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Canadian Politicians attack Master`s Thesis by a Progressive Jewish Student

Academics are calling the Ontario government`s condemnation of a university student thesis an attack on scholarly freedom, but those offended by the controversial paper insist they won`t let `hate` hide behind the veil of academia.

Jenny Peto`s 100-page thesis argues that today`s Jews of European descent `enjoy white privilege` and maintain a victim identity by participating in `hegemonic` Holocaust remembrance programs such as the March of the Living, during which young Jewish people visit Poland and Israel. The University of Toronto accepted the defended thesis and awarded a master`s degree to the 29-year-old, who is an activist associated with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid group. She`s also Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors.

The thesis, entitled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, describes Israel as an apartheid state.

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.

In a statement to the Post on Wednesday, Mr. Hoskins stood by his condemnation: `I rose in the House to condemn all anti-Semitism, a particularly vile and pernicious form of discrimination,` he said. `The lessons to be learned from the Holocaust are pivotal, not just for the Jewish community, but for all Ontarians.`

Ms. Peto responded to the criticism by saying her academic freedom was under attack. `I never could have imagined an MA thesis getting this much attention,` she said. `But given my reputation as a vocal critic of Israel ... I am never surprised to be attacked by pro-Israel groups or pro-Israel politicians, for that matter.`

`Students and researchers should be able to research and publish on controversial matters without the fear of attacks from the government.`

It is certainly unusual for a student`s work to be challenged by elected representatives, said 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. `This is hardly the forum,` he added, insisting that politicians should not be perceived to be tearing apart a thesis that has already been vetted by two university experts.

University of Toronto provost Cheryl Misak said most if not all dissertations from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where Ms. Peto studied, are scrutinized by a panel of experts who must grill the student and pose all kinds of `obstacles` to the argument. Though she wasn`t present at Ms. Peto`s thesis defence, she says she`s confident the process met the high standards set by the institution.

`They`re called defences for good reason,` she said. `The thing that concerns me is that this is a piece of student work and it`s part of a wider educational project. It`s important to remember that.`

Anyone who disagrees with a thesis, paper, book or statement and might find it offensive, can offer counterarguments, she said.

`That`s what freedom of expression is, that`s how it ought to unfold,` she said. `Condemnation is not really how expression is done.`

But as far as Peter Shurman is concerned, all hate should be condemned — and hate is exactly what he believes this particular thesis is.

`I am sure that the legislature is a place to discuss anything that affects the general wellbeing of the people of Ontario,` said the Thornhill MPP who was part of Tuesday`s condemnation. `I`m not sure Ontario is an appropriate place for preaching hate.`

He hasn`t read the paper, but nonetheless owes it to his largely Jewish constituents to defend Israel on their behalf, he said.


A Canadian Jewish organization has launched an academic scholarship for `positive` Jewish and Israeli studies in response to a controversial University of Toronto master`s thesis that argues modern Jews enjoy `white privilege.`

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies announced a $5,000 scholarship on Thursday for master`s and PhD candidates who are `focused on publishing academic papers on the legitimate rights and aspirations of Israel and the Jewish people.`

The scholarship is needed to counter a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Canadian universities that could be sparked by Jenny Peto`s 100-page thesis that argues that Israel is an apartheid state, said the organization`s president and CEO, Avi Benlolo.

`Clearly this is probably one episode and this episode is going to mutate and possibly we`re going to see other such works emanating from various academic circles here in Canada and our response has to be one that is equally vigorous,` he said.

`There is now this climate on university campuses which openly legitimizes the criticism of only Israel and disregards the oppression of the other countries which surround it. So I think that is going to allow for more of this kind of vile rhetoric against the state of Israel and the Jewish people.`

The university accepted Ms. Peto`s thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, and awarded the 29-year-old a Master`s degree, sparking intense debate over whether the university was promoting freedom of speech or hatred.

`I will propose that, in North America, 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 extremely beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state,` Ms. Peto wrote in the paper, which details, in part, her transformation from a student at an Orthodox Jewish private school to Palestinian solidarity supporter.

Mr. Benlolo said his organization was flooded with calls from outraged students looking for help in mounting an academic response to the thesis.

`That was part of the impetus to this realizing that there is a ... response and that people are looking for resources,` said Mr. Benlolo. `What she wrote was not academic research, was not scientific by any means and was so fabricated and incorrect. So how do we really create real, thoughtful research about the modern Jewish world?`

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