More than 70 people have registered to speak at Vancouver city hall Wednesday (Nov. 16) to a motion introduced by councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung that she says aims to combat hatred against Jewish people.
Kirby-Yung is calling for council to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism, which she believes is a practical and educational tool for identifying anti-Semitism.
“To combat anti-Semitism, we must begin by defining it,” Kirby-Yung told council Tuesday in introducing her motion.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the community has the right to define its own hate and not to have the definition — or the right to do so — criticized. Anti-Semitism is toxic to democracies. It is the canary in the mineshaft of evil.”
The IHRA definition: “Anti-Semitism is 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.”
'Highly controversial and divisive'
Kirby-Yung introduced her motion Tuesday and defended it in answering questions from councillors Christine Boyle and Pete Fry. Boyle noted a United Nations report had called the definition “highly controversial and divisive.”
Boyle asked Kirby-Yung: “Why not bring forward a different definition like the Jerusalem [Declaration on Anti-Semitism] definition that's less contentious within Jewish communities, and then lets us focus on the tangible work we can be doing to address anti-Semitism rather than fighting over different types of definitions within the community?”
Kirby-Yung responded by saying there had been a 15-year-long democratic process that involved several dozen countries, intergovernmental bodies, governments, scholars, civil society leaders, Holocaust survivors and Nobel Peace Prize laureates to develop the definition.
“So I feel that's a pretty broad and pretty extensive process with respect to developing the definition and I am confident in the work that they did and how they have really zeroed in on the harm that anti-Semitism does,” she said.
Fry pointed out that mayor and council received an email from the Independent Jewish Voices organization with almost 1,300 signatures from people opposing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition.
The letter states Independent Jewish Voices, the Palestinian Youth Movement, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, the Canadian Arab Institute, BC Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Association of University Teachers and several other organizations oppose the definition.
“It intentionally conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel and Zionism, and support for Palestinian rights,” the letter said. “The adoption of the IHRA definition poses a threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression and the right to protest Israel’s violations of international law.”
Kirby-Yung’s response: “Sometimes there are differences in perspective and opinion. But I think that geopolitical concerns are being conflated with what is an intent to guard against anti-Semitism here in Vancouver — and that's what I'm concerned with is keeping Vancouver residents who are of Jewish heritage safe here in our city.”
The councillor’s efforts to have council adopt the definition are not new.
In council's previous term, Kirby-Yung introduced an identical motion in July 2019, which was referred to the city’s racial and ethno-cultural equity advisory committee, without hearing from speakers, which included Holocaust survivors.
The committee never reached a resolution.
Jewish people target of hate in Vancouver
The purpose of the referral by Boyle at the time was to have the committee provide recommendations to council on how the City of Vancouver can increase action to combat all forms of racism and hatred, including anti-Semitism.
“This is something that council should have dealt with, in my opinion, as opposed to sending it to a committee,” she said, arguing the committee wasn't staffed or equipped “to deal with something like this.”
At the time of Kirby-Yung’s motion in 2019, the Vancouver Police Department had just released data on hate crimes in the city which indicated Jewish people and property were main targets, followed by the LGTBQ2S+ and Black communities.
Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes have surged.
Kirby-Yung’s motion then and now requests the IHRA definition be shared with Vancouver police, the Vancouver public library, Vancouver park board and Vancouver school board.
Asked after Tuesday’s council meeting whether city council was the best venue to debate such a controversial issue, Kirby-Yung said introducing the motion was not dissimilar to when council issued a formal apology to the Chinese community in 2018 for historical wrongs.
Last year, council formally apologized for injustices and discrimination against the 376 passengers travelling on board the Komagata Maru in 1914. This year, council committed to name or rename a secondary street in Vancouver after the Komagata Maru.
“It's a recognition of the fact that the Jewish community is also an important ethno-cultural group in our city, and [the definition] allows them to define kind of what that looks like for them,” Kirby-Yung said. “It's a non-binding tool. You're not committing to a statute, you're not enacting a bylaw.”
Among the 72 people registered to speak to council Wednesday are the director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the chairperson of the Palestine Association-Vancouver and policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.