Podcast Ep 66: How anti-Semitism smears impact Palestine activists

On episode 66, we speak with sociologist and activist Sheryl Nestel about the impact that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Anti-Semitism (IHRA) has had on Canadian activists, academics and students.

Promoted by Israel and its lobby, the IHRA definition conflates criticism of Israel, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other. It has become the Israel lobby’s key weapon in North America and Europe to enforce censorship about Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.

Nestel co-authored a new report, “Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada,” for the group Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

The report documents the widespread use of the IHRA by lawmakers and Israel lobby groups to silence speech on campuses and repress Palestine solidarity activism around the country.

“What we started out to look at was how people are experiencing not [just] the IHRA being implemented, but the threat of it being implemented,” Nestel explains.

She says that merely the threat of the IHRA, particularly in academia, is resulting in self-censorship across Canada.

Professors, she says, told Nestel that they are cautious about teaching Palestine in their curricula over fears that they could be accused of anti-Jewish bigotry and their careers could be harmed.

“We wanted to know,” she adds, “are students not pursuing activism because they’re afraid of the IHRA and afraid of being censured or accused of anti-Semitism?”

From the interviews and data the report’s authors collected, Nestel says that “the attacks and the suppression and the harassment that is going on is part of a concerted project and effort” by well-financed Israel lobby groups.

“It’s always very dangerous to say this, but it’s funded – we know that it’s funded, we actually surveyed all the different organizations that were named by our respondents as being behind attacks that they suffered. And we know that there is an organized mechanism behind that,” she says.”

Nestel notes that working in coalitions against the IHRA has been successful, and points to a recent example of activists and scholars organizing with the Canadian Association of University Teachers to defeat the implementation of the definition in 2021.

“The success in academia is unprecedented,” she says. “Nowhere else has this happened. And I think it’s because it’s so clear to academics that this is a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

Articles we discussed

Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. Human rights defenders in Canada have released a new report on the impact that suppression of speech regarding Palestine and Palestinian rights is having on activists, students, faculty and organizations, who continue to face sweeping reprisals, intimidation and harassment campaigns. As our next guest writes, “There is a connection to be made here between these attacks and efforts by pro-Israel advocacy groups to market the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA), a document that has come under vigorous attack by defenders of academic freedom and Palestinian human rights.”

We’re delighted to have Sheryl Nestel with us on the podcast today, she’s a retired sociologist and a full time activist, she is also one of the co-authors of the report entitled “Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada.” The report is being released by Independent Jewish Voices Canada. Sheryl, thanks so much for being with us today on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Sheryl Nestel: Thanks for having me, Nora. This is exciting.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh, good. Yes, we’re excited to have you. We’ve reported for years on the escalating tactics of repression by Israel lobby groups who have been using the IHRA definition to silence and censor speech critical of Israel. Let’s talk first about what the IHRA definition is, to remind our listeners and viewers, and what compelled you and your co-author Rowan Gaudet to compile this detailed analysis of the impact that the IHRA has had already on Canada specifically?

Sheryl Nestel: Well, the IHRA has a very long and very sketchy history. For those who really want to dig deep, I highly recommend Antony Lerman’s new book, Whatever Happened to Anti-Semitism: Redefinition and the Myth of the ‘Collective Jew’, which will give you every detail you ever wanted to know about the IHRA and its use and misuse. So just to give a very brief summary, the definition of anti-Semitism that is now known as the IHRA was developed in the early 2000s. It probably was kicked off because of the Durban anti-racism conference and allegations of anti-Semitism there. It’s a very benign definition itself of just a few sentences. The problem arises or arose when 11 examples of anti-Semitism were added to the definition. There’s even a question as to whether there was an official adoption of the of the examples. But nonetheless, seven out of the 11 examples involve criticism of Israel. So therefore, the push to adopt this definition, which has been very vigorous universally around the world, in institutions, by states by, you know, civil organizations, has been extremely aggressive.

