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Read Emily Kalo's Letter to the Board of the U of M Faculty Association Against the Motion Attacking the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

by Emily Kalo, posted here April 1, 2021

[Editor's note: The Executive of the U of M Faculty Association [UMFA] recently pushed a one sided motion to reject the   International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism .  The motion was not deliberated on since on March 25, 2021 the agenda of the meeting was not passed by the Board of UMFA. Below is Emily Kalo's letter written to the Board of UMFA on the subject .]

 

March 24, 2021

Re: Academic Alliance Against Antisemitism, Racism, Colonialism, and Censorship in Canada (ARC) campaign

Dear UMFA Board Members,

My name is Emily Kalo and I am a third year Faculty of Science student at the University of Manitoba and a current Senator for the Science Students’ Association. As a proud Jewish student, I am writing in response to the motion being tabled at this Thursday’s University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) meeting, which seeks to oppose the adoption or use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism at the University of Manitoba and elsewhere.

 

By way of background, in November of 2020, I approached the current UMSU executive team about a proposal for the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) at the University of Manitoba to unreservedly condemn all acts of racism, discrimination, bigotry, and violence against the Jewish community and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. On December 10th, 2020, I presented my proposal to the UMSU Board of Directors (BOD). After presenting the proposal, explaining my motivation for putting it forward, and responding to questions brought up by BOD members, the following motion passed unanimously:

 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) at the University of Manitoba unreservedly condemn all acts of racism, discrimination, bigotry, and violence against the Jewish community.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism and include this definition into “Position #7: Equitable Campus” of the official UMSU Position Statement Booklet under “UMSU Supports”

 

In my capacity as co-founder of the Students in Support of Israel student group, and as a Jewish student myself, I am writing to UMFA to say that this UMFA motion is not only an insult to all UMSU Board members, and all Jewish UMFA members, but to all Jewish students, and the Jewish community at large. Moreover, I believe that this motion directly contradicts the intent of UMFA membership, in addition to the University of Manitoba’s Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy, which provides in part that:

 

The University of Manitoba does not condone behaviour that is likely to undermine the dignity, self-esteem or productivity of any of its members and prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment whether it occurs on University property or in conjunction with University-related activities. The University of Manitoba is committed to providing an inclusive and respectful work and learning environment, free from discrimination or harassment as prohibited in the Manitoba Human Rights Code; and also an environment that does not detract from the academic freedom of the University’s Academic Staff.
 


Before bringing attention to many of the fallacies and falsehoods presented in the motion, I would like to address why I approached UMSU with this proposal in the first place. Jewish students constitute an important part of the University of Manitoba community, yet we remain distinguishable from the majority by common ethnic and cultural characteristics. The Jewish community is thus a distinct and significant cultural community within the University of Manitoba, that UMSU, and the University as an established academic institution, is constitutionally bound to support, protect, and defend.

 

According to Statistics Canada, Canadian Jews remain the most targeted minority group for police-reported hate crimes in Canada, despite only making up 1.04% of the Canadian population1 More specifically, the Canadian Prairie Region announced a 142% increase in the number of antisemitic incidents in 2018 which has only increased since.2 In fact, the RCMP is currently investigating a case of anti-Semitism in Kelowna after anti-Semitic posters were placed along Abbott Street and at Kelowna General hospital just this past Friday on March 19th.3 Sadly, many past and present Jewish UofM students, including myself, have experienced antisemitism firsthand, both in and out of the classroom. For any member of the University community, whether they are students, administration, or staff, to discredit those experiences or undermine any attempt to ensure safety for the UofM Jewish community, is nothing short of offensive.

 

The arguments included within the motion to oppose the IHRA definition pose a serious threat, both to the student and faculty relations at the UofM, and to the security of the UofM Jewish community. Therefore, I have structured my response below to demonstrate the adverse affect that opposing the IHRA definition will have on both the Jewish community and the general public at large.

 

As noted above, all UMSU Board members, representing the entire student body at the University of Manitoba, your students, unanimously voted to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. For the UMFA motion to blatantly go against any motion that was unanimously passed by UMSU, and explicitly reference said UMSU motion in the UMFA motion preamble, is shocking. Furthermore, this tactic will create an unsafe academic environment for all UMSU Board members, Jewish and not Jewish alike, who will fear retribution for their votes by their professors in their classes.

 

It is also important to note that the original UMSU proposal was drafted as a collaboration between Jewish and non-Jewish students at the UofM. To my dismay, every student to whom I reached out for help noted how they had personally experienced antisemitism on campus or had witnessed it themselves.

 

This does not come as a complete surprise; Universities around the country, and even internationally, have been the site of antisemitic policies and practices throughout history. The University of Manitoba is not immune to this, having only lifted its quota on Jewish students in the 1960’s. For Jewish students, each semester is preceded by heightened anxiety about returning to campus and classrooms where we may be at risk.

