Winnipeg human rights committee needs ‘more discussion’ before adopting antisemitism definition: chair

A motion for Winnipeg to accept a specific definition of antisemitism was accepted as information on Monday night, after about two-thirds of the delegates who presented to city council’s human rights committee opposed adopting it.

“There’s been a lot of dialogue back and forth, and clearly more discussion needs to happen between all the parties,” Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), who chairs the committee, said following the roughly four-hour meeting that heard from 20 presenters.

Accepting the motion he submitted only as information “will allow work to continue in collaboration towards a greater understanding and hopefully education of what this definition represents, and how it can be useful in whole or in part in addressing the rising concerns of antisemitism,” Chambers said.

The document in question is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

The at times controversial definition has been accepted by a number of provinces, including Manitoba last year, but it has also been the subject of criticism from those worried its wording could be used to silence critics of Israel.

Among those critics is Harold Shuster, a member of the grassroots group Independent Jewish Voices Winnipeg, who said he feared the definition would “at a minimum put a major chill on both criticism of Israel and Palestinian solidarity advocacy” in the city.

A man works on a laptop.
Harold Shuster with Independent Jewish Voices Winnipeg spoke at the meeting on Monday, urging the committee not to adopt the definition out of fear it would ‘put a major chill’ on criticism of Israel. (CBC)

“The mere fact that this definition is causing debate should be enough to cause you to pause,” he told the committee.

“We all know that antisemitism is a problem and must be confronted. But confronting and ultimately ending antisemitism must come through education and collective action, and not by trying to redefine it.”

The working definition also includes a list of examples of types of contemporary antisemitism, many of which delegates including Shuster took issue with for their mentions of Israel.

However, several of the delegates who presented to the committee urged its members to adopt the working definition. They included Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Since 2013, she’s also been a member of Canada’s federally appointed delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Jarniewski told the committee.

She said the working definition is meant to be an educational tool that helps determine what antisemitism is and isn’t, and accused its detractors of wilfully mischaracterizing it.

A woman smiles.
Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, told the committee the definition is meant to be an educational tool. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“I think that people are not reading some key words in the definition,” Jarniewski said, noting the list of examples includes things that may be characterized as antisemitic.

She also said the definition specifically notes that criticism of Israel on its own “similar to that leveled against any other country” cannot be regarded as antisemitic, though critics including Shuster argued that note does not take away from the potentially silencing effect of the definition as a whole.

Dr. Joel Kettner, a University of Manitoba professor and the province’s former chief public health officer, also urged council not to adopt the definition, based on concerns he had with parts of its wording being too vague.

Kettner, who is Jewish, also said he wasn’t sure the definition was needed, given laws that exist in Canada around hate speech.

“I think the focus is, what are we going to do about antisemitism?” he said.

“The last thing we want to do, I think, is to bring forward a definition that’s going to start dividing people, especially if it’s not necessary.”

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