The Varsity spoke exclusively with Jenny Peto, author of a master's thesis that has generated controversy and debate over Israel, racism, and the role of graduate education.
Last year, Jenny Peto received a master's degree from OISE's department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education. As part of her degree, Peto completed a one hundred-page paper published last July, entitled “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.”
The paper studies the promotion material of two Holocaust memorial trips and links them to Israeli politics and Jewish identity. Peto argues that the trips give Jews a false sense of innocent victimhood despite holding racist views and having as much privilege as white people.
She says this sense of victimhood is used to justify Israeli “apartheid” against Palestinians and 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 paper was criticized on a political blog in November, mentioned in a report by professor emeritus Werner Cohn, and subsequently picked up by the National Post. It has since generated hours of public debate and was rebuked by the Ontario legislature.
The thesis also prompted a public letter from her brother, criticizing her for dedicating the thesis to their deceased grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.
Peto is a prominent pro-Palestinian activist who has helped organize Israeli Apartheid Week events at U of T. Aside from brief comments to media, this is the first interview with either Peto or her supervisor, Dr. Sheryl Nestel.
The Varsity: You've come under a lot of fire over this thesis. How has it been dealing with the criticism?
Jenny Peto: It's been difficult being attacked like that, especially in such a personal manner; given the name-calling and the mud-slinging, and the false accusations, particularly from the National Post but also Members of Provincial Parliament who call my work garbage, who dismiss me as an anti-semite even though I'm Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
The personal attacks have been difficult, but on the flip-side it's actually been really inspiring to see a community of activists and also concerned people who see it as a horrible attack on academic freedom, who see this as a part of a broader move to silence criticism of Israel and to rally together.
Hundreds of people have e-mailed Members of Provincial Parliament and the leaders of the three parties, condemning what they've done [and] demanding an apology. Lots of people have been contacting me personally from literally around the world. I've gotten tremendous support from [local and international pro-Palestinian groups] because they're aware of this increasing repression in Canada against anyone who criticizes Israel.
TV: What do you think most people don't understand about your thesis?
JP: People who have read the paper say I've been completely misrepresented. Lots and lots of people from within the academic world said the research is well written and offered me support. I take pride in being a very clear writer. If you read the thesis, it's written in plain language, not full of academic jargon.
I think that this is about who I am as a pro-Palestinian activist and what I have to say which is very critical of Israel, very critical of mainstream pro-Israel institutions in Canada, and critical of what I see as an abuse of Holocaust memory to justify Israeli apartheid.
I really don't think that it's a case where it's just such a convoluted academic paper that people don't understand. People who have read it understand what I'm saying. And some may agree, some may disagree, but for the most part all the [criticism] hasn't actually been about the content of the paper itself.
TV: In your thesis introduction, you say that you didn't interview participants or organizers of the memorial trips because of time constraints. It's been a point of heavy criticism. How would you respond?
JP: At a master’s level, very, very few people do huge human subject research, because you can't just interview one or two people. [It's] the kind of research project that some PhD students, but mostly only faculty members with research assistants, undertake.
It's a completely valid methodology and it's completely acceptable, especially in the era of the Internet, to rely on publicly available information, such as websites, and doing a discursive analysis. It would be more unusual for a master's student to carry out a large series of interviews. And I feel like had I done just one or two interviews, it wouldn't have been a big enough sample to be accurate.
The biggest criticism I've had is "Why didn't you just pick up the phone and interview someone?" and it's not that simple, you need research ethics board approval, and you also need a large enough sample size to make that relevant. […] Obviously my supervisor and my second reader agreed with this, and it's not common practice.
TV: What was your motivation for pursuing a master's degree?
JP: For my own intellectual pursuit. It was just a way to learn more, and a different avenue to do research and think critically about certain issues. I think it's the same motivation of many people who do a master's degree.
TV: What do you think motivated the National Post to print so much criticism?
