U of T slammed over ‘Jewish racism’ thesis

The University of Toronto is being criticized by Jewish groups, a prominent historian and Holocaust survivors for accepting a master’s thesis that calls two Holocaust education programs “racist.”

The thesis, titled “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education,” was written by Jenny Peto, a Jewish activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. It denounces the March of Remembrance and Hope, for which young adults of diverse backgrounds travel with Holocaust survivors to sites of Nazi atrocities in Poland, and March of the Living Canada, which takes young Jews with survivors to Poland and Israel.

Peto argues that the two programs cause Jews to falsely believe they are innocent victims. In reality, she writes, they are privileged white people who “cannot see their own racism.” The “construction of a victimized Jewish identity,” she argues, is intentional: It produces “effects that are extremely beneficial to the organized Jewish community” and to “apartheid” Israel.

Peto contends that “Zionist politics” are hidden behind the “liberal-sounding goals” of the March of Remembrance and Hope. She writes that there are “questions about the implications of white Jews taking it upon themselves to educate people of colour about genocide, racism and intolerance.”

The program, however, is not run by a Jewish group. Its parent organization is the Canadian Centre for Diversity, which teaches young people to fight discrimination.

“She makes unwarranted claims and false statements about our philosophy, our goals and objectives and our methodology. . .We were shocked and offended to read the thesis,” said Carla Wittes, the centre’s programs director. “We are a non-faith-based organization concerned with educating people about the dangers of discrimination, and the Holocaust is obviously a prime example.”

The Canadian Jewish Congress, the March of the Living, and Irving Abella, Jewish history professor at York University, said the thesis should have been rejected. “It’s not scholarship, it’s ideology,” said Abella, a former CJC president. “It’s totally ahistorical; I found it full of untruths and distortions and held together by fatuous and very flabby analysis. It borders on anti-Semitism. . .I’m appalled that it would be acceptable to a major university.”

Peto received a degree in June from the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). OISE dean Julia O’Sullivan and SESE chair Rinaldo Walcott did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

University of Toronto provost Cheryl Misak said “freedom of inquiry lies at the very heart of our institution” and that “the best way for controversy to unfold is for members of our community to engage with the perspectives and arguments they dispute.”

Peto, who was part of a group that occupied Toronto’s Israeli consulate in 2009, attributed the controversy to a smear effort by “right-wing, pro-Israel groups and individuals.”

“This is not the first time I have been dragged through the mud by pro-Israel groups and I am sure it will not be that last,” she said.

Asked if she now wanted to alter the thesis, Peto said: “I wish I could write an epilogue to talk about this controversy and show how perfectly it fits into my analysis of the abuse of anti-Semitism to slander vocal critics of Israel.” She was echoed by her supervisor, professor Sheryl Nestel, who said campus Israel critics face a “witch-hunting climate.”

The March of the Living does aim to strengthen young Jews’ ties with Israel, said national director Eli Rubenstein, but also to teach them to oppose all bigotry. He called the thesis “extreme” and said, “The university and the supervisor have a responsibility to ask the student, ‘Did you try to get the other side?’”

Peto did not interview any program participants or officials. She said master’s students rarely conduct “large-scale” interview efforts.

Nate Leipciger, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor who has participated in both programs, said he was “very upset” about the thesis. Survivor and participant Anita Ekstein, 76, called it “extremely hurtful.”