Unprecedented: master’s thesis on Jewish white privilege and Israel attacked in Canadian legislature

Canadian grad student, Jewish anti-Zionist activist, and descendant of Holocaust survivors Jenny Peto is breaking new ground with her University of Toronto master’s thesis The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, though perhaps not in the way she intended.

The Canadian National Post reports:

It has provoked intense debate online, in academia and even the political realm. Progressive Conservative MPP Steve Clark raised it in the legislature Tuesday in response to sharp criticism in the Jewish community, calling it “shockingly anti-Semitic.” Citizenship and immigration minister Eric Hoskins likewise condemned the thesis in the legislature saying he was “greatly disturbed and, in fact, disgusted,” when he read media coverage about it.

These attacks (by some if not many who haven’t actually read it) on a master’s thesis, one that has already been through an academic review no less, are unprecedented. Also from The National Post:

Michiel Horn, a York University history professor and author of Academic Freedom in Canada: A History: “I know not of a single case where a master’s or a phD paper has been subject of discussion in the legislature of any province in Canada,” he said.

You can read Jenny Peto’s thesis yourself by downloading it here. Her abstract states:

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.

I myself can’t wait to read it. There’s not a lot here that those seriously familiar with these Jewish institutions and Israeli history and politics could really argue with. For too long, the central organizing principle of much of institutional Jewry has been fear, which has been essential in, among other things, enabling an unaccountable Israel. And few programs more dramatically reflect this than the March of the Living which inflicts a proxy Holocaust trauma on Jewish teenagers (without proper context and support, so I hear from friends who have gone) as an essential right of passage into Jewishness.

To the young N. American Ashkenazi Jews especially who can’t help but notice that Jews as a whole occupy places of real economic and racial privilege in their communities, the messages of perpetual victimhood (and the implied privileges that might go with it, as in the case with the free pass that Israel tends to get) just don’t compute.

I’d imagine that in addition to her own experience, Peto had plenty to draw on from work and discussions happening in academic environments these days regarding Holocaust studies, Israeli politics, white privilege and so on. Is it possible that Peto’s crime is to have thought too complexly –in an academic setting.

(Update: Avi Lewis has a lot more on this story and what’s happening in Canada over at Mondoweiss.)

For another take, Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir documented the Jewish instrumentalization of victimhood in his must-see documentary, Defamation, though I’d argue that he unfortunately underplayed real threats of anti-Semitism to make his point.) Here’s a snippet:

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