And the implication of the implementation of the examples as anti-Semitism has really grave consequences we feel for freedom of speech, for freedom of expression, for criticism of Israel. So the odd thing about it – the place it’s been, the two places where it’s been implemented with the greatest deleterious effects have been Germany and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom actually mandated that every university in the country needed to pass the IHRA or have their funding rescinded. So they haven’t actually made good on that threat completely, but the IHRA continues to be used to persecute Palestinian pro-Palestine activists on campus, for example, and another places and there have been examples of firings, et cetera, David Miller, who is a British academic who was just summarily fired from his job.

And there are many, many, many examples in the UK, one of the things we do in the report is to try and give people who aren’t familiar with what’s going on an overview of how suppression is being experienced, mostly in Europe and in North America. So you know, the – the IHRA, while it purports to allow criticism of Israel in actual practice, it doesn’t do that. In actual practice, it does use criticism of Israel, as you know, the, the way certain kinds of sentiments and expressions are evaluated as to whether or not they’re anti-Semitism.

So it’s a very, the threat of the IHRA is sort of what we started out to, to document in our report. That was the original impetus for it because Independent Jewish voices Canada has one of the most successful campaigns in the world against the IHRA, we managed to get the Canadian university – Canadian Association of University Teachers to pass a unanimous resolution not for, you know, to oppose the adoption on university campuses. 40 faculty associations in Canada have – have signed a pledge not to adopt the IHRA. And we’ve defeated it in several places in Canada, including very recently at a school board. So it – what we started out to, to look at was how are people experiencing not the IHRA being implemented, but the threat of it being implemented. Are people changing, particularly in academia, where I think it has some very far-reaching, it can have some very far-reaching effects? So we really concentrated on academia. So we wanted to know is, are students not pursuing activism because they’re afraid of the IHRA and afraid of being censured or accused of anti-Semitism? What are faculty doing? What is the content of their class syllabus? How is that responding to the threats of the IHRA? We eventually expanded it to include all kinds of harassment, suppression, silencing of speech, which I think was the right thing to do. But the IHRA still figures really prominently in the work that we did, in terms of it being the front of mind for a lot of people. It’s like, I don’t want to express pro-Palestinian sentiment or teach pro-Palestinian curricular material. Because I’m going to be accused of anti-Semitism, which could impact my career, which could make my life very difficult as we saw from the testimonies, that is, in fact, what has happened.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I want to get back to that in a moment, just to talk about the impact of just the threat of the imposition of the IHRA. But let’s talk a little bit about how the IHRA has been promoted by Israel lobby groups. The proponents of the IHRA definition both in Canada and here in the US, keep trying to make it about protecting Jewish students on campuses or making a so-called safe space for Israeli or Zionist identity as though Zionism, which is a political ideology was a personal identity with some sort of protected class status. And they say that the IHRA is not meant to threaten freedom of speech or freedom of expression, but it does just that. Can you talk about what basic rights are already being threatened and how further adoption of the definition would impact Palestine rights activism and advocacy?

Sheryl Nestel: So let me start with this question of Jewish student safety on campus because it’s something that I think about a lot. What we’ve seen, like in the very recent, in very recent history, are reports that are coming out, supposed research reports about Jewish students feeling threatened on campus or experiencing anti-Semitism. I think if you look at almost every single one of them with a few exceptions, they are methodologically basically indefensible in terms of who they chose to interview, how they defined anti-Semitism. And I think the biggest – and to me, I’m really hoping our report is a – is kind of a counterpoint to this. And I think one of the important things to remember always, if you’re reading these reports of Jewish lack of safety on campus, is that these are one-off incidents for the most part, they’re often – and I don’t want to defend them in any way, shape, or form, and I’ve certainly heard students talk about attacks that they’ve undergone that are anti-Semitic, and there’s no excuse for that. Most of them are what you might call microaggressions, unless you start talking about pro-Palestine activism.

