Peto's Holocaust education polemic not worthy of a master's

Academic freedom is not freedom from standards

Jennifer Peto’s Master’s thesis is getting the University of Toronto a lot of attention. Her paper entitled “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education” is stirring up students and educators around the country, and even became a topic of discussion in provincial legislature. Peto argues that two Holocaust education programs, the March of Remembrance and Hope, which takes non-Jewish youth to visit Nazi death camps, and the March of the Living Canada, a similar trip for Jewish youth, are instruments of Zionist propaganda. In her abstract, Peto writes that these programs “obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.”

Loosely translated, Peto’s thesis amounts to something in the realm of: “I’m onto you, you rich Jews. You’re using the Holocaust to deny your privileged status and pursue your Zionist exploits!” Actually, that language isn’t far from what Peto uses in her paper. But if Peto wants to spend her time typing foolishness at her laptop, that’s her choice. Academic freedom shouldn’t deny even the most nonsensical of pursuits. But academic freedom does not mean freedom from academic standards, and unfortunately, Peto’s paper seems to blur the line. After trudging through more than 100 pages of political hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims, it seems questions should be raised about the conception of academic standards at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) where Peto was awarded her master’s degree.

Unsupported claims pepper Peto’s paper. For example, she argues that youth on the March of the Living (MOL) trip are “taught that their whiteness can only be maintained through racism, both in supporting Israel and [. . .] benefiting from racism and imperialism in their home” [p.98]. Read that sentence again, bearing in mind that Peto did not interview a single MOL participant—nor did she speak with any organizers, tour guides or chaperones. Yet perhaps through some sort of hegemony-sniffing ESP, Peto knows these kids are taught racist ideas about upholding their whiteness and power through imperialism.

Since Peto didn’t speak with any actual participants before reporting on what they were learning, I decided I would speak to one myself. I was put in touch with a 19-year-old Queen’s University student who went on MOL three years ago, and, for 10 minutes, did more primary source research on the topic than Peto did for her entire Master’s thesis. To avoid getting swept up in the controversy, the student asked that her name be withheld.

One of the more striking positions Peto asserts in her paper is that MOL “works to produce young Jewish subjects who feel intensely threatened and victimized, despite the privilege they actually hold” [p.79].

Of course, Peto failed to cite the bar napkin from which she sourced that tidbit, so I asked the real life participant what she took from the experience: “Of course, there was an intense sadness,” the student told me. “But it made me want to stand up. Not just against what we were seeing but against all abuses of human rights.”

Referring to the trip’s chaperones, the student said, “They told us that as much as we say ‘never forget,’ similar things still happen today. We’re not on March of the Living to play a passive role.”

Intensely victimized? This testimony reveals the opposite. Perhaps another would too? Yet Peto scoffs off such primary research as “beyond the scope of this project” [p.82]. Another questionable assertion that Peto makes is that the “Holocaust industry” focuses on the “uniqueness of the Holocaust,” causing Jews “to focus too much on their own victimhood, thereby preventing them from using the Holocaust to see parallels with other struggles” [p.44].

Is this true?

“The organization sent us packages before we left for the trip,” the Queen’s past participant says. “There was a whole section on modern genocides; Rwanda and Darfur.”

Of course, this is just testimony from one individual. Yet it speaks to the Pandora’s Box of information that would be revealed from conducting actual interviews.

The list of unsubstantiated claims in Peto’s paper goes on. She arrives at the conclusion that the other program she reviews, the March of Remembrance and Hope, is a Zionist project even though it “does not mention Israel in their [sic] literature” [p.64]. She concludes that the program targets non-whites because pictures of non-white participants outnumber those of white participants on its website. And she even stretches her imagination so far as to assert, “The organizers of the MRH are highlighting Muslim participation in order to celebrate the production of a particular ‘good’ Muslim subject [who] engages in Holocaust education” [p.66]. That conclusion, in case you were wondering, was derived by clicking through a website.

OISE has every right to approve Peto’s thesis for exploration, but it does not have to accept the validity of her argument. Her conclusions are based on faulty evidence (when based on evidence at all) and rely on secondary resources unrelated to the two Holocaust education programs in question. The 19-year-old  past participant may not have a PhD or penned as many works as the authors referenced in Peto’s paper, but her testimony is immeasurably more relevant and appropriate for such an analysis. A master’s student should know that, and should have interviewed a wide spectrum of sources. It is distasteful that Peto chose to attack those hoping to promote good, unacceptable that she invoked unsubstantiated claims to support her statements, but it is contemptible that the OISE award a graduate degree for such a polemic.

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