Policy Brief: IHRA and Defining Antisemitism

In June 2019, the Government of Canada announced it has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism as part of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy.

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|October 27, 2020

Update: In June 2019, the Government of Canada announced it has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism as part of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy.


The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has a working definition of antisemitism that includes clear parameters for what does – and does not – constitute antisemitism. Canada has adopted the IHRA definition for the purposes of our foreign policy. Relevant authorities at all three levels of government should adopt or refer to the IHRA definition for the purposes of countering antisemitism in Canadian society.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) was established in 1998 as a forum to bring together governments and experts to “strengthen, advance, and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance”. Today, its membership is composed of 32 countries (25 of which are EU member states), including representation from the Government of Canada. Ambassador Matthew Levin serves as Canada’s Head of Delegation to IHRA.

IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism

Hate and discrimination cannot be effectively countered without clear definitions. The Jewish community’s experience in defining antisemitism through an international, consensus-based process in consultation with scholars is a useful guide for combatting other forms of hatred.

IHRA’s educational activities include the development of a working definition of antisemitism and illustrative examples to guide its application. The definition and illustrative examples, which were formally adopted as a single text by IHRA’s plenary in Budapest on May 26, 2016, may be found here.

IHRA’s definition and illustrative examples address a range of contemporary activities and rhetoric that may be considered antisemitic. This includes calls for violence against Jews, Holocaust denial, rhetoric that dehumanizes or demonizes Jews, assigning collective blame to the Jewish people for the actions of individual Jews, and classical antisemitic stereotypes of global Jewish conspiracies and Jewish control of media, government and the economy.

The definition and illustrative examples also note that, while criticism of Israel similar to that directed against other countries should not be considered antisemitic, some rhetoric toward Israel could be considered forms of antisemitism. This includes denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination by claiming Israel’s existence is a racist endeavour, drawing comparisons between Israelis and Nazis, and demanding that Israel uphold standards expected of no other democratic nation.

Five Key Facts About the IHRA Definition

  • IHRA’s Definition is Rooted in International Consensus

    IHRA is not the first forum to affirm the importance of defining antisemitism. In 2005, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) published a working definition of antisemitism. In 2010, the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA), a cross-partisan body of individual parliamentarians, developed the Ottawa Protocol which referenced a similar definition.

    The IHRA definition builds on these initiatives. Having been adopted by various governments around the world, the IHRA definition now serves as the international standard for defining antisemitism. Shortly after its publication, the Government of Canada endorsed the definition as a pillar of its efforts to promote freedom of religion abroad. As noted on the website of Global Affairs Canada: “Canada strongly supports the working definition on antisemitism and illustrative examples.”

    The IHRA definition has been formally adopted by the United Kingdom, Scotland, the City of London, Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Moldova, Macedonia, and Lithuania. In 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on member states and institutions to adopt or apply the IHRA definition.

  • The IHRA Definition is Necessary to Address the Changing Nature of Antisemitism

    The IHRA definition reflects a consensus among scholars that a new type of antisemitism has emerged post-Holocaust, in the form of hatred of Jews presented under the guise of hostility toward Israel and/or Zionism. (For clarity, the Oxford Dictionary defines Zionism as “a movement for [originally] the re-establishment and [now] the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.”)

    Historically, antisemitism has consistently adapted itself to social, political, and intellectual trends and conditions. For example, among some Christians in the Middle Ages, it took the form of charges of Jewish deicide. As nationalism grew in 19th Century Europe, it evolved into claims that Jews were a separate nation that threatened the nation-states in which they lived. As the false science of eugenics gained traction in the early 20th Century, Jews were portrayed as racially inferior.

    Today, scholars widely acknowledge a new form of antisemitism in the form of hatred against Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. Where Jews were once vilified as individuals and a collective, today the Jewish state is vilified by some – often using terminology and conspiracy theories that mirror historic antisemitism. That anti-Zionist ideology and accusations are often presented in the language of human rights does not exempt them from scrutiny. As noted above, antisemitism has always used the highest values of the era as cover for legitimacy.

    To put it in simpler terms, as Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked when responding to a critic of Zionism: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking antisemitism.” (Source: Seymour Martin Lipset, Encounter Magazine, December 1969).

