Westmount City Council unanimously adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism, based on that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), at its Feb. 3 regular sitting.
The affluent Montreal suburb of 21,000 becomes the second municipality in Canada to adopt the IHRA definition, following Toronto-area Vaughan, which did so on Jan. 28.
That’s the same day Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante proposed referring the matter to a standing city committee after opposition leader Lionel Perez tabled a motion for adoption of the definition.
He then withdrew the motion rather than leave it to a municipal body he thinks is “ill-equipped” to undertake such a study.
The issue of anti-Semitism was “top of mind following the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,” Westmount Mayor Christina Smith told The CJN. “We just felt it was an opportunity to mark a milestone and also an opportunity to call out anti-Semitism and racism.”
The motion was introduced by Mary Gallery, one of Westmount’s eight councillors, and seconded by Smith.
It states that the City of Westmount is “dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and discrimination in all its forms.”
The decision was applauded by Federation CJA and its advocacy agency, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
“Westmount’s adoption of the IHRA definition is an important step in the struggle against anti-Semitism and sets an important precedent for other municipalities on the Island of Montreal,” said federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz and Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of CIJA-Quebec, in a joint statement.
“We applaud [Smith and Gallery] for showing leadership and demonstrating the need for action in combating contemporary anti-Semitism.”
The federation and CIJA were sharply critical of Plante for shelving Perez’s motion, rather than allowing the council to vote on it.
Smith said she expects Westmount citizens to “wholeheartedly” support the council’s decision.
Critics of the IHRA definition, which is not legally binding, charge that it could be used to silence criticism of Israel and advocacy on behalf of Palestinians. Among them is Independent Jewish Voices Canada, which mounted a campaign to dissuade Montreal from passing Perez’s motion, including a letter-writing campaign to councillors.
The pro-BDS group continues to press the Montreal council not to backtrack on its stance, while CIJA is conducting a letter-writing campaign of its own urging Plante to change her mind.
Smith said the references to criticism of Israel in the IHRA definition were not discussed, and her council’s focus is on denouncing anti-Semitism and the motion is “more simple.”
The motion only reproduces the definition’s fundamental tenet: “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.”
She said a draft of the motion was shown beforehand to the rabbis at the two synagogues in Westmount, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.
Drawn up in 2016 by the IHRA’s then 31 member countries, including Canada, the definition was adopted by the Canadian government last June. Its description of contemporary anti-Semitism is “the world’s most widely accepted definition,” says CIJA.
The Westmount motion’s preamble notes that the definition has been formally adopted now by 23 countries, “as well as other levels of government and organizations around the world.”
Plante said at the Jan. 28 council meeting that she does not reject the definition’s purpose, but stressed that because this is such a “complex” issue in which “every word and every comma counts,” it deserves examination in committee, which might result in a definition tailored to Montreal.