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In victory for activists, Vancouver city council votes against adopting IHRA antisemitism definition

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The City of Vancouver, Canada might seem to be an odd place for a battle over the IHRA definition of antisemitism. But that is exactly what happened in the last week, and it all concluded with a temporary victory for free speech, human rights and common sense.

At the end of June, the federal government of Canada endorsed the IHRA definition as part of its new official “Anti-Racism Strategy” announced by minister Pablo Rodriguez. This was a unilateral move by the government which did not involve a vote in the House of Commons. The Israel lobby however, in their ecstatic gloating over the endorsement, made it clear they would be pushing to have the IHRA definition adopted at all levels of government, including provincial and municipal.

Which brings us to the Vancouver City Council, where one Non-Partisan Association (NPA) councillor introduced a motion to be heard at the last meeting before summer break. The motion contained the standard reasoning that one has come to expect from the Israel lobby promoting the IHRA definition and concluded with adoption of the definition and its examples; it also explicitly instructed staff to share the definition with various city departments including the Police Department, School Board, Parks Board and the Public Library for “review and consideration as an additional practical tool”. What the outcome would be of this “additional practical tool”, especially by the Police Department, one could only speculate. The history of what has transpired so far in other countries regarding the IHRA definition is extremely troubling, and was called out a year ago by over 40 Jewish groups in an open letter. They noted that the definition is “intentionally worded such that it equates legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former.”

Passing this motion would have set a dangerous precedent of being the first municipal council in Canada to endorse the IHRA definition. Vancouver, however, has a long and proud tradition of being both anti-racist and defending free speech and Palestinian rights. A popular campaign was immediately launched to tell Vancouver City Council why this motion should not be adopted – letter writing, social media and articles in local papers all happened. People from both within the Jewish community and other sectors were adamant in stating that this definition had more to do with squashing criticism of Israel than it did with contributing to the fight against racism. The Palestinian community also pointed out that the definition actually promotes anti-Palestinian racism, as it severely limits and defines what the Palestinian narrative can be. The Vancouver & District Labour Council (VDLC), the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and civic parties like the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) all took the position that adopting the IHRA definition would be divisive and harmful.

The majority on City Council both heard and understood the message. In a vote of 6-5 (the dissenting 5 were all NPA councillors), the Council decided to not proceed with the motion and instead referred it to committee for recommendations on how to combat all forms of racism. Councillor Michael Wiebe was quoted as saying that “we need a policy that tackles all forms of racism, including white supremacy. It’s too important to get this wrong.”

“THAT Council refer this motion to the Racial and Ethno-Cultural Equity Advisory Committee to provide recommendations to Council on how the City of Vancouver can increase action to combat all forms of racism and hatred, including Antisemitism.”

Although referral to committee is often the bureaucratic tactic to not deal with issues, in this case the instructions in the referral made it more meaningful. And most importantly, Vancouver City Council refused to set a precedent as the first Canadian city to endorse the IHRA definition.

Activists know that the struggle will continue at the committee level but the small amount of time they had to prepare for the council vote allowed them to educate many people on the dangers of the IHRA definition; they feel confident that more time is only to their advantage.

Canada’s main Israel lobby group, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), was not happy with the outcome. They had invested heavily in promoting the motion and one of their officials stated he would be at City Hall when it was introduced. They issued a statement expressing their “disappointment”, claiming that this was a “setback in the struggle against racism and bigotry”. They went on to allege that, “By delaying the initiative to protect Jewish community members at a time of rising antisemitism, those councillors who voted against the motion are on the wrong side of history.”

Vancouver residents do not need these lectures by a lobby group that is more interested in punishing critics of Israel than it is in fighting racism. Members of the Jewish community in Vancouver made this exact point in their submissions to Council. The active involvement of many progressive Jews against this motion endorsing the IHRA definition was one of the more uplifting aspects of this campaign, along with the support from broader sections of Vancouver society. This was also reflective of the majority of Canadians who support Palestinian human and national rights.

Palestinian activists have not had many occasions lately to be optimistic, especially in the Canadian political arena. Hopefully, what happened at Vancouver City Council is just the first step in pushing back against the censoring of free speech and the bullying of activists who support Palestinian rights.

Marion Kawas

Marion Kawas is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist, a member of BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish and cohost of Voice of Palestine.

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15 Responses

  1. Kay24 on July 26, 2019, 5:56 pm

    It seems the Canadians are more sensible than the Americans. Or could it be that they have not been intimidated by zionist lobbies to the extent we have been. Good job Canadians.

    • Keith on July 26, 2019, 8:50 pm

      KAY24- “It seems the Canadians are more sensible than the Americans.”

      Bite your tongue! Canada is even more pro-Israel than the US. Vancouver city council apparently a single lonely candle in the darkness.

