Friday, December 10, 2010

Canada's Budding Norman Finkelstein; Who is Silencing Her; and Why I am Verklempt

The Ontario Legislative Building, site of the Provincial Government, in Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario;
part of the University of Toronto campus can be seen to the left side of the circle

Currently, the Parliament of the Province of Ontario is debating whether and how to have the Master's thesis of Jennifer Peto, a graduate of the University of Toronto, nullified and her degree revoked. Her thesis is entitled: The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education. It was defended in the Spring of 2010, and the Masters degree granted following the successful defense and submission of the thesis as part of the requirements for the degree.

I first learned of this unprecedented attack on academic freedom in Canada, or elsewhere to my knowledge, from a friend, who was simultaneously amazed I had no clue, and delighted to whip out one national newspaper's latest front page article. I started reading, but was easily distracted by names I recognized in the article, their roles, and the unmitigated gall of the ones who are held to be intelligent and well-schooled calling for political action in the provincial legislature to have a woman's Master's thesis revoked, "based on what I have read about it in the media", because of its "dangerous anti-Semitism", and "threat to our society". It took me 3 tries to get through a simple straightforward article, because of the number of alarming elements in it.

It is particularly offensive to have people pronouncing in highly judgmental and self-serving moralistic ways against a thesis, and the degree it supports, based on media accounts rather than the thesis itself, when those media accounts offer the direct links to the university's record of the thesis, including pertinent academic information and the abstract; and a direct link to the full thesis, for anyone to read.
This paper focuses on issues of Jewish identity, whiteness and victimhood within hegemonic Holocaust education. I argue that today, Jewish people of European descent enjoy white privilege and are among the most socio-economically advantaged groups in the West. Despite this privilege, the organized Jewish community makes claims about Jewish victimhood that are widely accepted within that community and within popular discourse in the West. I propose that these claims to victimhood are no longer based in a reality of oppression, but continue to be propagated because a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state. I focus on two related Holocaust education projects – the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope – to show how Jewish victimhood is instrumentalized in ways that obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.
The thesis is only ~100 double-spaced pages of manuscript, is well-written (thesis style), well-organized, well-documented, and, like most theses, contains numerous summaries of what it is arguing. In other words, before arguing for the revolutionary concept of having an elected group of members of provincial parliament revoke a thesis that has already been defended and approved, and have the university withdraw a degree which has been granted, it would seem prudent to actually read the thesis, and indefensible not to.

Yet that is but the most obviously incongruous aspect of this shocking discussion in the media and the legislature. The very idea that elected politicians are playing politics with this, and "defending their constituents", their electoral coffers, and their re-election in this manner is a horrifying step in the wrong direction. University departments of Middle Eastern Studies and other related academic endeavours on campus are fraught with the tensions that occur around any endeavour regarding the region. Universities fall under the same hate speech laws as the rest of the society does, and have their own internal parameters to be respected, and mechanisms for redressing them. Where necessary there is recourse to both civil and criminal law. What is unnecessary, unwelcome, and dangerous is the proposal of an elected body having veto power over a body of research that has met the rigours of academic writing and defense before a panel of experts.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the Ottawa Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism on Monday, warns about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Canada and across the world. Photograph by: Chris Wattie, Reuters, Postmedia News

However, this issue of having electoral politics take over academic accreditation is not the only one. There is a broader issue of conflating a critique of Israel with anti-Semitism--a conflation the current Prime Minister of Canada helped to enshrine internationally with his statements at the Anti-Semitism Conference he supported--and a unique suspension of freedom of speech, academic or otherwise, in this regard. Indeed, the seeds of this parliamentary debate can be read in the "Ottawa Protocol" that came out of the Anti-Semitism Conference held earlier this year:
The Ottawa Protocol is a series of steps aimed at tackling anti-Jewish hate, especially online and on university campuses.

The protocol was created at the two-day conference that featured over 40 parliamentarians from multiple countries from all corners of the world. The event was hosted by the federal government and the chair of Canada’s Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

While the protocol states that criticism of Israel or Israeli government policy is not inherently anti-Semitic on its own, one of the aims of the document is to stem the tide of anti-Semitism that it says is increasingly dressed up in anti-Israel rhetoric or criticism.

“Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong. But singling out Israel for selective condemnation and opprobrium is discriminatory and hateful.”

Like academic Norman Finkelstein, Jennifer Peto is Jewish, a descendant of Holocaust Survivors, and believes Israel is an apartheid (Afrikaans for "separation" or segregation) state based on religion, ethnicity, and race; and an Occupier. As she herself shows in her thesis, these ideas are not new, but are increasingly part of academic, civil, and political discourse in the last 3 decades. What is specific to her thesis is to demonstrate how Zionist discourse is ingrained--through educational initiatives aimed at both Jews and non-Jews--as one of liberation, tolerance, and human rights. She concludes:
I am well aware of the controversy that comes with challenging Zionism and the
even more intense controversy that can happen when doing so involves criticizing
Holocaust memorials and education. I chose to take up these issues because it is my hope
that my academic work can be useful in exposing the ways in which Holocaust education
and Jewish claims to victimhood are being used [to] obscure Jewish racism, and to garner
support for Israeli Apartheid. If my thesis can contribute, even in some small way, to
normalizing criticism of Israel and Jewish racism, and if it can open up conversations
about the damaging effects of hegemonic Holocaust education I will be satisfied with this
academic endeavour.
Needless to say, she, her research, the university standards, and the quality of the thesis itself are being denigrated. I really don't think that this type of attempted suppression of academic research serves the Jewish people or Israelis well; it sets a disturbing precedent for all.

A selection of articles:
Thesis on Jewish 'privilege' rebuked, sparking row
Minister slams student thesis on Holocaust education
Peto’s Holocaust education polemic not worthy of a master’s: Academic freedom is not freedom from standards
Canadian Jewish Congress slams ‘white privilege’ thesis
New scholarship aims to highlight ‘positive’ Jewish, Israeli studies

See Also:
Unprecedented: master’s thesis on Jewish white privilege and Israel attacked in Canadian legislature
Fight against anti-Semitism renewed with 'Ottawa Protocol'

Highlights of the thesis:
pp 1-13 Introduction--includes her personal story, and evolution as an activist
pp 64ff on "the good Muslim"
pp 66ff on the white Western construction of human rights, and the usefulness of other peoples using them to effect change within their own non-Western nations
pp 100-105 Conclusion--a summary with personal responses to the international events of Dec 2008-2009
pp106-8 Bibliography--a good reading list for those interested in the topics addressed

Your thoughts, comments, impressions, experiences?

Please feel free to comment based on the information provided in the post itself, or the linked material, or other information or impressions you have on the ideas here.


jaraad said...

I read this post on my ipod when you posted it. But I couldn't write a comment on my tiny ipod screen. I wonder why this piece of news didn't make it outside Canada. As someone in the Academic field I think it is very important that people know about it. Do Canadian universities assign three professors for Master's defense as in the US? I wonder what is there reaction?
I came to conclusion that in the west you are free to say/draw/write anything except criticizing Israel.
There is a movie called Defamation. The writer and the director of this documentary is Yoav Shamir an Israeli filmmaker. The movie is just a mind blowing and it talks about the business of anti-Semitism. I wrote about the movie in my blog and posted the videos of the complete movie. If you have time it is worth watching.

RWB said...

I've got issues with the basis of Peto's thesis.
But as a U of T graduate what I have a real issue with is the lowered standards of academic discourse they are clearly supporting with her thesis. This is not about academic freedom but rather poor research and no actual results to back her up.
So yes, I suppose she is like the disgraced Finkelstein who's work was questioned b/c it was but unacademic and unscientific.
I completed my thesis using qualitative research, a subject pool of one even for that is not usually acceptable.
Peto has a chip on her shoulder, plain and simple. And the only thing being silenced is the poor academic quality of her work.

Susanne said...

I don't like the thought of gov't being involved in academics such as this post discusses. Whether or not you agree with someone's thesis/opinions/research/speech doesn't matter much. The gov't has no business interfering such as it often does.


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