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Human rights expert Irwin Cotler accused of ‘anti-Palestinian racism’ over speech on anti-Semitism


U of T faculty members accused Cotler of suggesting that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but he says that’s ‘an absolute misrepresentation’

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One of Canada’s most-admired human rights experts has found himself at the centre of controversy at the University of Toronto, accused of “anti-Palestinian racism” by some faculty at a school often criticized as having an anti-Semitism problem.

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Irwin Cotler gave a speech Jan. 26 that was meant to reflect on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The event, organized by the university’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, was meant to discuss contemporary anti-Semitism. Cotler’s speech discussed systemic racism from a human rights perspective with a focus on addressing anti-Semitism through equality.

But his speech prompted complaints from 45 University of Toronto faculty members who claim he “reinforced anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices.” These faculty members have accused Cotler of suggesting that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

Cotler, who is Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, said he specifically said all criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic but rather singling out Israel as the single perpetrator of human rights violations is discriminatory.

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“That is an absolute misrepresentation of what I have said over and over again,” said Cotler, who is renowned for his work as a human rights lawyer and Jewish community leader. He served as the minister of justice and attorney general of Canada under former Prime Minister Paul Martin. He currently serves as the international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and is part of the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

In response to the complaints against Cotler, over 300 University of Toronto faculty members signed an open letter meant to “draw attention to the falsehoods, twisted logic and anti-Semitic rhetoric that are contained in the letter sent by other Faculty members.”

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This letter, published Mar. 7, was written by Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA) and was addressed to the acting dean of the faculty of medicine, Patricia Houston.

David Kaplan, associate professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine and Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, said this incident has come at a time when anti-Semitism on the University of Toronto campus has become a broader issue.

He mentioned a recent issue in which the student union at the university’s Scarborough campus banned kosher foods affiliated with Israel as part of their Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) policy as well as the Graduate Student Union using university funds to support their BDS initiative.

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University President Meric Gertler addressed this issue in a statement last November, saying student organizations may take positions on controversial topics but must abide by university policy that states they “must conduct themselves in an open, accessible and democratic manner.”  The university announced recently that it will be withholding $10,918 funds from the Graduate Student Union.

“We all have to be careful with our words as academic leaders,” said Kaplan. “Otherwise, the university will be indifferent to the wound of anti-Semitism.”

Frank Sommers, lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and DARA board member who issued the letter on behalf of the organization, said they felt it was important to address the “misstatements” made by the 45 faculty members.

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One of these concerns is Cotler’s use of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition has been criticized for conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and being used to silence Palestinian voices.

The 45 faculty members claim the use of this definition undermined the work of the university’s Anti-Semitism Working Group which recommended that the “school should not adopt any of the definitions of anti-Semitism that have recently been proposed.” In Dec. 2021, the university announced it accepts all the recommendations of the Working Group including not adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

Cotler’s use of the IHRA definition “fell exactly within university policy,” claims the DARA letter. They also point out the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted by many countries, including Canada which adopted it on June 25, 2021, as part of its anti-racism strategy.

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Cotler, who played a role in the development of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, said it is a “working definition, based on the principle that to be able to combat anti-Semitism, you have to be able to recognize it, to identify it, and to define it.”

The 45 faculty members also claim that Cotler “repeatedly labeled legitimate criticism of Israel as examples of antisemitism.”

They give examples from the speech, including a list of United Nations (UN) resolutions that criticize Israel for its violations against Palestinians, condemnation of Israel for its actions against Palestinians in the declaration that resulted from the UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, and referring to Israel as an apartheid state.

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“I specifically said that not only is criticism of Israel not anti-Semitic, but also that the IHRA definition itself specifically says that criticism of Israel, like any other state, is not anti-Semitic,” said Cotler.

The DARA letter claims that these accusations trivialized and demeaned “the torment and industrialized murder of Jews in the Holocaust” by saying a Holocaust Remembrance event reinforced anti-Palestinian racism. It also claims they perpetuated “an antisemitic tradition of accusing Jews who defend themselves as erasing the voices and suppressing the lives of others” by portraying Cotler as racist.

Raed Hawa, professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and one of the 45 faculty members, said in a statement that their letter was sent in confidence to Houston to raise serious concerns about anti-Palestinian racism.

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“It is unclear how the letter reached others and is disappointing that those who raised concerns are facing intimidation through baseless and defamatory accusations,” said Hawa. “We wholeheartedly condemn antisemitism and racism of all forms.”

Cotler said he was not copied or included in the message sent to Houston which listed the complaints made against his speech.

“I would have thought as academics, rightfully concerned with speech, they would have copied me on their letter of complaint allowing me the right to respond,” he said.

In a statement, Houston said that discrimination and racism of any kind are not tolerated at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Physicians must speak out passionately about injustice, she said, however, this must be done with respect.

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“As befits our commitment to academic freedom, we do not – and will not – censor or set preconditions upon what invited speakers may or may not say,” said Houston.

In response to the issues of racism, the faculty of medicine has appointed two senior advisors on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to help facilitate respectful dialogue between faculty, staff, and students. It has also appointed a post-doctoral fellow whose research addresses anti-Semitism in health education and practice and is in the process of recruiting a post-doctoral fellow whose work will focus on Islamophobia.

Kaplan said he signed the DARA letter because he hopes to see the university support constructive conversations on these sorts of topics.

“I’d rather have open dialogue and not write letters back and forth,” he said. “I hope for a return to our pluralistic roots. To be able to have a place where all students, faculty, and employees feel they are safe, that they can freely express their ideas, and to be able to have a dialogue.”

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