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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

University of Toronto offers weak response to concerns about institutional anti-Israel bias at OISE

The University of Toronto has responded, but not really responded, to concerns about a Master's Thesis submitted in the Sociology and Equity Studies in Education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) by one Jenny Peto, that alleges "Jewish Racism" is part of "Hegemonic Holocaust Education" and suggests a Jewish/Zionist conspiracy to exploit Holocaust guilt.

According to the Canadian Jewish News:

Responding to a request for an interview, the University of Toronto issued a written statement by vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak: “Due to our privacy obligations to students, I cannot discuss an individual student’s academic work or his or her performance. What I can, say, however, is that freedom of expression issues are ever-present in our society, especially on a university campus. The University of Toronto’s Statement on Freedom of Speech makes it clear that freedom of inquiry lies at the very heart of our institution: ‘all members of the University must have as a prerequisite freedom of speech and expression, which means the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.’ 
“Of the thousands of MA theses written at the University of Toronto in partial fulfilment of degree requirements, it is inevitable that some will have elements that offend various individuals and groups."
It is commendable that the University of Toronto values free speech. But there are issues that remain unaddressed, like the perception that the culture at OISE has become so virulently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist that theses which have the appearance of anti-Semitism have become acceptable there.

And there is the question of whether the anti-Israel attitude at OISE has become so politically rancid that anti-Zionism has become more important there than basic scholarship.

Werner Cohn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, and one of the first people to draw attention to the thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education" wrote of the author's scholarship:

"..she is an autodidact who knows how to quote from others, whenever that seems to serve the cause, and thus to give her thesis the sheen of formal scholarship.The only problem is that the footnotes and references to the literature in no way support her contentions, and that she does not muster facts or data of any kind to give her thesis the weight of an academic argument."

"..she makes assertions, but it can’t be called an advancement of knowledge as she doesn’t test it in any way."

Ms Peto's thesis characterized the March of the Living, a prestigious Holocaust education program, as an "abuse of Holocaust memory for Zionist and racist purposes" (pg 108).

An indictment of Ms Peto comes from March of the Living national director Eli Rubenstein. “She hasn’t been on a trip where you see a Holocaust survivor holding the hand of someone who survived the Rwandan genocide or the Sudanese genocide, that it’s comforting and helps them to heal.

“How can you write a master’s thesis and not speak to a single survivor, educator or student in the program, and how can the university accept that?” he asked.

“We have survivors who rebuilt their lives and want to share their stories of survival and make sure that it doesn’t happen to anybody, and here you have someone criticizing us for that… it’s very sad.”

In fact, the only first hand research on the March of the Living Ms Peto is able to cite in her 2010 Thesis comes from her viewing of the March of the Living website in 2006!

This addresses Professor Cohn's principle concern by critics of the thesis and by extension, the culture at OISE in the assertion that "the thesis was devoid of scholarship."

U of T Provost Misak said,  "the university is committed to allowing and encouraging a full range of debate. The best way for controversy to unfold is for members of our community to engage with the perspectives and arguments they dispute. It is intelligent argument, not censorship, that lies at the heart of our democratic society and its institutions.

These are commendable sentiments. But the question remains, where is the debate at OISE?

At a meeting of the OISE Graduate Student Association to discuss whether they should involve themselves with  the bigoted "Israeli Apartheid Week," the minutes don't indicate any debate. They indicate a universal acceptance of the notion that the Zionist entity must be oppressive. The only expressed concern is about how to imply that they are not anti-Semitic.

And who is the person they had to address that concern?

None other than guest speaker Jenny Peto! Well, with expert advice like that, how could they go wrong?

Ms Peto's thesis advisor is Sheryl Nestel. Ms Nestel has made the conference presentation: "Mapping Jewish Dissent: Jewish Anti-occupation Activism in Toronto." The Department Chair, Rinaldo Walcott, is a signatory to at least two anti-Israel petitions.

Where is the debate at OISE?

For U of T Provost Misak to say that the “university is committed to allowing and encouraging a full range of debate” is most welcome. Perhaps she can let us know when that policy is put into practice at OISE.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely pitiful. Indeed where is the debate?

I actually grew up with Jenny Peto. We went to Jewish day school together. As a gay Jewish girl growing up in a religious environment, she had a tough childhood and is now vengefully lashing out at Jews the world over. Her thesis is pathetic fluff based on prejudice and nothing more.

This is quite obviously a case of misdirected anger. How sad

Anonymous said...

Which school did Ms Peto attend?

truepeers said...

Thanks for sticking to this. I was wondering if you added one too many negatives to this sentence:

The only expressed concern is about how not to imply that they are not anti-Semitic.

As to the lack of debate, or, more to the point i think, real thinking, in our universities, the problem is not just that it doesn't occur sufficiently at U of T, or on just issues of Israel and antisemitism, but is in fact part and parcel of the entire victimary approach that reigns in the human sciences. What fuels this approach is the desire to present "victims" whose status cannot be politically questioned, on the much-claimed model of the Nazis' unquestionably-wrongful victimization of the Jews.

