Panel discussion at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance meeting in Bucharest

Defining Antisemitism:

A Defining moment for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

As the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, I was humbled when asked to serve as Canada’s new head of delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). I have a deep commitment to pursue this task with passion. I knew I would need to speak up — to share my own experiences — and work to ensure that the memory of my family and millions of other Jewish victims and survivors be kept vibrant and alive.

Unfortunately, most Canadians have no idea what IHRA is. Its work is often technical, focused on issues such as museums, historic sites and academic research. While it shines a light on what happened to Jews and others during this darkest period of human history — including the genocide of Roma peoples — its work rarely extends past its cluster of passionate, determined and knowledgeable academics, experts and advocates.

What many people don’t know is that IHRA is an international intergovernmental organization with 31 member countries including Canada. Last month in Bucharest, Romania IHRA achieved a historic first — an internationally shared definition of antisemitism. Why is this a big deal? Because it hasn’t happened before! It was considered too difficult — too political. It wasn’t an easy process at IHRA either which makes it all the more significant. Some asked why an organization dedicated to memory, knowledge and research of the Holocaust wanted to define antisemitism in its modern context.

With Romanian Chair of IHRA Ambassador Constantinescu and Honorary Chairperson Prof. Yehuda Bauer

The dangerous truth is that antisemitism is back with a virulence and malignance that has not been seen in decades. Many think the hate that led to the Shoah has faded to the extreme margins of the political spectrum reserved for delusional conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis and other extremists. Unfortunately, we live it today and all of us concerned about human rights should be worried about it.

Without any hyperbole, Jews are being killed today in places like Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, Paris and Brussels simply because they are Jews. Examples of antisemitism are manifesting themselves in other places around the world — including in Canada. It’s causing many Jews to question their safety and sense of belonging — particularly in Europe.

As Canada’s Ambassador to Norway, I feel secure everywhere — except when I go to the Jewish Community Centre in Oslo. Oslo! One of the most peaceful, prosperous and just cities feels the need to protect the Jewish community behind blocked streets, bollards, and guards. They do so because Norway’s Jewish community has been attacked and continues to be threatened. A few weeks ago, a suitcase left outside the community centre required the bomb squad to cordon off the street before assessing it was empty. This incident sent a chilling messages to this small community of about 1,000 people. It affected their sense of security.

When I first arrived in Oslo, a colleague invited me for dinner. As people were arriving, I met another guest. Before saying “Hello” — before saying “Welcome to Norway” — the first thing he says to me is “It’s strange that I know you are a Jew.” I am pretty sure that he did not intend to be offensive. The point is he didn’t even think about it.

A member of my staff at the Embassy even thought it appropriate to tell a joke at an office function where the punchline was “… and the cheap Jew bent over to pick the dollar bill off the floor”. While the individual was reprimanded for their actions, the fact that these types of incidents occur to an Ambassador speak to how common antisemitism has become.

I must say that the Norwegian government is a global leader in addressing antisemitism. It has invested heavily in educating its citizens about the fate of its Jewish population and the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. Norway is a major sponsor of POLIN — the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It supports conservation efforts for Jewish sites across Eastern Europe. As a member of IHRA, Norway was one of the countries that joined consensus in Bucharest on the definition of antisemitism.

I share these stories not to embarass anyone. I share them because they are my experience. They are not abstract. They have been hurtful to me. These experiences are repeated daily across Europe and North America with various degrees of menace. That’s why we must speak out. That we must say it’s not okay. That Jewish community centres and schools in Canada and Europe need guards, fences and closed circuit cameras is shameful.

This is why the definition of antisemitism that IHRA adopted last month is so important. It not only tackles the old forms of antisemitism that have manifest themselves violently over centuries in Europe. It tackles the new forms rooted in the demonization of Israel. It recognizes that denying Jews the right to self-determination in Israel is discriminatory — it is antisemitic. It recognizes that the hateful vitriol against Israel is unlike that aimed at any other country and is dangerous. Its imagery equates Israel to Nazi Germany. It uses historic antisemitic tropes like the blood libel, control of the media and world domination. These tactics are lifted from the pages of the Nazi propaganda paper — Der Stürmer.

The definition does not call all criticism of Israel antisemitic. It goes out of its way to say that criticism of Israel and its government, similar to criticism of any other country, is not antisemitic. Israelis and Jews are some of Israel’s harshest critics — something that is completely normal for a vibrant, pluralist democracy. The dangerous fact is that too many people — including those who do not have the intent to target Jews in general — engage in action and use words which make all Jews vulnerable. It prepares the groundwork where some think it’s okay to target Jews because so many have a deep and emotional connection to Israel. This targeting needs to stop and calling it out for what it is — antisemitic — is an important step.

I’m happy that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance said this was not acceptable. Defining antisemitism was the IHRA’s defining moment. I’m proud that I had a chance to add Canada’s voice and support this historic achievement.

Canadian Head of Delegation to the IHRA

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.