In December 2010, three members of the Ontario legislature, one of them a minister in the provincial government, took the extraordinary step of denouncing a recently accepted University of Toronto Master of Arts thesis in the legislature as being “shockingly antisemitic,” “disgusting,” “hateful and poorly researched,” a “piece of garbage,” and an “attack on Ontario's Jewish community.”
I had read the thesis in question, and had formed a very different opinion of its qualities. I was struck by the indications both in news reports and in their own language that none of the three MPPs had read the thesis—despite which they were willing, under the protection of legislative immunity, to slander the author and the supervisor of the thesis (both of whom happen to be members, if dissident ones, of Ontario's Jewish community).
Taking advantage if the fact that the Liberal Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, had been a student of mine three decades earlier at the University of Ottawa, I addressed this open letter to him. It was published by Independent Jewish Voices/Voix Juives Indépendentes (17 December 2010), http://ijvcanada.org/racism/new-antisemitism/in-defence-of-jenny-peto-a-letter-to-dalton-mcguinty/, and at four other websites, among them PULSE Media, in 2010-11. I was unaware when I published this text that Eric Hoskins, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, is a doctor: I have altered the text, where appropriate, to recognize that title.
The Right Honourable Dalton McGuinty,
Premier of Ontario. 11 December 2010.
Dear Mr. McGuinty,
I am writing to you as a senior member of the teaching profession in Ontario’s college and university sector. I began my teaching career at Centennial College in Toronto nearly forty years ago, resigned from my position there in order to pursue doctoral research in England, and returned to Ontario in 1980—where I was taken on by the English Department of the University of Ottawa in time to have the pleasure of being one of your professors there in 1980-81.
I have taught at the University of Guelph since 1990—and have done external work as well, including service for one year as Chair of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s research grants adjudication committee in Literature, and for two years as President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.
Please forgive this recitation of ‘street-creds’—but since I'm addressing you on a very serious matter, I would like to hope that this letter may receive your personal attention.
I am prompted to write by an extraordinary episode that occurred in the Ontario Legislature on December 7th. Two MPPs, Mr. Steve Clark and Mr. Peter Shurman, rose in the Legislature with questions addressed to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Honourable Eric Hoskins. Both MPPs denounced, in the most strenuous terms, a Master of Arts thesis recently accepted by the University of Toronto. Mr. Clark called it “shockingly anti-Semitic” and “disgusting,” and asked, “What are you doing as Minister of Citizenship to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism?” Mr. Shurman called the thesis a “hateful and poorly researched paper,” and invited the Minister to “speak up on behalf of Jewish groups who have been so deeply hurt by this piece of garbage and condemn it not as an academic paper but for the hate that it actually is.”
Responding to his questioners with expressions of appreciation, Dr. Hoskins said, “I join them in condemning this attack on Ontario's Jewish community.” His responses also included a double reference to the pride he felt “earlier this year when the Legislature came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our campuses....”
I would like to draw several issues to your attention.
1. Mr. Shurman is reported in the newspapers as acknowledging that he had not himself read the MA thesis that he denounced in such inflammatory terms. Dr. Hoskins appears not to have read it either—and the wording of his first response would suggest that he believed Mr. Clark also derived his opinions about it at second hand: “I too, was greatly disturbed and in fact disgusted when I read the immediate reports as well.”
In contrast to your colleagues in the Legislature, I have read Ms. Jenny Peto’s MA thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education. I believe that the language used by the two MPPs and by the Minister to characterize this thesis is very seriously misleading. It is in my opinion a well-researched study with a clearly-defined ethical focus; it makes thoughtful and interesting use of critical race theory to construct a persuasive interpretive framework, and it arrives through close critical analysis at conclusions that could lead into further productive work at the doctoral level.
2. The central argument of Ms. Peto’s thesis—alluded to by Mr. Clark and Mr. Shurman—is that two particular Holocaust education projects, the “March of the Living” and the “March of Remembrance and Hope,” are making instrumental and political use of the appalling history of Jewish martyrdom and suffering in the Shoah, and thereby perpetuating claims to victimhood that, in Ms. Peto’s words, “are no longer based in a reality of oppression,” but rather produce effects that benefit “the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state.”
Harsh though Ms. Peto’s language might seem to some readers, this is in fact an issue that is being vigorously discussed within Israel—perhaps most movingly and brilliantly by the film-maker Yoav Shamir, in his documentary Defamation. In that film’s climactic sequences, Shamir accompanies a group of Israeli teenagers who are being taken to Poland by one of the Holocaust education programs that Ms. Peto’s thesis discusses. There is a sequence in which these adolescents, having toured the site of the death camp at Auschwitz, are overwhelmed by the horror of the place and the appalling scale of the atrocities inflicted there; they huddle together in little groups, weeping. This scene is unforgettable. But scarcely less so is the new hardness that some of the young people then immediately express in relation to the sufferings of the Palestinians living in the territories illegally occupied by their country since 1967.
