensuring criminal sanctions and it means going beyond clear cut anti-Zionism and targeting much more measured and partial forms of criticism.

The eighth of the examples attached to the definition tells us that one indication of antisemitism is ‘Applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ This could be used to suggest that even the mildest critic was singling out Israel unfairly. Indeed, officials in Washington are considering labelling the most mainstream and respectable NGOs as antisemitic hate mongers for their measured objections to Israel’s criminality.

Accusing the Accusers

The IHRA definition was sneaked through by the Ontario Tories the same week that Starmer suspended Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party. The two events are by no means unrelated and both express the enormous dangers created by the weaponisation of antisemitism.

Even after the use of this tactic has contributed in such a major way to the defeat of the Corbyn project and, even it is used to attack and silence Palestine solidarity efforts on an international scale, many on the left have not fully appreciated the nature of the attack or drawn the necessary conclusions from it.

In a recent article for Counterfire, Kevin Ovenden correctly points out that the false accusation of antisemitism is being used to smear the radical left, to suggest that, like the far right, it has a ‘racism problem’ This ‘theory of the twin extremes,’ so interwoven with the slanderous accusation of antisemitism, must be challenged decisively.

The Guardian, as a flagship of the liberal media internationally, drives home in an editorial the sick notion that Corbyn’s legacy is stained by antisemitic bigotry and that Starmer is the architect of a return to standards of decency. This is an obscene inversion of reality that should make no one want to ‘stay calm.’

With Corbyn under such despicable attack, it’s clear that defending him is paramount but it’s also necessary to draw the vital and inescapable lesson that, within Labour and everywhere else where the false charge of antisemitism is hurled at us, all efforts to appease, apologise and tactically retreat in good order have proven to be disastrously wrong headed.

Real and actual antisemitism is a vile and growing threat in this society and no one can pretend that the left is immune from its influence. Antisemitism, however, exists within the context of a broader racism and the source of it is not to be found in the ideas and values of anti-capitalism. On the contrary, it emerges from the capitalist system and is expressed, mainly and overwhelmingly, by its ideological defenders on the political right.

As the attack intensifies within Labour and the IHRA definition is adopted in Ontario, we need to understand that the challenge we take up against all forms of racism, including antisemitism, can only oppose the Zionist project in its entirety.

Those who throw their slanders at us are implicated in a colonial venture of unspeakable brutality. We have nothing to apologise for and we have every right to accuse our accusers in the clearest terms.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.