So if you’re, if a student says, when I see a Palestinian flag, this offends me, it scares me, it makes me feel unsafe, that’s a lot different from having, you know, your kippa, you know, snatched off your head as you’re walking on campus. It’s a political expression. If you’re fearful of it, I think you have to ask yourself why you’re fearful of it. But to make a more important point, what we see in the report, and from the interviews and from the data that we collected is that the attacks and the suppression and the harassment that is going on is part of a concerted project and effort. It’s – I know, I know, it’s always very dangerous to say this, but it’s funded, it’s we know that it’s funded, we actually survey all the different organizations that were named by our respondents as being behind attacks that they suffered. And we know that there is an organized mechanism behind that.

There is no such thing on the other side, there is no such thing on the pro-Palestinian side, as a even though they sometimes claim there is, as a concerted, funded, well-coordinated campaign, there is no such thing. And I think many of the real anti-Semitic incidents are sort of one off, you know, again, indefensible, but they are individual. And if you want to define Palestine activism as as anti-Semitic, then you’re going to be able to document a whole bunch of things that I would disagree with they’re being categorized as anti-Semitic.

And so in terms of the threat of, of what the IHRA is doing, I kind of talked about it a bit before, but again, people like – one of the things that’s happening, one of my, one of the people I interviewed, is an expert in Islamophobia. And she has been investigated by the funding, the federal funding agency for academic work, initiated by B’nai Brith, the, you know, inundated with Freedom of Information Act requests for her emails and everything. And it is, so that’s the kind of thing that people are really fearing, that they will be investigated for the work that they do. There’s so many things in the report that are disturbing. I mean, one of the things is that several of the academics we interviewed talked about how their work on Palestine that they had submitted to academic journals got lost, was – they were told it would be published and when the journal or the book came out, it was not there.

They were given feedback about the work that was clearly coming from a Zionist perspective and therefore would render the work, you know, unpublishable in that journal. People talked about – academics, professors talked about giving up writing about Palestine because it was just too dangerous and too threatening to their career path. So there’s a lot of people having to silence themselves.

Several of them talked about being monitored and surveilled by Jewish students who belong to campus pro-Israel organizations, and then having what the professor said in class reported to the dean or to the university president and then being called into the office to be you know, not necessarily chastised, but to discuss this. So people are very, very – and you know, one of the people interviewed said, this takes up so much time and energy that I don’t have time to do the stuff I’m really supposed to do, like, you know, meet with my students, discuss their work.

So these are all you know, they’re, they’re, you know, they’re a waste of time for a lot of, in a lot of senses. But it’s also happening, the surveillance is happening very frequently, and people have told us about it. So you walk into the classroom as a professor, and you have to – not that you don’t do this anyway, watch every single word that you say when it comes to Palestine, Israel and Jews. So where does that leave you, I mean, people have been told, people told us that, you know, certain, you know, scholarly work like Patrick Wolf’s work on settler-colonialism, that they don’t dare put it on the syllabus, because it will be called out even though this is – this stuff is considered canonical, you know, in the field in which it is situated.

So, to me, this is very scary from the knowledge production perspective, that there is a – I mean, you know, if this succeeds, it’s a very scary prospect, it means that, you know, academic work on Palestine, with some exceptions, is going to be minimized, or, you know, there’ll be much less of it done, then might be done otherwise. This is – we found that there are two groups that are especially affected by this. One is pre-tenure and people on the job, pre-tenure people, people in the job market, who are afraid to even mention the word Palestine, anything they do in their CV, or anything, for fear of being seen, as you know, a threat.

And the other, of course, is racialized, and Muslim and Arab, and particularly Palestinian scholars. So, you know, the quotes from our Palestinian scholars that we interviewed are the most heart-wrenching of all the quotes in the report, because they’re, they felt that their entire identities are erased, they’re unable to talk about themselves as human beings, right, because they would have to reveal, you know, their histories and their traumas. And, you know, the fact that they are being silenced is extremely painful, extremely painful. So I think this is borne out by – this is the only report of its kind, there’s only one other thing that we found that was even similar, which was a study done of Middle Eastern and North African scholars to ask about their work on the Middle East and how that has affected them. The – it was really uncanny because I found it late in the writing of the report, but found that so many of the responses that Laura Deeb and Jessica Winograd got, were almost identical to what we got, even though they were not interviewing activists. They were only interviewing, you know, run of the mill scholars in that area. So you can imagine that when you’re interviewing activists, you have a lot more of these awful stories. Yeah, I’ll leave it there.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, let’s talk about some of the activists that you interviewed. And the differences between, you know, students and faculty in academia dealing, you know, especially the non-tenured ones dealing with having to self-censor. And then the more external facing, you know, activists organizing for Palestinian rights, especially those of Palestinian or Arab descent in the streets of Toronto, or Montreal or Vancouver, how, what are the differences that you found and, and how has just even the threat, besides the implementation of the IHRA affected activism in Canada?

Sheryl Nestel: Well, I’ll start with the students versus faculty. What we found is that the threats against students were much more violent than they were against faculty. So there were threats – the students who we interviewed reported threats of sexual violence, sexual slurs, homophobic utterances, which I found very disturbing, like, where does that even fit into this? I think it fits into the kind of the homophobic view of the Islamic world that, you know, it’s not, it’s – it’s anti-liberal, etc. So if you were identified as a Muslim or a Palestinian or an Arab, you’re seeking to belong to a world that is not in sync, you know, with modern values, etc.

One of the things that students experienced more than faculty, although the faculty experienced it as well, was being disciplined by administration and being threatened by administration, and being subjected to administrative surveillance and, and shutting down, for example, of events. So one of the common things we find is that if a group like, you know, SPHR, organized an online campus activity, you know, days before the activity is supposed to go on, they’re told they have to come up with $3,000 for security. And, of course, you know, these groups have no money. So there’s no way of doing this at all. So you either have to take the event off campus, which is, you know, serious, and difficult. But also disciplinary measures by university administrators, and, you know, being hauled into the dean’s office and being lectured about, you know, what a mess you’re making of your life, et cetera, et cetera. So we have several of those.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: We have a lot of that in the US, too. It’s a common story, absolutely.

Sheryl Nestel: You know, these things are so parallel, like, you know, the events and incidents that Palestine legal documents and the European Legal Support Center documents, you know, they’re all very similar to what we’ve documented. And of course, in the report, there are two separate parts, there’s the cataloging of the events. So we’ve cataloged both Europe as much as we could, and, and Canada, and we see a growing number of events as the years – we started out in 2009, by the time you get to, you know, 2022, you’ve got a much longer list going on. So you’ve got one of the tactics that’s used by the pro-Israel folks is, and particularly B’nai Brith, is litigation. So I know that in the States this is a big deal.

And you know, legal attacks are very common, we started to see them here. Luckily, they’ve lost almost every single legal challenge. So that’s great. But it doesn’t stop them from engaging people, you know, having – people having to organize defense and money, etc, etc. in order not to be, you know, on the wrong side of the legal decision. So you have that, but you have, you know, a lot of it is just discursive, and putting out slurs and slander and, and alarming articles, and, you know, calling people terrorists. And so there’s a lot of that, and it’s gotten much, much worse in the last few years. It’s gotten really bad toward Jewish Palestine solidarity activists. So the Jewish community is really, you know, got a bee in their bonnet about Jews who do this kind of work.

And there have been some really, really toxic – the discourse has gotten very toxic around Jews who do this work, which is interesting. So – and we do have Jews in the report, because we’re a Jewish organization, many of the people who we interviewed are Jews, and they did not escape the attacks that others have also experienced. Yeah, so that’s, I’m trying to think what else I mean, we’ve really, so we have the, the cataloging of everything, as much as we could possibly find and put in there. And then we have, you know, the empirical data that we gathered from our respondents. So that’s going to be two different things, what’s happening, you know, to one individual professor in one individual department, it’s not necessarily what Simon Wiesenthal Center or the B’nai Brith are putting on their website or going after. So, you know, if somebody writes on your Palestine solidarity poster on the, on your wall, on your door of your office, a slur of some sort, you know, that’s not going to make the news.