Shamir’s documentary leaves viewers with a clear sense that this hardness toward the Palestinians is an intended effect of the state-organized program whose workings he has shown us. (I would urge you and your colleagues, Mr. Premier, to watch this film: it is available online at http://www.defamation-thefilm.com/html/home_english.html. Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Dr. Hoskins may find it instructive that the argument they object to so vehemently in Ms. Peto’s work is unambiguously supported by Yoav Shamir’s documentary footage.)
3. Arguments similar to those of Ms. Peto’s MA thesis have recently been made by a distinguished Israeli politician, Avraham Burg, in his book The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes. For a brief account of this book’s relevance to current political debates in Canada, see Gerald Caplan, “A Mideast reading list for Tories willing to learn,” The Globe and Mail (27 August 2010). Noting that Burg, the son of a prominent Israeli cabinet minister, has himself been “a leader of the Labour Party, speaker of the Knesset, and chairman of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive,” Caplan writes that “From the heart of Israel itself, Mr. Burg has the courage to accuse his fellow Israelis of deliberately exploiting the Holocaust as an excuse to treat Palestinians deplorably.”
4. In their remarks in the Legislature on December 7th, the two opposition MPPs and your cabinet colleague agreed that Ms. Peto’s MA thesis is an expression of antisemitic hatred, and an attack on the Jewish community. I would argue that it is crucial for members of the Legislature to recognize that the issue of antisemitism has become heavily politicized in Canada—and that claims made on this subject have with increasing frequency been motivated by a desire to silence legitimate criticism of the actions and policies of the state of Israel by branding them as antisemitism and as hate speech.
Claims motivated in this manner have often taken the form of assertions that Canadian civility and decency are menaced by a “new antisemitism,” in which the traditional antisemitic loathing of Jews and Judaism has mutated into hatred of “the collective Jew” and now takes the form of attempts to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel.
However, many distinguished contemporary scholars of Judaism and antisemitism have rejected attempts to expand the category of antisemitism by conflating it with criticisms of Israeli state policy and actions. These scholars include the late Raul Hilberg, whose magisterial three-volume work The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) is acknowledged as the seminal study of the Shoah; University of Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, whose writings on antisemitism include “The Collective Jew: Israel and the New Antisemitism,” Patterns of Prejudice (June 2003), and “The Myth of the New Antisemitism,” The Nation (February 2004); Yakov M. Rabkin, Professor of History at the Université de Montréal, whose book Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme (2004) was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Award; and Marc H. Ellis, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, a theologian whose nearly two dozen books include The End of Jewish History: Auschwitz, the Holocaust and Palestine (2005).
Their principal reason for rejecting the conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies is that its obvious purpose is to deflect attention away from Israel’s systematic violations of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, in its treatment since 1967 of the people of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
A secondary reason is that this conflation actually detracts from the struggle against real antisemitism. As Professor Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens has written, “[W]hen a worthy cause, like that of ‘zero-tolerance to antisemites’, is appropriated by a regressive campaign whose purpose is, in effect, to terminate any critical engagement with the subjugation, repression and expropriation of another people, the Palestinians, then the worthy cause suffers. Antisemites rejoice when criticism of Israel’s Wall in Palestine is equated with antisemitism. For they are suddenly included in the wider community of fair minded people for whom the collective humiliation, mass harassment and disconnection of a whole people from their own backyards, not to mention the rest of the world, constitutes a hideous state of affairs in need of urgent redress.”
5. I have myself published on these subjects. I am the editor and part-author of Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (2010), a book described by Gerald Caplan, in the same Globe and Mail article in which he introduced Avraham Burg to Canadian readers, as “indispensable” and “important.” I would note that two matters raised in the Legislature, the first by the comments of Mr. Clark, and the second by Dr. Hoskins’s responses, are dealt with at some length in my book.
6. Mr. Clark asked Dr. Hoskins: “What are you doing as Minister of Citizenship to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism?” But is there actually, as B’nai Brith Canada has repeatedly asserted, an alarming resurgence of antisemitism in Canada? Recognizing this as an important question, I devoted a long chapter to it in Antisemitism Real and Imagined (“Data and Deception: Quantitative Evidence of Antisemitism,” pp. 165-205). My conclusion, after detailed comparative analysis of the available statistical evidence, was that although Canadian Jews continue to be disproportionately victimized in hate crimes, antisemitic attitudes have declined steadily in recent decades, and Statistics Canada and Toronto Police Service data show declines in antisemitic hate crimes. It would therefore have been appropriate for Dr. Hoskins to reply by expressing a due determination to act firmly against antisemitism and all other forms of racism—and then to have added that according to the best available evidence, there is no “rising tide” of antisemitism in Canada.
