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University of Ottawa Professors Stand Up for the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

An image of the University of Ottawa (Global)

March 23, 2021

OTTAWA – A group of professors at the University of Ottawa is fighting back against a resolution passed by its faculty union executive – without any advance consultation – to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism.

Earlier this month, the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) announced the move against the IHRA definition to its members, citing “academic freedom” as its motivation. B’nai Brith Canada believes this decision is flawed and based on an inaccurate assessment of the definition itself. Detailed concerns have been raised by concerned professors with the APUO executive, which is being urged to correct its position.

If you are concerned about issues of antisemitism on Canadian campuses, please CLICK HERE tonight at 7:00 pm Eastern to view a special town hall discussion about antisemitism at the University of Toronto.

Among the signatories to the letter urging the APUO to change course is Ottawa University Professor Jan Grabowski, a renowned historian of Jewish-Polish relations and the Holocaust. Professor Grabowski faces a real threat to his academic freedom, as he has been subjected to a defamation lawsuit in Poland against his Holocaust research by an organization considered close to the Government. The APUO has taken no action to support him.

In its message to the APUO executive, concerned professors have emphasized that the motion embraces a disingenuous misrepresentation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, one that is advocated by certain groups not representative of mainstream thinking in the Jewish community or Canadian society. They point out that claims of a threat to academic freedom or the stifling of legitimate criticism of Israel are not supported by the facts.

Those professors objecting to the APUO’s actions have pointed out that free speech is vital to the independence and innovation that embodies Canada’s higher education sector and it must be protected. Not only does it fuel academic thought, but it contributes to a collective feeling of tolerance and acceptance in our universities that challenge injustice. The IHRA definition of antisemitism, they say, can foster tolerance towards the Jewish student population at the University of Ottawa.

The APUO decision flies in the face of adoption of the IHRA non-legally binding working definition by both the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario. In the federal government’s case, the IHRA definition and its examples are integral parts of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy.

The professors ask that the APUO rescind its motion and provide a clear plan on how the Association will rebuild trust with its Jewish members.

“Universities must do more to stamp out antisemitism on campus, where there is an increasing sense of insecurity experienced by Jewish students,” said Michael Mostyn, Chief Executive Officer of B’nai Brith Canada. “To tackle antisemitism, we must first define it. That is where the IHRA definition is essential.”

The IHRA definition does not stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. The language of the IHRA definition is clear: “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Accordingly, and contrary to the claim of many of its critics, the IHRA definition of antisemitism does not infringe on free speech in any way. Rather, as a carefully crafted guideline, it plays an important role in combating hateful speech.

The IHRA definition, understood and used correctly, is a useful tool for combating antisemitism. The European Commission has just published a handbook on practical uses of the definition, recommending its use in universities “to identify and intervene against antisemitism” and “to create safer places for Jewish students, as problems can be identified and better solved at an early stage.”

Concerned community members can make their voices heard by signing an online petition and by expressing support for the IHRA definition by writing directly to the APUO executive at [email protected].