      • Misterioso on July 27, 2019, 3:56 pm


        Au contraire. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Canadians stand with the Palestinians, not the entity known as “Israel.”

      • Keith on July 27, 2019, 6:16 pm

        MISTERIOSO- “Au contraire. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Canadians stand with the Palestinians, not the entity known as “Israel.”

        I am referring to the Canadian Government, not the Canadian people whose opinion, as in the US, has little impact on official policy. You may wish to google Yves Engler (and others) on the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership. Canada under both Harper and Trudeau is committed to the defense of the Jewish State and adamantly opposed to BDS. A quote for you:

        “This phenomenon is even more noticeable in the case of Canada, whose Middle Eastern interests cannot be considered as important, but whose loyal dedication to Israel is even greater than that of the USA.” (p101, “Jewish History,Jewish Religion,” Israel Shahak)

  2. montereypinegreen on July 26, 2019, 6:32 pm

    What does IHRA mean? Nowhere in the article does Mondoweiss tell us.

  3. Elizabeth Block on July 27, 2019, 9:38 am

    The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is doing wonderful work, even more so than the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

    And I congratulate my west coast colleagues. (I wrote one of those letters, but of course I wasn’t there for the debate in council.) We in Toronto may well be needing their help soon. The Zionists have Toronto in their sights.

  4. Misterioso on July 27, 2019, 4:06 pm

    Kudos to Marion Kawas, et al!!

    For the record: An open letter recently sent to Irwin Cotler, “Israel’s” man in Ottawa, that was forwarded to me by a Canadian friend.


    “This open letter was sent to Mr. Irwin Cotler on July 23, 2019”

    “Mr. Irwin Cotler, Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights Montreal

    “Dear Mr. Cotler,

    “I am editor of the weekly blog Canada Talks Israel Palestine, whose mission is to help Canadians better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through objective analysis and raising awareness for a just and reconciliatory solution.

    “Let me start by recognizing that you have for many years been very active in several important struggles in Canada for human rights and in particular the struggle against anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a scourge that should be defeated and I support that struggle wholeheartedly.

    “However, I do have some concerns about your recent efforts, along with CIJA, B’nai Brith and other groups to lobby the Canadian government and various municipal governments including Vancouver to adopt a ‘new’ definition of anti-Semitism, promoted by the ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’ and referred to as the ‘IHRA definition.’

    “The basic IHRA definition, as you know, is not very different from existing definitions to be found in any dictionary. But it also refers to a number of ‘examples’ of what it describes as anti-Semitism, some which refer specifically to the State of Israel.

    “I would like clarification regarding two of the ‘examples’ which, according to the IHRA document would constitute ‘anti-Semitism.’

    “I cite from the IHRA ‘working definition’ document:
    “To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations (ed. note: i.e. of anti-Semitism):
    * “‘Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.’
    * “’Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.’

    “Clarification requested:
    “With these IHRA proposed ‘examples of anti-Semitic acts or behaviours’ in mind, I would like to ask you for clarification on which, if any, of the following ten statements you would classify as ‘anti-Semitic.” I believe them all to be true:
    “The IHRA definition would characterize the BDS movement as “anti-Semitic”. BDS proponents say that is deliberate falsification.

    1. “In Israel as in Nazi Germany, (and unlike Canada), ‘Jewishness’ is determined not by individual choice but is a civil status determined by the state. It forms the legal basis for discriminating among different categories of citizens.”

    2. “Gaza, where Palestinian refugees from all over southern Israel have been concentrated since 1948, and which has been described by a former British Prime Minister as an ‘outdoor prison,’ has a striking similarity to the Warsaw ghetto where Nazis concentrated Jews.”

    3. “The contemporary Israeli policy of forcing Bedouin citizens of Israel off their lands and concentrating them into small areas is very similar to Canada’s own historic racist policy toward its indigenous peoples.”

    4. “According to Bishop Desmond Tutu Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is ‘worse’ than Apartheid.”

    5. “Leading Israeli politicians advocate for ethnic cleansing to achieve a pure society, as did the Nazis.”

    6. “The international community should bring peaceful, legal pressure on Israel through boycott or other sanctions, to force Israel to comply with international law.”

    7. “Supporting UN Resolution 194 (which Canada voted for in 1949) calling for the Palestinian right of return.”

    8. “Israel’s policy of systematically destroying Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, while building new homes for Jews is, in fact, a form of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the Nazi objective of a “judenrein” Germany (i.e. free of Jews)”.

    9. “With the passing of the ‘Nation State law’ Israel has become an officially discriminatory state based on religion, just as Nazi Germany was.”

    10. “During the 1948 Nakba, Zionist militias confiscated millions of dollars of private property from Palestinians, just as the Nazis stole art, silver, paintings from Jews.”

    Mr. Cotler, do you agree that these statements, all of which appear to be extremely critical of Israel and current Israeli policy, are factually correct? If they are true statements, is it anti-Semitic to repeat them? If not true, I would be happy to have my misunderstandings corrected.

