Urgent Initiative – Censorship, Antisemitism, Racism & Colonization

IHRA Report – Canadian Colleges & Universities

At our February 22 General Members Meeting we have moved a motion (below) in support of the fight against antisemitism, racism, and colonization within our institutions.

CUPE 4207 unequivocally supports the academic freedom of its members. This freedom includes the right to pursue research and open inquiry in an honest search for knowledge that is free from institutional censorship, including that of the government. While CUPE 4207 opposes antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism poses a serious threat to academic freedom in our university. The IHRA definition of antisemitism misconstrues antisemitism to include a broad range of criticism of the State of Israel. The IHRA definition thus undermines important anti-racist and decolonial initiatives in Canadian educational institutions. It can also be used to censor political speech and restrict the academic freedom of teachers and researchers who have developed critical perspectives on the policies and practices of the State of Israel. Such targeted attacks will have a chilling effect on the academic freedom of our members in the classroom, in their research, and in campus politics more broadly.

Please read the following information carefully. This issue is complicated and it is paramount that we respond as critical scholars with one clear and coherent collective voice.

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism 

There is an international campaign underway to get governments, universities, and other institutions to adopt the IHRA definition. This definition has negatively impacted scholars and students in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, to name a few. In recent years, some of the world’s leading scholars and influential academics have been unfairly labelled as antisemitic because of their critique of Israel and its oppression of Palestinians. Among them, Black feminist scholar Angela Davis, American-based queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar, and prominent Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. In the United Kingdom, Education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened universities with a funding cut if they did not adopt the IHRA definition by Christmas of 2020. In the face of these ultimatums, many universities in the UK have since complied with the government’s demands and have adopted the IHRA definition.

Across Canada, municipal governments, including  Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver were invited to adopt the IHRA definition, but after debate , the resolutions were either tabled or withdrawn.

However, in 2019 the Trudeau Liberals adopted the IHRA definition as part of “Canada’s Antiracism Strategy.” In November 2020, the liberals appointed Irwin Cotler as Canada’s Special Envoy to IHRA. Cotler is tasked with providing support for “advocacy and outreach efforts with Canadians, civil society, and academia to advance the implementation of this definition across the country and its adoption internationally.”

On October 26, the Ford Conservative Party abandoned its controversial private members’ Bill 168 “Combating Antisemitism Act” and instead chose to circumvent democratic debate by using an Order in Council 1450/2020 to adopt the IHRA definition. Faculty associations across Ontario passed motions to oppose the IHRA definition.

In 2020, two Ontario universities have been the site of false and destructive charges of antisemitism against respected international human rights scholars. In response, CAUT has initiated a process of censuring the University of Toronto. These attacks are but a small sample of documented cases, and they are deeply troubling for us as scholars and teachers.

Academic Issues 

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is the product of a growing “new antisemitism movement” that seeks to redefine antisemitism to include any criticism of the Israeli state.

While challenging antisemitism is vital, Canadian critics of the IHRA definition argue that the new language could “chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights.”

The IHRA definition is vague. It fails to connect antisemitism to other forms of racism. It also appears more intent on silencing critics of Israel than halting antisemitic threats from far-right white supremacists.

If governments and universities adopt this definition, it will represent a direct attack on academic freedom, endangering our ability to engage in scholarship and teaching that explores facts and perspectives that are critical of the state of Israel. For example, one of the illustrative examples in the IHRA definition explicitly states that referring to Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ is tantamount to antisemitism.

Anti-racist and decolonial scholarship will be placed at great risk of being falsely accused of being antisemitic, which could result in intimidation, censorship, job precarity, and costly litigation. If left unchallenged, actions like the Ford government’s Order in Council will be a mere prelude to more serious threats to academic freedom on a national level. As scholars committed to academic freedom, we must act now before we find ourselves in a position similar to the one that universities in the United Kingdom are currently facing.