Of course it is the sad development of the postmodern resentment of Jews' historical firstness - in the context of the Holocaust - as the world's first totally unquestionable collective victim of a fully modern Western society - that fuels the "anti-Zionist" fire. (There may have been earlier genocides, even involving modern states like Germany in southwest Africa, but these did not serve as the great historical revelation of the evil of a collective scapegoating, involving all the professions in a modern society, and leading immediately to the postcolonial age.)

But the fire of victimary thinking reigns in all areas of "study". Thus it is simply not true that our universities are committed to maximal freedom of inquiry (as their limited efforts to protect pro-Israel speakers, for example, demonstrates). Could one imagine someone at OISE being allowed to write a thesis on, say, the benefits of upholding dead white males as the best models for history education? Could someone get away with a thesis that defended racial segregation in schooling in order to sustain and encourage "whiteness"? Of course not...

One has to cut through the rhetoric and pay attention to how universities actually work. They only ever allow for degrees of freedom within established paradigms. In no field can graduate students hope to step well outside the established paradigms and be allowed to write the thesis of their choice. Universities only often invoke intellectual freedoms to defend against critics of the established paradigms but not to defend those who insult those paradigms.

And how could it be any other way? How could a university possibly function if it tried to be all things to all people? (You think academic politics are bad now...) Since they can't be, we who are more or less on the outside need to feel free to criticize and sanction universities as a whole - not just individual scholars - for the intellectual paradigms they help maintain. THe university does not have to provide free space for hatefests like Israel Apartheid Week, but they do because they are cowardly complicit in the hate.

THe proper response to OISE might be, for example, a movement to pressure governments to change the laws that give a monopoly to universities and teachers' colleges when it comes to creating and recognizing the credentials by which one is allowed to enter the teaching profession. THere are many people who could be good teachers, who would like to be teachers, who might be happy receiving half the union salary/pension, but who don't have the "proper" credentials and won't go through the mill of political insanity at places like OISE to get them.

Richard K said...

Thanks truepeers! You're right and I've made the adjustment. I think you just became Eye on a Crazy Planet's honourary editor.

And I think you're quite right in the rest of your comments. There is a double standard in play in that "acceptable" thought is open for "discussion and debate" whereas unacceptable thought, in their framework, does not appear to get the same hearing.

I would actually have no problem with OISE or U of T allowing Ms Peto's proposed thesis idea (distinguished from the poorly researched and academically unsound paper itself) as long as others along the lines you discussed were to be allowed. But we know they wouldn't.

If I were advising a thesis along the lines of what we're seeing, my first comment would be, "Go ahead, if you think you can prove it. But make sure you provide ample, substantiated proof and conduct thorough research." What I've seen is more like subjective, unsubstaiated allegation and biased opinion without any basis in fact. That might be fine for a blog post, but should not be for a post graduate degree program.

truepeers said...

Richard, thanks; normally I don't point out such little writing errors on blogs. In this case, on an important point, I thought, sadly, it's just not going to be obvious to everyone what the students were thinking in these sad times...

My first thought is that I am not as liberal as you. If I were her thesis supervisor my attitude would be more like "yes, intellectual freedom is all for the good, as is your freedom to look for another thesis supervisor, but I have some responsibilities as a supervisor, in terms of intellectual guidance, and they include pointing out that the premise of your proposal is seriously Judeophobic which I think is a bad starting point for any intellectual inquiry, and especially when one is oneself a Jew, or especially when one proposes to explain how human history is generated (which necessarily involves some one or some group taking an important lead that others, sadly, will inevitably resent. We inevitably resent those who have become a centre of attention, yet turning this necessary historical or anthropological process and resentment into a conspiracy theory - instead of an anthropological inquiry - is always already a sign of intellectual failure); so why should I sign off on this?" And she would have to have a pretty damn good answer to convince me to do so.

Malik al-Inkitar said...

Given U of T's stated commitment to open scholarship etc etc yadda yadda, I expect they will have no trouble finding an example of MA research from OISE critical of "Palestinian" nationalism, Arab terror, Hamas calls to genocide etc and so forth.

Karen said...

I would like to respond to Truepeers.

"Of course it is the sad development of the postmodern resentment of Jews' historical firstness - in the context of the Holocaust - as the world's first totally unquestionable collective victim of a fully modern Western society - that fuels the "anti-Zionist" fire."

May I point out the Peto's thesis is primarily about Holocaust Education? That field is rife with efforts to perpetuate the 'firstness' that you speak of. I've picked up a few books now that seek to align all racism education with Holocaust Education. That is -- teach The Holocaust to teach racism. These books are published within Jenny Peto's discipline and they present a challenge to truth and fairness that academia cannot ignore. Therefore I take exception to Truepeer, who through the ruse of fair correction, in fact offers many more unfair criticisms of Peto.

Anonymous said...

How do you equate censuring a terrorist organization in academia with calling holocaust education hegemonic. Being critical of Hamas and terrorism has little to do with this sad excuse for academia. This paper was ill-researched and was clearly founded in her resentment of the organized Jewish community that apparently spurned her.