But it’s part of an ongoing, you know, kind of pile-up of harassing activities. So that’s what we’re trying to get at is like, what is people’s experience of this that isn’t necessarily public knowledge? And I think we really, you know, managed to get a treasure trove, if you can call it that, of what’s going on, you know, under the surface, because it’s pretty awful.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. As a sociologist, as someone who has studied this for a long time, and has been in Palestine solidarity activism circles for decades, was there anything that surprised you when you and your co-author compiled this report and looked at the data?

Sheryl Nestel: There were a lot – I was, there are several things that surprised me. I was surprised by the amount of administrative interference. I think one of the things, some of your listeners may know about the Azarova case here at the University of Toronto where Valentina Azarova was, you know, was a legal scholar who did work on Palestine, who was hired to head the Human Rights department at the University of Toronto law school. And there was intervention on the part of a judge who is affiliated with the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, to try and get the law school not to hire her. This is, you know, there was – it turned out there was – the Canadian Association of University Teachers centered the University of Toronto, and a lot of people refused to cooperate with the University of Toronto, it was a very strong measure that is very rarely taken.

In any case, the, you know, that level of interference is very public and very well known. But one of the things that we found was interference with the hiring in other places, where sometimes Jewish students or Jewish faculty got together and said, we can’t have this person who was identified as pro-Palestinian, or as a Palestinian, in our department, because it would be a threat to us as Jews. And then you have, of course, administrators paying attention to this, and acting accordingly. So, you know, while there have been battles in these places, it hasn’t stopped anyone from unashamedly coming out and saying these things and trying to influence the hiring process on a basis that has nothing to do with the scholarship of the people involved. So you have that, which I think is very, very disturbing to me. I think the toxicity of some of the – something I’ve been thinking about for a while, the atmosphere has become extremely toxic around this. And of course, people who are Palestine solidarity activists or pro-Palestine, are subject to all kinds of, of, you know, name calling, etc, terrorist, terrorist supporters.

They just seem – they seem to be unable to have a, you know, measured conversation about this topic without resorting to these characterizations, this kind of name calling. And it’s, you know, there’s something I mean, there’s an atmosphere in general these days of toxic discourse. And it certainly has infiltrated the Israel-Palestine debate here, definitely. Those are some of the things, and some of the threats of violence, I think, are very, very – against students, there were fewer against the faculty. But some of the things that have happened to students are really very, very disturbing. I think all of it is disturbing, to be honest with you. It’s about the whole issue of how do you bring the Palestinian narrative forward, if you are going to be intimidated by the IHRA, or by administrative intervention?

You know, or by, you know, one of the things that has not been settled in terms of the IHRA is what legal teeth it has. And there’s a huge debate about that. So as of now in Canada, nobody has used the IHRA – it’s been passed in several places, including Ontario, the province that I live in, but nobody has used it to do anything. So we’re kind of waiting for that to happen. So we can actually mount a legal challenge and question how it was that the IHRA was brought in, because it was brought in behind our backs. It was – there was supposed to be a vote in the provincial legislature, and the day before the testimonies were to begin, they brought it in, in what’s called an order in council. And this is a tactic that’s happening. We’re seeing it everywhere. It happened in several Canadian provinces. And I think it’s happening in the States as well. You just bring it in. It’s not a democratic process. It gets mandated. And there you go. So we still don’t know. We don’t know what legal validity, if any, it has.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, I mean, the, I think it was in 2019, the Trudeau administration announced that it would formally adopt the IHRA definition, containing it in their so called strategy to combat racism and discrimination. And then Trudeau commissioned Irwin Cotler, who is like this longtime Israel lobbyist and strategist to be like the anti-Semitism czar. I mean, how, how, like, how has, you know, you know, it was implemented in kind of this crazy way. And then, of course, Doug Ford, the premier, you know, like, pushed it, pushed it in, as you said, without any democratic process. But how have people been pushing back against these attempts to codify it into Canadian law, either provincially or locally? And what can people here in the States or in Europe learn from those efforts?

