Interview with Canada’s special envoy for preserving the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Protesters displaying the Israeli flag.

Protesters supporting Israeli intervention gathered around McGill University in Montreal in support of Israeli hostages, May 2, 2024.

Photo: Radio-United States / Ivanoh Demers

Rise in hate incidents, pro-Palestinian camps in universities, fight against anti-Semitism… special correspondent Deborah Lyons, who is in Poland to take part in the 36th “March of the Living” at the Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz- Birkenau, answers our questions on the occasion of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

You were appointed to your position last October, just days after Hamas’s attack on Israel. How much does anti-Semitism in Canada worry you and how does it compare to other countries, such as those in Europe or the United States?

Anti-Semitism existed in Canada before (October 7), but on a much smaller scale. This has always been a concern. We started to see a rise in anti-Semitism over the last three years, but since October 7, it has reached a level that has taken everyone by surprise.

Anti-Semitism is no longer just a concern. It has become a real crisis on our hands.

A quote from Deborah Lyons, Canada’s special envoy for preserving the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism

The rise of anti-Semitism is noticeable elsewhere in the world, like in Europe, certainly, and in the United States as well, but our main concern, of course, is what is happening in Canada.

A report from B’nai Brith, which has just been published, shows that anti-Semitic incidents have doubled (in one year). There are also reports from police departments in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg that show a rise in hate crimes and incidents, more than 60% of which are anti-Semitic in nature.

Deborah Lyons at a press conference.

Deborah Lyons is Canada’s special envoy for preserving the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism. (Archive photo)

Photo: Associated Press / Valentin Flauraud

There are several definitions of anti-Semitism. In 2019, Canada adopted that established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IAMH), which observers say conflates criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. Do you support this definition yourself, when there are other less controversial definitions such as that of the Jerusalem Declaration or that of the Nexus group?

The definition ofAIMH was developed over a period of more than 10 years by a group of researchers and experts, as well as government officials. It was approved by all parties within the Canadian Parliament and was adopted by several municipalities and provinces in the country (but not Quebec, Editor’s note).

The definition of anti-Semitism developed by theAIMH mentions criticism of Israel, but that doesn’t mean people can’t criticize Israel. No way. We need to (examine) the extent of the criticism over a given period, whether it is disproportionate to the criticism leveled at other countries.

Anti-Israeli criticism is part of what is considered modern-day anti-Semitism.

A quote from Deborah Lyons, Canadian Special Envoy

The definition ofAIMH therefore clarifies how anti-Semitism has evolved over time. The definitions put forward by the Jerusalem Declaration and by the Nexus group are good definitions, (…) but they have a much more limited scope. These are independent initiatives (…) in comparison with (theAIMH) which developed recommendations after consultations in 35 countries.

Is it possible to fight anti-Semitism without restricting the freedom to express oneself about Israel, knowing that there are many Jews who harshly criticize Israeli policies in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank?

Absolutely. Everyone recognizes the importance of freedom of expression and the right to protest and criticize. There is no debate on this subject in Canada. But here we are talking about the magnitude (of the criticism). If, over time, your only goal is to criticize Israel, this may appear to be an anti-Semitic approach.

People can be critical, but the definition of AIMH(…) which is non-binding, aims to create a much better understanding of the different forms that modern anti-Semitism takes and this includes anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Now what we’re going to try to do is work harder to explain all of this to Canadians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also committed in January 2021 to producing a guide explaining the definition itself in more detail.

Hasidic Jewish men hold up pro-Palestinian signs in front of the Canadian parliament.

Jewish demonstrators protesting against the Israeli war in the Gaza Strip in front of the Canadian parliament.

Photo: Radio-United States / Nick Persaud

The definition of anti-Semitism, according to the AIMH:

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IAMH) defines anti-Semitism as a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed in the form of hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed at Jewish or non-Jewish individuals or their property, Jewish community institutions, and religious facilities.

Here are some examples of anti-Semitism provided by theAIMH relating to the State of Israel:

  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel or to the so-called priorities of Jews around the world than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example by asserting that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
  • Applying double standards by demanding behavior from the State of Israel that is neither expected nor required of any other democratic nation.
  • Using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims that Jews killed Jesus or engaged in ritual murder) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Compare contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Hold Jews collectively accountable for the actions of the State of Israel.
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The pro-Palestinian movement on university campuses is gaining momentum in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Students are calling on institutions to cut ties with companies associated with Israel, including weapons manufacturers. What do you think of this movement?

My primary concern on college campuses across the country is the safety of Jewish students, which we know is at great risk.

I am accompanied in this March of the Living (at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, Poland) of a wonderful group of young Canadian university students who came here directly from the campuses.

Can you imagine leaving your campus where you don’t feel safe and where you’ve experienced a huge rise in anti-Semitism without really getting the expected response from university leadership?

I think across the country there are Jewish students on campus who don’t feel safe and who even wonder what will happen when they return to class in September. There is a hostile environment on campus and we need to address it.

A quote from Deborah Lyons, Canadian Special Envoy

I have had meetings with university presidents on this subject, but there is still much to be done. They need to clarify their policies and code of conduct.

We will work very closely with the Ministers of Higher Education who are directly responsible for universities. I hope that during the summer holidays, university management will have time to reflect on what has happened over the past few months.

Now, regarding (student demands) on the economic ties of universities, it is up to university administrations to take care of it. I’m not going to comment on that.

Tents on campus.

Tents were set up on April 27 on the McGill University campus to protest Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Photo: Radio-United States / Ivanoh Demers

In its latest budget, the federal government dedicated millions to combat hate and protect the safety of vulnerable communities. Do you think he needs to do more?

Anti-Semitism manifests itself in daily life at the local level. Therefore, what we need is a coordinated effort from all officials in Canada, including mayors, city councilors and law enforcement.

We certainly need greater commitment from provincial governments, which are directly responsible for universities. And I’m very happy to say that all of Canada’s education ministers have stepped up and committed to making Holocaust education mandatory (in schools), which is a huge step forward. I congratulate them for that.

The federal budget represents a major step forward in the fight against anti-Semitism. The federal government has also committed to providing additional funding to obtain better data on hate crimes. He also pledged support for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

But the fight against anti-Semitism must be an effort on the part of all of Canadian society, including business leaders, because it also exists in work environments. (…) So we still have work to do on all levels.

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