Rabbi Yael Splansky
January 29, 2021
IHRA and Free Speech
“An almond tree blooming in Israel.”
In June 2019, the Government of Canada announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy. The “working definition” attempts to set parameters for what anti-semitism is and is not. CIJA (The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) has been leading the effort to have the IHRA definition affirmed by all three levels of government. See here for a helpful resource on IHRA in the Canadian context.
This week, in time for International Holocaust Education Week, the Union of Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization to which Holy Blossom Temple proudly belongs for one hundred years now, made its own statement affirming IHRA as a working definition of anti-semitism. You can read the full statement here.
I appreciate the URJ’s affirmation. And I was not surprised by how it included in its statement an expression of warning about how the definition may be used as a tool to chip away at freedom of speech. “Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: as a guide and an awareness raising tool. The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists. If the effect of application of the IHRA definition is to limit free speech, it threatens to divide the broad coalition needed to combat antisemitism.
I don’t believe the URJ’s affirmation needed to be couched with such concerns. I understand protection of Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment is bedrock in The United States. But it comes with a price.
I have come to appreciate Canada’s willingness to say that Hate Speech is definable and punishable. I remember during the tiki torch parade in Charlottesville, a Canadian participant was interviewed on CNN. When asked “Why are you here?” he answered simply, “I can’t say these things in Canada, so I came here to speak my mind.” And there was at least one Canadian flag seen flying during the recent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
The URJ leadership wants to ensure that the Jewish student activist campus is protected when she speaks out against demeaning checkpoints or unethical housing demolitions in the West Bank. I don’t believe the IHRA definition was created with her in mind. More than I fear it could be used to marginalize her, I fear a world where antisemitism has no margins. We know what can happen when hate speech goes unchecked.
The day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day was Tu BiShvat. Ecclesiastes asserts there is “A time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted.” Let us plant ourselves in the good countries that shout down anti-semitism when they see it and uproot every form of bigotry and hatred wherever it festers.