Jenny Peto has broken her silence on her controversial master’s thesis in which she attempts to prove that Holocaust education is used as a subversive method of indoctrination to justify Israeli apartheid.
Peto’s paper, “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education,” has garnered international attention for claiming that two Holocaust remembrance programs are essentially instruments of Zionist propaganda. Major news outlets picked up on the story and Peto’s paper was even debated in provincial legislature last month. Many slammed “The Victimhood of the Powerful” for supposedly spreading hateful messages, and others, including myself, decried the sorry state of academic affairs at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) for awarding a master’s degree to a polemic riddled with unsubstantiated claims and wild extrapolations.
But according to Jenny Peto, who sat down with The Varsity to discuss the recent backlash, her paper was attacked simply because she was purporting unpopular ideas. “I think that this is about who I am as a pro-Palestinian activist and what I have to say,” she said, “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.” In other words, all of that talk of misleading claims and spreading hate was really just a guise for mainstream intolerance of pro-Palestinian ideas. I know; this whole thing is doused with concepts of the subliminal and subversive—just try to keep up.
Peto also defends her decision not to interview a single person affiliated with the two Holocaust remembrance programs central to her paper. She uses countless secondary sources to back her opinion that the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH) and the March of the Living (MOL) instill a sense of victimhood in their participants and/or reinforce the uniqueness of the Holocaust, though none of her secondary sources directly reference the trips. Peto’s only sources of information specific to the programs in question are the pictures and testimonials on their websites. But it’s OK, she says, because no one else really does interviews anyway.
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.
Perhaps it’s acceptable to omit human subject research for topics that–you know–don’t specifically require testimony as to what participants are being told once they get off the website and on the airplane. Or on the bus. Or walking through Auschwitz. None of that information is available through MRH’s or MOL’s website. And while it may not be typical of a master’s thesis to incorporate wide-spectrum interviews, it should certainly never be acceptable for a master’s thesis to be based on speculation, an unfortunate characteristic of Peto’s paper.
Of course, not everyone agrees. In fact, one of my old high school teachers popped up in my inbox last month to offer an admonishment for my analysis of Peto’s paper. But that’s the nature of delving into the divisive—someone’s going to criticize you. According to Peto, however, the criticism was unjustly sent her way (as mentioned earlier) because of what she stood for, not specifically what she said. “For the most part, all the [criticism] hasn’t actually been about the content of the paper itself,” she said. Oddly enough, though, when questioned by The Varsity about her critics at the National Post, Peto launched into the same sort of ad hominem attack she pinned on her detractors. “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,” she said. And there goes ad rem.
The most disconcerting part of Peto’s interview with The Varsity, however, was her admission that she is working with allied groups “so that things like this won’t happen again. So that a student isn’t basically thrown to the wolves.”
Excuse me? What is trying to be achieved, exactly? Shelter from the real world? Obscurity within the walls of academia? Freedom from criticism? While I concede that MPPs need not play academic advisor, papers such as this one should absolutely be available for public discussion. What better way to test the validity of an argument? Not so, says Peto.
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.
D’aw. It’s just a little ol’ paper, right?
This attitude is extremely problematic. How are we to recognize the value of academic scholarship if its own authors are trying to downplay its importance? Yes, it hurts when big bad bullies take say something mean about your hard work, but the real world is lacking in academic advisors who will pat your head and stroke your ego. Theses at any level–especially the controversial–should be up for public discussion, and discussion should be encouraged. The best, most sound arguments will be able to withstand public pressure, even if it’s unpopular. Peto’s got it all wrong.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.