JP: It's part of a larger pattern. The National Post is an extremely right-wing publication, unapologetically so. They present a very, very right-wing view and take a particular interest in issues around Israel. So they have written damning articles about the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid…
I remember when [TIFF] was doing a spotlight on Tel Aviv and there was a huge international uproar against folks putting a positive light on Israel just a few months after the massacre in Gaza. And in that time the National Post editorial board was just spinning out hateful article after hateful article.
This is about running a very right-wing publication and obviously me being a left-wing activist but particularly around the question of Israel. The editor in charge of comment is Jonathan Kay, who's a very staunch supporter of Israel, who has done this kind of character assassination to many, many people before me and he'll continue to do it to many, many people after.
TV: How will the criticisms affect you?
JP: It definitely would make it harder in certain circumstances, if I wanted to pursue a PhD, to get into certain PhD programs. Then again, programs that may be supportive of doing critical or cutting-edge research may look favourable upon having caused this controversy at a master's level.
But for the most part, it could affect my academic career in that way. In terms of job prospects, it affects my online profile in a way I can't control. And also from a personal safety perspective, I’ve been getting threatening emails and people have been calling me all sorts of names.
TV: How bad have the threats been?
JP: Nothing that's made me want to call the police or anything like that, but a lot of really hateful e-mails, calling me things like Gestapo, things like that. You can definitely tell that in all of this, the goal is to try and silence me, to tell me to stop saying these sort of things.
It's also about the negative repercussions for other people. So people who are in [Sociology in Education and Equity Studies at OISE], or OISE more generally, realize that they're under a microscope in ways that very few students are, so it's discouraging them from doing anything like being controversial.
This is almost like a warning shot to Jewish Canadians saying, "you watch yourself, if you're going to criticize Israel, we'll come down on you, and we'll come down on you in a huge way."
This is an overreaction. I didn't publish a book, I didn't write a newspaper article, I didn't make a movie. I wrote a master's thesis that could've died in obscurity for perfectly honest reasons; I mean there are thousands of them produced in a year. It's definitely trying to send a chill throughout the academic community and Jewish community.
TV: How would you rate U of T's response to this issue?
JP: The university's been basically defending my academic freedom, which is all I could ask from them.
I mean U of T has a not-incredible history when dealing with pro-Palestinian activists on campus. There was the whole fiasco with room bookings for SAIA and OPIRG in previous years.
I'm definitely pleased with their response, especially given that they haven't always been completely consistent on the question of Palestine on campus. So I'm hoping that support continues when Israeli Apartheid Week comes up in March and I hope that their commitment to academic freedom and political debate on campus is renewed by this.
TV: What's your impression of how papers other than the National Post have been reporting on the thesis?
JP: I was really disappointed in the Toronto Star to be perfectly honest. The reporter misrepresented several key points. He tried to present the March of Remembrance and Hope, which is one of the two programs that I criticized, as a completely Canadian program run by the Canadian Centre for Diversity, independent of any Israeli organizations or even Jewish Holocaust memorial groups.
And it's very, very clear on the website of the MRH that it is linked to the March of Living, which was founded by the Israeli ministry of education, and in Canada — yes it's run out of the Canadian Centre for Diversity — but it's definitely linked back to Israel and linked to the March of the Living.
That particular reporter tried to twist that cynically, which was concerning because I got my facts right, and that's important at the very least. […] But it's what I expect of the Canadian media, it has a terrible, terrible pro-Israeli bias. And the coverage of this hasn't really strained from that.
TV: Looking forward, will you be doing anything as a result of this experience?
JP: I'm still working with allied groups within the academic world, unions and things like that, to mobilize a response so that things like this won't happen again. So that a student isn't basically thrown to the wolves and especially that Members of Provincial Parliament [and] government bodies don't violate academic freedom in such a disturbing way.
Given that it's unprecedented that student work would be debated in a government in Canada […] we're definitely keeping an eye on the bigger picture in terms of academic freedom, but also my work around Palestine continues and will continue until Israeli apartheid ends.
via The Varsity