7. The second of these two matters was evoked by Dr. Hoskins’s double reference to the pride he felt “earlier this year when the Legislature came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our campuses....” He was alluding to the vote taken in the Legislature on February 25th, 2010, in the presence of just thirty MPPs, to condemn Israeli Apartheid Week as “odious.”
It would have been more appropriate for Mr. Hoskins to feel shame over that vote, which revealed a remarkable level of ignorance among members of the Legislature.
The term “apartheid” was applied with clinical accuracy by Marwan Bishara in 2001 to describe what Israel had done in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the early 1990s onward, “physically and demographically divid[ing] up the West Bank and Gaza into islands of poverty, or bantustans, while maintaining economic domination and direct control over Palestinian land and natural resources” (Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid , p. 4). The term was re-used by former US President Jimmy Carter in 2006 (Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid)—a usage validated in 2007 by Israel Prize laureate and former Israeli Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni (“Yes, There is Apartheid in Israel,” CounterPunch [8 January 2007]). And in January 2010, Henry Seigman, the former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and current President of the US/Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that Israel’s “relentless” construction of new settlements “seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that ‘achievement’ [...] Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the western world” (“Imposing Middle East Peace,” The Nation [7 January 2010]).
More conclusively, in May 2009 the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa published a report produced by a team of South African and international jurists and entitled Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A Reassessment of Israel's Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Under International Law (http://www.hrsc.ac.za/Document-3227.phtml). This report came to the conclusion that Israel’s rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is “a colonial system that implements a system of apartheid.”
Dr. Hoskins is proud to have condemned as unacceptable and hateful any application of the term “apartheid” to the structures of land theft, cantonment, and racialized subjugation, separation, and oppression of a subject-population that characterize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But South African legal scholars have had direct and bitter experience in their own country of the realities of apartheid. Are we to believe that members of the Ontario Legislature know better than they do what apartheid is?
* * * *
I would propose, in concluding, that the issue at hand is not one of whether we should provide Holocaust education to our children. I have strong feelings on this subject: I have traveled widely in Poland, and during those travels have walked on what I regard as sacred ground—in the vacant spaces that are all that remain of synagogues in Lodz and Lublin, in the surviving Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, in the gas-chamber at Majdanek, and in the hillside monument of shattered gravestones that is Kazimierz Dolny’s only memorial to the fifty percent of the town’s population who were murdered in the Shoah. What is at issue is not the question of whether our children should know this history, so they can dedicate themselves to ensuring that horrors of this kind can never be repeated: all of us, surely, believe this should be the case.
What is at issue, rather, is our right to subject the various representations of and responses to that history to lucid criticism and analysis—and to speak out openly when it appears that they are being used, not to bring young people into a determination to stand up against injustice, but instead to desensitize them to present-day actualities of dispossession, oppression, and suffering.
Ms. Jenny Peto has exercised that right in an MA thesis that in my opinion deals courageously with difficult and painful materials. I honour her for it.
I hope, Mr. Premier, that you and your fellow leaders in the Ontario Legislature—the Speaker of the House, the members of your cabinet, and the leaders of the two opposition parties, Ms. Horwath and Mr. Hudak—may be able to provide the appropriate leadership to bring other MPPs to an understanding of the principles of university autonomy and academic freedom, and the underlying principle that the intellectual work of universities must not be constrained by political interference.
I hope you may be able as well to inculcate a fuller recognition among members of the Legislature of the meaning of parliamentary decorum. Behaviour reminiscent of the denunciatory antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s does not enhance the dignity of our Legislature—and there is reason to believe that the statements made by Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Dr. Hoskins amount to an abuse of parliamentary privilege. It would appear that none of the three MPPs had direct knowledge of Ms. Peto’s MA thesis, and Mr. Shurman’s remark, reported by the National Post on December 9th, is particularly shocking in its casualness: “He hasn’t read the paper, but nonetheless owes it to his largely Jewish constituents to defend Israel on their behalf, he said.”
All three MPPs made statements which, if spoken outside the Legislature, without the protection of parliamentary privilege, would be recognized under Canadian law as libelous. I believe there are good grounds for rejecting these statements as irresponsible, ill-informed, and untrue. I would recommend, then, that the Legislature exercise its own collective parliamentary privileges—which include the power to discipline its members—by requiring Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Mr. Hoskins to withdraw and apologize for their remarks.
Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph.