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Daily News Analysis

Canadian professors reject controversial IHRA definition pushed by pro-Israel groups

Crescent International

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has at its Council meeting unanimously rejected the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition pushed by pro-Israel groups.

To appreciate the importance of CAUT vote, it must be noted that it is the national voice for academic staff representing 72,000 teachers, librarians, researchers, general staff and other academic professionals at some 125 universities and colleges across Canada.

To date, over 650 Canadian academics and over 170 Jewish-Canadian academics have signed petitions against the IHRA definition.

32 faculty associations and academic unions in Canada have also taken positions against it.

This is a great victory for academic freedom in Canada and for Palestinian human rights.

Pro-Israel lobby groups have been pushing for adoption of this definition since it was first propounded in May 2016.

While various levels of governments—not all—have succumbed to political pressure, academics in Canada have stood up for the principle of academic freedom.

They see the IHRA working definition of antisemitism inherently unjust and aimed at stifling criticism of Israeli government policies.

IHRA definition has faced widespread protests from a broad cross-section of society, especially academia because it deliberately conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Pro-Israeli groups frequently resort to IHRA definition to silence or censor academics, students and human rights activists, according to Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).

One of the original draftees of IHRA definition, Dr. Kenneth Stern has said that the new language “weaponizes” the definition of antisemitism.

It must be noted that many Jewish groups, academics and activists have stood up in opposition to such aggressive lobbying efforts by pro-Israel advocacy groups.

Last year, Ontario premier Doug Ford adopted this definition through an order in council instead of calling for a vote in the legislature.

This undemocratic tactic was roundly condemned by a number of human rights and labour groups (see here, here and here).

Now, in a more stunning rebuke of such pressure tactics, CAUT has stated that it “opposes” the adoption of the IHRA definition by Canadian academic institutions.

CAUT “supports the academic freedom of its members and recognizes the need to safeguard the rights of scholars to critique all states, including the state of Israel, without fear of outside political influence, cuts to funding, censorship, harassment, threats, and intimidation.”

“If the IHRA definition were to be adopted by universities, entire fields of research, cutting-edge paradigms, and many of the world’s leading thinkers could effectively be prohibited,” suggests Greg Bird, Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Professor Bird is also a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, Racism, Colonialism & Censorship in Canada (ARC).

“I cannot stress enough how catastrophic this would be for critical scholarship and teaching in Canada,” he said.

Corey Balsam, IJV’s National Coordinator, agrees.

“Today’s motion adopted by CAUT is a crucial action to protect academic freedom and critical scholarship in Canada.”

He added: “We must do all we can to fight antisemitism on university campuses, but the IHRA definition is not the way to go.

“This definition has shamefully been used as a weapon against Palestinians and other people of colour, rather than used to fight actual antisemitism.”

Jasmin Zine, Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and ARC National Coordinating Committee Member and expert on Islamophobia said: “The CAUT resolution defends academic freedom from political censure and represents a landmark decision for Canadian universities.”

“The broad-based solidarity around this move helps protect decolonial and anti-racist struggles, teaching, and scholarship within higher education that are otherwise imperilled by the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism.”

To understand pro-Israel groups’ pressure tactics, consider the University of Toronto job offer to Dr. Valentina Azarova for its International Human Rights Program.

A pro-Israel donor and tax court judge threatened to withdraw financial support if Dr. Azarova was hired because of her support for Palestinian rights.

Shamelessly, UofT buckled under pressure and withdrew the job offer.

CAUT launched a rare academic censure of the university and forced it to reinstate the job offer.

While Dr. Azarova rejected the job offer, CAUT’s action demonstrated the power of collective organizing for academic freedom.

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