The adoption of the IHRA also carries a serious threat to funding and research grants. Ontario Conservative MPP Roman Baber said the following in the Ontario Legislature in regard to the IHRA definition:

“We’re putting our finger on it and defining anti-Semitism. We make it explicit, so no one will miss it…. If it’s happening in one of Ontario’s academic institutions or it’s pushed by a grant recipient or anyone who wants to do business with the government of Ontario, we will know how to identify it and we should not stand for it – not this government.”

– Roman Barber (Ontario MPP, York Centre) – Chair of the Standing Committee on Justice Policy (February 27, 2020).

Setting the terms for what is legal, fundable, and admissible in university research and teaching is governmental overreach. Modern universities have been defined and governed as autonomous institutions of learning for a reason. Expectations of institutional autonomy and collegial governance, like that of academic freedom, protect universities from governments or private interests wishing to set limits on what can be researched and what can be taught.

Scholarly & Contextualized Definition of Antisemitism 

We firmly believe that it is possible, desirable, and necessary to both protect academic freedom and adopt an anti-racist framework within our colleges and universities. Students, staff, and faculty deserve an academic environment that is open, representative, inclusive, safe, equitable, and fair.

We therefore strongly believe that all universities require vigorous policies to counter and deal with antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of discrimination.

Unfortunately, the IHRA definition fails to offer a robust definition of antisemitism within an anti-racist and decolonial framework.

The IHRA definition is being used to censor and undermine the important anti-racist and decolonial initiatives currently underway at universities across Canada.

Call for Immediate Action 

Our faculty associations and unions are mandated and entitled to protect their members’ rights to pursue and disseminate their research free from institutional censorship.

We strongly urge your Executive and EDI Committees to pass a motion condemning any adoption of the IHRA definition with its illustrative examples on the grounds of academic freedom, anti-racism, and decolonization (see sample motion attached).

As an individual scholar, you may join the 460 scholars who have signed the Open Letter by Canadian Academics Opposing the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, organized by the Independent Jewish Voices of Canada. Please also disseminate this open letter amongst your colleagues.

Enclosed please find a PDF document containing background information on the IHRA definition, a statement written by international experts on how institutions should tackle the serious problem of antisemitism, and other actions your organization can take to protect academic freedom including a sample motion that you can put forward for a vote within your faculty association.

There is already pressure on several university administrations, such as the University of Toronto, University of Winnipeg and York University to adopt the IHRA definition, which would have disastrous consequences for everyone who is committed to anti-racist and decolonial scholarship and politics.

Together we must stop the IHRA definition from being used to not only censor critical and engaged scholarship, but also to undermine anti-racist and decolonization campaigns in our colleges and universities.

Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, Racism, Colonialism & Censorship in Canada (ARC)

Mark Ayyash, Associate Professor of Sociology, Mount Royal University

Reem Bahdi, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Windsor

Greg Bird, Associate Professor of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University

Sheryl Nestel, Independent Scholar (Independent Jewish Voices)

Jasmin Zine, Professor of Sociology and the Muslim Studies Option, Wilfrid Laurier University


Faculty/Staff Associations & Academic Unions Condemning the IHRA definition:  

CUPE 3903 (Contract Faculty, Teaching/Research Assistants Union, York University)

CUPE 3906 (Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants & Postdocs at McMaster University)

Nipissing University Faculty Association

Ontario College of Art & Design Faculty Association

Osgoode Hall Faculty Association

Ryerson Faculty Association

St. Jerome’s University Academic Staff Association

Western University Faculty Association

Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association

York University Faculty Association


+ Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations (OCUFA) 

+ Several other faculty associations across the country are currently considering this issue.

Non-exhaustive list of other Canadian Organizations who have spoken out against the IHRA Definition:

BC Civil Liberties Association

Canadian Labour Congress

Canadian Federation of Students

Canadian Union of Postal Workers

Canadian Union of Public Employees – Ontario

Independent Jewish Voices Canada

Ligue des droits et libertés

Vancouver and District Labour Council


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