Sheryl Nestel: Well, this is a really good question and an important question. When we first started to work against the IHRA in 2019, I think in January, we started our campaign. We were really out there on our own, Independent Jewish Voices. And we had, even though we tried to recruit, for example, Palestinian, Muslim and Arab allies to help us put forward that this is a danger, because of the kinds of attacks that that pro-Palestinian groups and individuals suffer, I think many of these groups were really afraid to stick their necks out around this, which is completely and totally understandable. In – as we moved along, in trying to build campaigns, we did find allies, and eventually we built coalitions of academics, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim allies and Jews, who, for each of their own reasons, oppose the IHRA.

Like we all, I mean, there are many reasons to oppose the IHRA. But working in coalition was absolutely the key to success. So we’ve had – the success in academia is unprecedented. Nowhere else has this happened. And I think it’s because it’s so clear to academics that this is a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech. And in terms of the of the racialized communities in the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian groups, you know, it’s very, very clear that, that that kind of, I won’t call it legislation, that kind of policy, is going to have a negative impact on their ability to speak out about Palestine, and even, you know, the image of Arabs and Muslims and Palestinians and you know, that in the post-911 era, which is, you know – they have all suffered tremendously, this is just kind of another slap in the face. Because it says that, you know, things that you care about, that you think are important, you know, we’re going to suppress that, because we don’t think it’s, it’s worth listening to, and it impinges on the rights of another group. So it’s, the pushback is difficult, it’s slow.

You have to meticulously build your coalitions and your relationships with allies. But for us, that has been the key because we weren’t able to move forward with this until we had built those coalitions. So that’s, you know, that’s the lesson that we’ve learned here. And, of course, it’s very productive, and it’s satisfying. And, yeah, and there’s Jews, you know, we know how important it is to lend, you know, our credibility to those efforts, to even, to spearhead those efforts. Because, you know, we, we want to – protect is not the right word, we want to deflect these attacks from our allies. And try and point out that these are valid criticisms. So, you know, it isn’t – we’re often targets too. I’ve had, I’ve been harassed, et cetera, et cetera. I just had, I’m waiting any minute now for a case – I received a harassing email about a year ago, from a guy out in British Columbia. And he was foolish enough to leave his information on it. I found out he was a lawyer. I lodged a complaint with the British Columbia Law Society, he was like the, you know, like the, what’s it called the States, the law –

Nora Barrows-Friedman: The Bar association.

Sheryl Nestel: And he got convicted of this, he has to pay a big fine. Yeah, so I mean, that’s not the only thing I’ve done, as well. It was very satisfying, very satisfying to do this. So you know, I mean, you have to push back in a million different ways. And of course, we are under-resourced in terms of this. We’re punching way above our weight in terms of what we’ve managed to accomplish. But every time we it’s like we call it it’s whack-a-mole, every time you turn around, it’s popping up somewhere and you have to immediately, you know, organize to to, we just have this at a school board, a school board was bringing it, and we, we didn’t have a lot of time to get organized about it. But we organized a webinar, there were three Jewish speakers. And I think that had a huge impact. We translated it into Mandarin, because so many of the people in this school board area are speakers of Mandarin. And we won. We won it. I was not expecting it at all. Totally not expected.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Good. Well, may many more victories for justice and freedom of speech follow in that path. Sheryl Nestel, where can people find the report? Is it at Independent Jewish Voices Canada?

Sheryl Nestel: It isn’t yet. It will be next Wednesday, October 12. If you go to our website, again, you will find you’ll be able to download the report – it is 110 pages long with 220 footnotes because when you do this kind of work, you’ve got to get it right.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: You have to be meticulous, yeah.

Sheryl Nestel: You’ve got to be meticulous. So we would love for people to read it, to circulate it, to give us comments. That would be great. And to replicate it, more importantly, to replicate it and there is, there is talk – various organizations have decided to try and replicate it. So we’re hoping that it’ll have an impact.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Wonderful. Sheryl Nestel, you are a longtime activist, retired sociologist and the co-author of this brand new report put out by Independent Jewish Voices Canada. It’s called Unveiling the Chilly Climate, the Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada, and we will put a link to ijvcanada.org up on the podcast blog post that accompanies this episode. Sheryl, thank you so much for all of your work and for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Sheryl Nestel: Thank you, Nora.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).