As part of its anti-racism strategy, the Canadian government recently adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which states that “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” There is a good deal of international consensus around this definition, which has been adopted by numerous countries.

Many politicians and representatives of official Jewish organizations believe the definition will make a positive difference in countering the demonstrable global surge in anti-Semitism, including in Canada, where Jews are the most-targeted group for hatred and hate crimes, with the numbers continually edging upwards. 

Reaction has been divided. Some critics applaud the initiative. Others believe the definition is overly broad and has the potential to chill criticism of Israel. By no coincidence, those critics fear exactly what they feared with M-103, the “Islamophobia” motion: that the definition of Islamophobia was deliberately vague, and could chill criticism of Islam. 

I agree with these critics. I take issue with many facets of Islam as a religion in its political form, and with many of the cultural practices associated with Islam-dominated regions. I am willing to tolerate a high threshold for anti-Semitic speech in order to protect my own freedom to speak my mind about any religion or culture at all. 

Making a case in favour of the definition in the July 4 edition of the Canadian Jewish News was an article by Liberal MP for Mount Royal Anthony Housefather and Liberal MP for York Centre Michael Levitt. In the print edition, the title was “Defining anti-Semitism is key to rooting it out.” 

Titles are written by the editors and sometimes they can be misleading, but in this case the words were taken almost verbatim from a statement in the penultimate paragraph of Housefather’s and Levitt’s piece: “Only by defining anti-Semitism can this age-old hatred be clearly identified and rooted out.” This statement struck me as incredibly naïve.

For nobody familiar with the history of anti-Semitism, arguably the longest and most intractable hatred in human history, can possibly believe that defining anti-Semitism will have an impact on those who are marinated in Jew hatred. Nor have they considered the cost/benefit of doing so. Defining it may make it easier to charge people with hate speech. But if they are penalized for their hateful expression, it will make martyrs of them to their irrational, conspiracy-theorist base, who will interpret such measures as persecution and, ironically, one more example of the alleged power Jews hold over governments.

In their article, Housefather and Levitt cite Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) and the boycott, sanction and divestment movement (BDS) as examples of anti-Semitism. They are not wrong. BDS, the umbrella for IAW and all other anti-Zionist campus initiatives, has at its core an exterminationist agenda. Anyone who supports BDS is de facto calling for the termination of Israel as a Jewish state. Nothing could be more anti-Semitic. 

But if, according to the government, BDS is a form of hatred that can no longer be tolerated, then what? Should universities be instructed to shut down all manifestations of BDS sentiment? Personally, I can’t imagine a scenario more rife with potential for ginning up anti-Israel hysteria, and more sympathy for the Palestinian narrative. We already have hate-speech laws that identify “incitement” as the “red line” of hateful expression, even though they are rarely enforced, especially if the inciter is Muslim. Of course, sophisticated haters—those obsessives with lots of experience in vomiting forth their anti-Semitism—are very cognizant of the legal line and generally skirt it.

BDS is a good example. BDS would never dream of saying “Jews” are hateful. Only the Jewish state is hateful, they tell us. Ironically, although Diaspora Jews and their allies wring their hands over this brazen act of political legerdemain, Israeli Jews are largely indifferent to BDS and anti-Semitism in the Diaspora in general. The slings and arrows of lies and slanders bounce right off them, because they are busy fending off anti-Semitism in the form of actual terrorism, and when they are not doing that—indeed, even while they are doing that—they are busy growing their nation.

Venture capitalist Jon Medved, founder and CEO of OurCrowd, an equity crowdfunding vehicle in which investors pool their resources to acquire a stake in high-tech startups, many of them in Israel, was recently interviewed by the Canadian Jewish News. What he had to say about BDS was revealing:

BDS is a non-event…there is no effect on the tech market at all. There are now over 450multinational corporations that have set up design and research and development centres in Israel. Not one of them has pulled out because of BDS.

I had one of the three largest hedge fund managers in the world over at my house for dinner, together with a famous member of parliament. And the member of parliament asked the hedge fund manager, who is really legendary and everybody knows him, ‘What do you think of this BDS stuff?’

And the hedge fund manager looked across the table and said, ‘What’s BDS?’

‘You know, boycott, divestment and sanctions.’

He said, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’

Anti-Semitism is a trees-and-forest phenomenon. It is true that anti-Semitism is trending upward in Europe and elsewhere. It is true that many of the Arab states are hysterically Judeophobic. But this is not the 1930s. Jews as a people are not living at the mercy of czars or fascist governments any more. They have a homeland—one the local bullies don’t want to mess with in a serious way, and that has Jews’ backs. 

Loved or hated, Israel will not flourish or wither by hateful words. BDS is like wheels under a wagonload of hate-fuelled lies, mired to the hub and churning in its own ideological muck. Its spatter stains and stinks, but only affects those in its immediate vicinity. BDS has put every ounce of muscle it can summon to its cause, but it has not laid a glove on the target of its hatred, and it never will, as long as Israel stays true to itself. 

Nevertheless BDS is a form of hatred of Jews. (No need to remind me that many progressive Jews are front and centre in BDS; naïve/self-loathing/ingratiating Jews have been around throughout the entire history of Judaism.) So then what can be done about this campus pestilence if it is not to be suppressed by the state? 

Well, politicians and other elite cultural figures like university presidents should certainly call out BDS as a form of anti-Semitism. Loudly and frequently, which some have done, and all should do. They should show their contempt on every possible occasion. And Jewish leaders and their allies should invest resources and vigorous effort in on-campus support for pro-Israel students. Combat lies with truth, not suppression of hate speech. 
Here in Canada, it is important to remember that while anti-Semitism is on the rise in terms of rhetoric, actual hate crimes of the kind that happens routinely in Europe—physical assaults, killings—is statistically very low. We should be on guard against hate crime escalation, but with the understanding that we already have laws for crimes, and the further understanding that no new definition of anti-Semitism is going to stop anti-Semitic cretins from hating Jews and saying so. Let them. It’s worth repeating: Living well is the best revenge.