Montreal city councillor withdraws motion defining anti-Semitism amid criticism

MONTREAL — A Montreal city councillor withdrew a motion to have the city adopt an international organization's definition of anti-Semitism on Tuesday, as critics charged that its wording aims to limit criticism of the Israeli state.

Lionel Perez withdrew the motion endorsing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of anti-Semitism after it failed to gain support from Mayor Valerie Plante, whose party has a majority.

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While the IHRA definition has been adopted by over 30 countries including Canada, some cities and organizations who have considered adopting it have run into opposition from critics who say its wording conflates criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.

In a council meeting Tuesday morning, Perez said embracing the world's most widely-used definition of anti-Semitism would facilitate data gathering and be a useful tool for police, boroughs, and groups that work to promote inclusion.

"Anti-Semitism is the barometer of hate in our society," he said. "To advance on issues of anti-Semitism is an advance against all forms of racism and hate."

But in her own remarks, Plante acknowledged the debate over the definition, which she said is "far from a black-and-white matter." Instead of adopting the motion, she suggested a committee study the definition and adopt its own if need be.

"Why not be inspired by it, to evaluate it to see if — for us in Montreal — it's the model we want to take?" she asked.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as "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," it concludes.

It specifies that criticism of Israel "similar to that levelled against any other country" is not anti-Semitic, however critics take aim at a list of examples that includes "denying Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.''

In a statement, leaders of two major Jewish organization said they were disappointed with Plante.

"The Mayor failed to seize the opportunity and show leadership ... to demonstrate that the City of Montreal is committed to combating anti-Semitism today, which is rapidly increasing around the world," said Gail Adelson-Marcovitz, president of Federation CJA, and Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

But Corey Balsam of the group Independent Jewish Voices Canada, which opposes the motion, said some of those pushing the definition are motivated to "de-legitimize voices that are critical of Israel."

In a phone interview, Balsam said adopting the definition would put a "major chill" on those speaking out in favour of equality for the Palestinians, while failing to tackle more serious threats to Jewish communities.

"The violent attacks we're seeing on Jews around the world are not coming from human rights activists," he said. "They're coming from the right, from white supremacists. None of that is mentioned (in the definition)."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association also published a letter urging Montreal's council not to adopt the definition, which it described as "a threat to freedom of expression."

Montreal isn't the only city to have faced the question of whether to adopt the definition. Similar motions were put before Calgary and Vancouver city councils last year, and both were dropped in the face of opposition.

However, Vaughan, north of Toronto, chose to adopt it, the city said this week in a statement.

In a phone interview, Perez said he was disappointed by what he felt was a "lack of will" on the part of his colleagues in Montreal.

He said he withdrew his motion in part because he didn't want to see an ill-equipped city committee debating definitions of anti-Semitism when the one he proposed has widespread international acceptance.

"It's ludicrous to think Montreal should have a different definition than the Canadian government and most of the Western democratic states as well as the United Nations," he said.

Perez said he was anticipating a strong reaction from Montreal's Jewish community, and would wait to see what happened before planning any further actions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2020.

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