Whenever the world is confronted by an example of slapdash lunacy and psychobabble, the best thing is to simply ignore it. Shameless propaganda grows legs only if we give it the attention it undoubtedly craved in the first place. Should I even mention Pastor Terry Jones and his burning of the Quran day? Too late, you’re already thinking about it again. Sorry.
However, in the case of Jennifer Peto’s master’s thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism, and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, the “scholarly” paper from the University of Toronto that has stirred up quite the reaction amongst educational fields, a considerable response is appropriate for two reasons: one, it is too late to ignore it and make it disappear, for the story is flourishing in the media; and two, the supposed academic stamp of approval that the thesis has received from the U of T gives it an unwarranted and dangerous ounce of legitimacy, far more so than the soapbox sermonizing of any pastor.
The thesis focuses on two educational programs, the March of Remembrance and Hope and the March of the Living, arguing that both of them represent examples of Zionist propaganda meant to “obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.” Although the paper has not been looked upon gracefully by many people in or out of the academic sphere, its circulation and very existence as a scholarly creation stands to undermine the true objectives and accomplishments of both those programs, ones that by no means fit the description offered by Peto. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.
Upfront, I will say that I was in fact a participant on the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH) for its 2010 program. On it, we travelled to Berlin and then Poland with two Holocaust survivors for a nine-day educational tour that included various Holocaust memorials, historical sites related to the Holocaust and Judaism, and three of the death camps. It was among the most powerful and fulfilling experiences of my entire life, not just for the scope and depth in which we were immersed in these horrific atrocities, but for the group of truly incredible and inspiring people I travelled with, above all the two survivors, Pinchas and Faigie, who gave us all a newly empathised outlook on life. Thus, it stands to reason that I now feel the need to defend the experience. By no means would I, or any of my co-travellers, be willing to allow something like the Victimhood of the Powerful to reduce what we saw, felt and learned from Pinchas and Faigie, but my concern lies with others, with the future of the program and the way it is perceived by those who have not undertaken it.
By the way, Jennifer Peto is one of those people. Not only has she never gone on the trip, for that rattling thesis, she did not interview a single person who has. She writes, “Due to the limitations of a part-time master’s degree, I was unable to conduct interviews or participant observations on either trip” Limitations? She is based in Toronto, the resident city of thirty per cent of the people who went on my trip, not to mention where the Canadian Centre for Diversity, the company that runs MRH, is based. If a friend of mine in the history department travelled to Istanbul to conduct secondary interviews with the decedents of long passed First World War vets for his master’s thesis then Jennifer Peto could have walked down the block and spoken to primary sources who were actually there and been home in time for lunch.
This is the type of research we are dealing with, but incredibly, if the same absence of reasoning exemplified in its pages is used by readers of the thesis, it greatly heightens the possibility of extreme detriment to the trips. What about the U of T’s acceptance of this work would prove the possibility wrong?
Naturally, the majority of the murmur surrounding the thesis pertains to academic standards, calling on the U of T to better screen the work that is being produced within its own walls. Having read the thesis, I am equally perturbed at how something so biased and conjectured could even make it past the first stage of thesis advising, but my own confusion doesn’t quite match that of Conservative MPP Peter Shurman, who described the thesis with slightly more colour — “It’s a piece of garbage.”
People can write and/or say what they want to, on their blogs, to their friends, and yes, they can even make an attempt at getting their work into an academic domain, but that by no means requires it to be accepted. Certainly much scholarly work is controversial and refuted by others, but typically such instances of healthy debate rest in the assumption that the work was academically constructed in the first place.
What I cannot accept, however, is an entire thesis knowingly propagated as the continuation of a life-long mission to bring attention to issues regarding Israel as an apartheid state. I have no quarrel with Peto’s idealism or even her passion, but to attempt to debunk Israel by focusing on a Holocaust tour — one that, at least in my presence, did not once mention the Israel/Palestine conflict — is dishonest and cowardly. It is the type of thing we expect from twenty-four hour news, not from the likes of a master’s thesis, a work that is supposed to be, well, hypothesized.
Matt Abra is a first-year grad student and strongly suggests you apply for the March of Remembrance and Hope.