SAIA York’s statement regarding recent anti-Semitic comments on social media

As members of a group fighting for justice and ultimately for the dismantlement of the Israeli apartheid regime within Palestine, Students Against Israeli Apartheid York is opposed to all forms of oppression including racism, colonialism,homophobia, islamophobia and anti-Semitism. As such, we strongly condemn the recent anti-Semitic comments that were made by a poster on York University social media. Anti-Semitism is a vulgar and hateful form of racist, oppression that has resulted in the systematic marginalization of Jews and has led to far-right regimes carrying out some of the most heinous crimes in human history.

We are however troubled by the university’s president statement on March 11 concerning anti-Semitism. In her statement, Rhonda Lenton states that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism is “a useful guideline” for determining whether a statement constitutes anti-Semitic hate speech. While the 39-word IHRA Working Definition itself is an accurate and neutral description of anti-Semitism, the interpretive guidelines attached to this definition make clear the political nature of the document. More than half of the examples provided in fact describe criticism of the state of Israel, conflating this with anti-Semitism. For example, these guidelines state that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is anti-Semitic.

Firstly, there is the ambiguity presented by the strange phrase ‘a State of Israel’ rather than ‘the State of Israel’, implying that all criticisms of Israel are rejections of a Jewish state per se, rather than critiques of the one that happens to exist. In this and similar cases, critically appraising the series of events through which an actually existing state comes into being - particularly when such circumstances involve the organized mass murder, expulsion, and ongoing occupation of, and denial of rights to, another people - is an entirely legitimate historical exercise. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians cannot be arbitrarily made an exception to this rule. Nor can Palestinians (and advocates for their rights) be made to curb their criticism of the Israeli state’s racist treatment of them by attempting to label such talk off-limits.

Secondly, the document appears to suggest that Israel is incapable of systemic racism, simply because it claims to represent all Jews. Indeed many, including Israeli Jews, have pointed out that identifying all Jews with the state of Israel, ignoring the long history of Jewish opposition to that state, is a dangerous conceptual slippage that is itself regrettably anti-Semitic. As Independent Jewish Voices stated in 2016, “The battle against anti-Semitism is vital, and is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.” In fact, the contradictory nature of the IHRA itself is evidenced by the fact that it later correctly lists “holding Jews collectively accountable for actions of the State of Israel” as an example of anti-Semitism.

Accordingly, the innumerable claims of Israeli state officials to the effect that the Israeli state acts in the interests of all Jews, as well as the claim that it is anti-Semitic to criticize the actions of Israel as racist, ought both be roundly condemned as anti-Semitic.  

York University’s mission statement reads, in part: “A community of faculty, students, staff, alumni and volunteers committed to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance, York University makes innovation its tradition.”
A commitment to academic freedom and social justice requires acknowledging that no institution, whether it be a volunteer campus organization or an independent state, can ever be immune from academic and social critique. The state of Israel has been repeatedly deemed to be in violation of international law by organizations such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, and the Government of Canada agrees with the international consensus that Israeli policy toward the Occupied Palestinian Territories are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Further, it is the opinion of many scholars globally that the policies of the state of Israel are in contravention of international prohibitions against apartheid.

It is imperative that York University abide by its mission statement and permit a full range of academic and social critique of all forms of oppression, including both anti-Semitism and the policies of the state of Israel. Unfortunately, the guidelines of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism wrongly suggest that it is not possible to oppose both. While President Lenton is entitled to her personal political and academic views, it is extremely troubling that in her capacity as university President she would endorse the use of this deeply flawed document, which is not York University policy and is moreover incompatible with the university’s mission statement.

We therefore call on President Lenton to clarify her statements to reflect the fact that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism and is in fact protected as academic freedom by university policy.