Newly-appointed Canadian Human Rights Commission Chief has no reason to apologize

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) joins with the Yukon Human Rights Commission in rejecting calls for the appointment of Birju Dattani as the new head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to be rescinded.

Dattani was appointed by Attorney General Arif Virani on June 14, 2024, becoming the first person of colour and the first Muslim to be selected for this position. He has since come under fire by the National Post and pro-Israel lobby groups, which have pointed to tweets he made and panels he spoke on more than a decade ago as a student to insist he is biased, antisemitic and thus unsuitable for the position. 

Specific accusations made against him include that he shared the stage at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics with Ben White, a respected journalist who has authored four books in the Middle East and whose articles on Israel and Palestine have appeared in The Guardian and The Independent.  He has also been accused of supporting the non-violent Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, even though all he did was speak about the movement at a campus event more than a decade ago. 

To be clear there is nothing wrong or antisemitic about supporting BDS, and suggesting otherwise smacks of Anti-Palestinian Racism (“defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander such as being inherently antisemitic”).

Most recently, he has come under criticism for arguing in an academic research paper that terrorism can be based on rational calculations, and not solely motivated by irrational fundamentalist aims. This is, of course, a truism and does not indicate he supports it, but it has been put forward as yet another reason for him to be canned. 

The federal government has nevertheless announced that it is opening an independent investigation into the matter and pro-Israel lobby groups the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada and the Friends of the Simon Weisenthal Centre are calling for his appointment to be rescinded. This is despite the fact that Dattani has “apologized to members of the Jewish community for pain caused by tweets he posted”. 

CIJA has even had the chutzpah to insist that Dattani accept the controversial and widely-discredited International Holocaust Remembrance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as a condition for keeping his post. It is notable that the IHRA definition has been summarily rejected by the world’s most prominent human rights organizations, including in Israel and by former UN Special Rapporteur on racism E. Tendayi Achiume who has denounced “the controversial status, divisive effects and negative human rights impacts” of IHRA. 

Dattani has asserted that nothing he has said or done runs contrary to IHRA. While this may be true, it should not matter, since much of what contravenes IHRA is simply political criticism of Israel. If the IHRA definition were truly “non-binding”, as its promoters suggest, support for it should not be a requirement, especially by someone charged with impartially adjudicating matters concerning all communities in Canada. The only condition for this post, beyond satisfactory credentials, should be a clear dedication to genuine anti-racism (including anti-antisemitism) and human rights for all, which Dattani clearly satisfies.

So enough with the bad faith accusations and litmus tests. A cursory review of the facts makes it clear that Dattani had no reason to apologize and that calls to drop him are, like IHRA, thinly-veiled politically-motivated efforts to shield Israel–a state currently carrying out a genocide in Gaza–from political action and criticism. 

As Jewish-Canadians, we look forward to Dattani taking up his post later this summer and call on Minister Virani to proceed as planned.