  • The IHRA Definition is a Practical Tool

    The IHRA definition is a pragmatic and flexible “working” definition, rather than a rigid formula. For example, the preamble to the list of illustrative examples states: “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to…”.

    As noted in the text itself, antisemitism may be criminal depending on the circumstances, but the definition captures both criminal and non-criminal forms of antisemitism. For Canadian domestic purposes, it should be viewed as a practical tool for authorities to use in fulfilling their mandates as they pertain to antisemitism.

  • The IHRA Definition Can Help Counter Antisemitism in Various Ways

    In keeping with Global Affairs Canada’s endorsement of the text, the IHRA working definition and illustrative examples would be an effective tool to counter antisemitism within Canada.

    The Department of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism oversees Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy, which includes the IHRA definition. Institutions within the mandate of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism should likewise make use of the definition as a practical tool in their work, such as the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

    The Canadian Human Rights Commission and provincial human rights commissions should make use of the IHRA definition when investigating cases involved antisemitism.

    The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) should use the IHRA definition when investigating hate crimes targeting the Jewish community. The Department of Justice should make use of the IHRA definition as part of a national training program for relevant officials on Canada’s hate speech laws.

    And relevant federal government bodies, in concert with social media platforms and internet service providers, should launch a national strategy to combat online hate. The IHRA definition should be a core component of this effort.

    Officials at other levels of government should also consider how the IHRA definition could be valuable in fulfilling their respective mandates. At the provincial level, the IHRA definition could be beneficial in developing anti-racism initiatives and education ministry equity policies, as well as ensuring consistency on the part of provincial attorneys general in addressing hate crime. Provincial and local police agencies would also benefit from the IHRA definition when investigating hate crimes targeting the Jewish community.

    At the municipal level, this could include city policies related to the rental of municipal facilities by external organizations.

  • The IHRA Definition Balances Free Speech and Protection from Hate

    The IHRA definition offers parameters and real-world examples to distinguish antisemitic rhetoric from legitimate political discourse. The very guidelines that help illuminate what may be considered antisemitic also clarify what cannot be viewed as antisemitic. In so doing, IHRA has made a substantial contribution not only to the battle against hate, but also to the cause of upholding free speech. The same parameters that will guide authorities in holding accountable those who peddle antisemitism will also help exonerate those who engage in legitimate discourse from false or erroneous accusations.

    As the definition notes, criticism of Israel on par with that directed against other countries cannot be viewed as antisemitic. Just as Canadians criticize the policies and decisions of our elected leaders, Israelis and others freely criticize the democratically elected government of Israel. The effort to counter hatred is only undermined when legitimate political discourse is curtailed.


This complex challenge is not an abstract issue, but rather one that directly affects Canadian society. Law enforcement, human rights authorities, and civil society experts attest to the disturbing trend of rising antisemitism in many parts of the world. While Canada is an exceptionally safe country in which to be Jewish or a member of another minority group, Canadian society is not immune from this dangerous phenomenon.

Statistics Canada data consistently confirms that the Jewish community is the most frequently targeted minority when it comes to hate crime. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported 360 hate crimes targeting the Jewish community – an average of once every 24 hours.

These trends reflect the persistence of antisemitism at the margins of Canadian society. Public opinion research undertaken by CIJA, as well as similar research by other organizations, consistently shows that ten to thirty percent of Canadians adhere to antisemitic attitudes and opinions.

In addition to “classical” antisemitism, hatred toward Israel has resulted in the targeting of Jewish Canadians for vilification and criminal acts of hate. For example, in 2004, the United Talmud Torah School in Montreal was firebombed by an assailant in “retaliation” for the death of a Hamas leader in Gaza. In the years since, there have been multiple documented calls for violence and killing of Jews at anti-Israel protests in Canada. On university campuses, antisemitic incidents (including vandalism) have taken place in the context of campaigns calling for boycotts of Israelis.

More must be done by government and civil society alike to counter antisemitism and other forms of hate. The IHRA definition offers a clear, consensus-based, and practical tool to distinguish Jew hatred from legitimate discourse – and is therefore an essential part of the solution.

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The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is the advocacy agent of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, representing Jewish Federations across Canada.