    If you would like to send me an answer, I would be happy to publish it for the edification of our readers.

    Yours truly,
    Peter Larson, Ph.D.
    Chair, Canada Talks Israel Palestine

    • Keith on July 27, 2019, 6:37 pm

      MISTERIOSO- (Peter Larson Quote)- “Anti-Semitism is a scourge that should be defeated and I support that struggle wholeheartedly.”

      Dr Larson may be going through the motions, but his heart isn’t in it. Not when he sees Canadian anti-Semitism as a “scourge” which must be defeated and which he supports the ongoing struggle wholeheartedly. The never ending fight against irrational, murderous Jew-hatred a core component of his identity; this other stuff merely a salve to his liberal conscience.

    • CigarGod on July 28, 2019, 9:11 am

      What scourge of antisemitism in Canada is Dr. Larson referring to?
      Is there some systemic/institutional scourge I don’t know about?
      Or is it just random outbursts/acts of individual nuts or who may sometimes find other nuts to associate with and decide to sew a patch on a jacket?

    • oldgeezer on July 28, 2019, 2:22 pm

      I don’t think Larson was referring to a scourge in Canada but that antisemitism is a scourge in and of itself regardless of where it’s found. A belief i would agree with.

      That said Israel specifically and all political beliefs or entities are not entitled to hide behind religious or ethnic minority protections. If it’s permitted where does one draw the line.

      If the USSR still existed would be it appropriate for a Russian-Canadian minority group to stifle discussion of the USSR or communism behind the the claim it’s part of their identity? It would be a part of their identity if they were immigrants whether they liked or disliked it.

      And apart from political beliefs it’s even worse if one tries to hide state actions with such a frivilous claim.

  5. lonely rico on July 28, 2019, 1:26 am

    Successive Canadian governments have been very pro-Israel, despite public opinion which is generally more equivocal on the conflict in Palestine.
    For a history of Canada’s ties to Israel, see Yves Engler’s “Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid”
    A comprehensive study of Canada’s ties to Israel, this investigation criticizes Lester Pearson’s negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian lands after World War II and denounces the tax deductions that encouraged Zionists in Canada to send money that is used for settlements on the West Bank. (Amazon)

    A recent challenge by activists to the deplorable Irwin Cotler –

    On June 3, 2019, at an event held at Concordia University in Montreal, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a relentless defender of the State of Israel, was disrupted by Palestinian solidarity activists Yves Engler, Malcolm Guy and Dimitri Lascaris.

  6. lonely rico on July 30, 2019, 8:51 pm

    More news from Canada.

    Update on –

    Dr. Kattenburg, a member of Winnipeg’s Jewish community and a child of Holocaust survivors, complained in early 2017 to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) about two wines produced in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.
    Those wines were being sold in Canada bearing “Product of Israel” labels. Citing the Canadian government’s own acknowledgement that the West Bank is occupied Palestinian territory and that it does not form part of the state of Israel, Dr. Kattenburg argued that the labels were false and that they violated Canadian consumer protection legislation, which requires accurate country-of-origin labelling.
    After months of careful consideration of Dr. Kattenburg’s complaint, the CFIA ruled that the “Product of Israel” labels did indeed violate Canadian consumer protection laws, but within hours of the CFIA’s decision becoming known to the pro-Israel lobby, the lobby persuaded the government of (the infamous Ziophila) Justin Trudeau to pressure the CFIA into reversing itself.
    Weeks later, Dr. Kattenburg commenced a judicial review application in the Federal Court of Canada.
    Today, the Federal Court issued its decision.

    The Court agreed with Dr. Kattenburg’s position that “Product of Israel” labels on wines produced in Israel’s West Bank settlements are “false, misleading and deceptive” and that, “as such, they contravene the requirements of subsection 7(1) of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and subsection 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act.”

    It is our fervent hope, writes Dimitri Lascaris, that the government of (the infamous Ziophila) Justin Trudeau will accept the Court’s well-reasoned decision and will not waste yet more taxpayer dollars by appealing this decision and by continuing to facilitate Israel’s naked theft of occupied Palestinian land.
    The full decision of the Court can be read here:

    Kudos to Dr. David Kattenburg and legal council Dimitri Lascaris.

    • oldgeezer on July 31, 2019, 12:13 am

      @lonely rico

      A Housefather, a member of the governing party who has in the past voted against his own party on resolutionsrelated to the excessive force applied by the idf, has stated publicly that the decision needs to be appealed. Not totally surprisingly as one would expect the decision to be appealed in any event. That said, appeal away. I still trust the judiciary to tell the gov or me we are wrong. Unlike the Israeli judiciary which is an absolute farce in it’s own right and the US judiciary which is becoming a mockery of any kind of justice for anyone.

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