 

In response to the concerns that the IHRA working definition infringes on academic freedom, the IHRA definition explicitly states “…criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The IHRA definition not only values freedom of expression but emphasizes the importance of diverse dialogue. Indeed, criticism against the Government of Israel is a perfect example of freedom of expression and is an essential value in all democracies. However, drawing a comparison between Israeli policy and the extermination of millions of Jews under the Nazi regime would not only be factually incorrect, but anti-Semitic. As individuals in positions of power, faculty members must be held to a higher standard and must recognize that in their roles as educators, they have the ability to influence, whether consciously or not, the behaviors, beliefs, and even actions, of those in their classrooms. Imagine the corrosive effect that a claim as inappropriate as a modern-day comparison to the Nazi regime would have on a Jewish student in that class. Put frankly, this is hate speech and is not appropriate in the context of academic discourse or anywhere else in society for that matter. Those who dismiss the Jewish community’s experience with antisemitism cannot also be the ones who dictate the terms that conveniently protect their own bigoted attitudes from criticism.

 

The IHRA definition of antisemitism was developed by a diverse international team of experts on antisemitism and Holocaust denial, in cooperation with IHRA’s governmental representatives, for use as a working tool. It is important to note that the IHRA working definition is the official definition of antisemitism recognized by our own Federal government. The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was adopted by the Government of Canada as part of its Canadas Anti-Racism Strategy 2019-2022. The Government of Ontario4 also recently adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism in October 2020. Similarly, the definition was recognized by the United States of America under Title VI5, as well as governments in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, France, Austria, Scotland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Moldova, Albania, Greece, Cyprus, North Macedonia, Serbia, Argentina, Bahrain, the European Parliament, and countless other government institutions and universities across the world. Opposition to this definition would be a direct contradiction to the Canadian government and its commitment to anti-racism. Unlike what the UMFA motion to oppose IHRA would suggest, protecting academic freedom and protecting Jewish students are not mutually exclusive.

 

Setting aside the clear evidence that demonstrates how denouncing the IHRA definition would have a negative effect on the Jewish members of the UofM community, this motion to oppose the definition also sets an extremely dangerous precedent that puts members of any minority community at the UofM at risk. What the motion claims infringes on academic freedom is actually the very thing that provides Jewish students with the safety and security to which they, and all other minority groups, have a fundamental right. Denouncing the IHRA working definition or finding an alternative definition drafted by a fringe group of individuals directly contradicts this protection. Put differently, for anyone other than a member of the black community to determine what should or should not be considered racist would be inappropriate, the same way that for anyone other than a member of the Muslim community to define islamophobia, would be unjustified. Jewish people should be granted the same standard of basic respect when it comes to defining or discussing antisemitism.

 

It is not the place of UMFA, or any institution at large, to unilaterally define the nature of Jewish persecution without consulting and involving the larger Jewish community. By allowing this motion to pass, UMFA will be sending the message that it either feels it knows the reality of antisemitism better than Jews themselves, or that it does not care enough to consult the larger Jewish community on a matter as important as this one. The greater message to all minorities on campus will be that they do not have the right to define their own discrimination.

 

Even if we accept the motion’s claim that “[the IHRA definition] can 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”, the basic safety of a group takes priority over one’s Freedom of Speech. Section 2 of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly states that fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, are not considered absolute rights and are subject to reasonable restriction. To prioritize professors’ rights to spew what would be tantamount to hate speech in the name of academic freedom over the safety of any group is a dangerous precedent, and one which should alarm all members who belong to minority groups, as well as anyone who claims to stand behind Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

 

In conclusion, the UMFA motion will create a hostile environment for all students and faculty at the University of Manitoba. It will further divide the faculty association from the student union, and all Jewish peoples from the general UofM community. The University of Manitoba’s core values include Academic Freedom, Accountability, Collegiality, Equity and Inclusion, Innovation, Integrity, Respect and Sustainability. This motion is in contradiction to these principles and should be rejected.


For all these reasons, I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to support the ARC motion and to reject any motion that encourages, rather than discourages antisemitism and other forms of racism.

Sincerely yours,

Student, University of Manitoba, Direct Entry Faculty of Science
Senator, Science Students Association
President, Students Supporting Israel, official student group at the University of Manitoba
Email: [email protected]

Co-signed by:
Commerce Students’ Association
Hillel at the University of Manitoba
Students Supporting Israel at the University of Manitoba

cc: University of Manitoba Students Union
Commerce Students’ Association
University of Manitoba – Hillel Winnipeg

1 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/jewish-hate-targeting-canada-1.5115890
2 https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/190722/dq190722a-eng.htm?HPA=1
3 rcmp-grc.gc.ca
4 https://www.ontario.ca/orders-in-council/oc-14502020
5 https://www.state.gov/defining-anti-semitism/

 
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