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IAM Friday Special: Canada- Masters thesis shines light on OISE facultys anti-Israel agenda / Israel on Campus Where Are We?


Master’s thesis shines light on OISE faculty’s anti-Israel agenda

Written by Atara Beck   

Monday, 20 December 2010

TORONTO – The widespread publicity about the controversial master’s thesis accepted by University of Toronto’s (U of T) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) has brought to light an anti-Israel agenda on the part of some of its faculty, which has been the case for at least several years.

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) activist Jennifer (Jenny) Peto’s paper, titled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, labels the “North American Jewish community as extremely oppressive” and one of “white Jewish privilege,” and attacks March of the Living, a program that takes students together with Holocaust survivors to Poland and Israel, and the March of Hope project, under the umbrella of the Canadian Centre for Diversity – a non-Jewish group – where students of diverse backgrounds travel with Holocaust survivors to concentration camp sites. 

“A victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are extremely beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state,” she wrote.

Many supporters not only of Israel, but also of Canadian and Western values, have been outraged by the contents of Peto’s thesis and – more significantly – by the fact that the allegedly unscholarly paper was accepted by a venerable institution such as U of T. As pointed out by University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus Werner Cohn in a letter to U of T President David Naylor, “I find this thesis to be one of hatred,” but, more significantly, “I do find great fault…with the institution that bestows an academic imprimatur on what amounts to a very subjective emotional creed. The thesis’s aversion to empirical data is absolute…. Peto makes wild and hateful charges against her fellow Jews without a shred of evidence.”

B’nai Brith Canada also sent a letter to Dr. Naylor recently to express its concerns “on the theses of two students, Jennifer Peto and Griffin Jaye Epstein, which appear to put forward outrageously offensive and indeed antisemitic propositions.”

According to the letter, signed by B’nai Brith CEO Frank Dimant, “in terms of Peto’s thesis, respected academics have already reviewed the text and have found that it lacks the minimum academic standards expected of any high-calibre institution…. Claims that appear in the thesis are unsubstantiated. Moreover, human rights advocates have also criticized the central argument.”

Dimant, who did not receive a response before this newspaper’s deadline, pointed out that Professor Sheryl Nestel was Peto’s advisor on the thesis and that “one has to question whether the professor’s own political agenda influenced her role…. We also have to wonder whether allegations currently circulating about OISE are true, namely, that anti-Israel themes have so pervaded Sociology and Equity Studies in the Education program…making such anti-Jewish statements not just acceptable, but worthy of academic recognition. 

“We have long been concerned by the parade of anti-Zionist speakers using OISE facilities and good offices for some time,” Dimant added. “Your records will show that we contacted OISE prior to the first year of the Israeli Apartheid Week, warning that allowing free rein to such a politicized agenda would ultimately compromise the institution’s academic integrity. More recently, we saw attempts to broaden that exercise into the high school arena with ‘strategy’ meetings being hosted behind closed doors at OISE.”

In 2008, the Jewish Tribune planned to attend a publicized High Schools Against Israeli Apartheid (HAIA) meeting in the OISE building, but it turned out to be a closed session with minors, albeit not in compliance with U of T booking procedures. The following year, the Jewish Tribune found evidence suggesting that a flyer promoting an anti-Israel event was sent to a student mailing list by Kristine Pearson, graduate studies liaison officer in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (see Jewish Tribune, Feb. 19, 2009).

More recently, politicians from both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties strongly condemned U of T’s acceptance of the thesis. 

MPP Mike Colle rose at the Ontario Legislature to “condemn the unwarranted attack” made on the Canadian Centre for Diversity program and the March of the living in “the so-called thesis....

“This unmitigated attack by this student at the University of Toronto against caring people who are trying to come to grips with the murder of over six million of their relatives, who were slaughtered by the Nazis, has no place in any university, not does it have any place in Ontario.”

Liberal MPP Eric Hoskins, Ontario Citizen and Immigration minister,  was “greatly disturbed and, in fact, disgusted” by Peto’s paper. 

Progressive Conservative MPP Steve Clark called it "shockingly antisemitic.” 

Dr. Karen Mock, federal Liberal candidate in Thornhill and prominent human rights activist, declared that Peto “did not use empirical data, but simply opinion to support her ideology…. Had the thesis been conducted in a scholarly manner, it would have shown that most Holocaust education today is designed to help students and teachers recognize and understand what white supremacy and all forms of totalitarianism look like and sound like, so they can counter it against all peoples.”

“It’s not scholarship; it’s ideology,” Dr. Irving Abella, a former Canadian Jewish Congress president and history professor at York University, told the Toronto Star. I’m appalled that it would be acceptable to a major university.”

Khaled Mouammar, national president of the Canadian Arab Federation, found it “deplorable” that Hoskins denigrated the thesis “because you don’t agree with her political views.” Like other traditional Israel critics who defended Peto but gave no evidence to support her claims, he accused those who condemned Peto, including elderly Holocaust survivors, of using “bullying” tactics.

According to Cohn, Nestel, who supervised Peto’s thesis, was also on record as promoting Israeli Apartheid Week.



The situation on campus continues to change for Israel's supporters: abuse is now almost everyplace. There have been important successes, like upholding the recent veto of a "boycott, divestment and sanctions" (BDS) proposal at the University of California at Berkeley's student council, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's recent definition of anti-Semitism on campus as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there have also been notable failures, such as the continuing unwillingness of the administration of the University of California at Irvine to take harassment of Jewish and Israeli students and speakers seriously. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was heckled and silenced there by a group of students from the Muslim Student Association before university security stepped in and removed them. These students later accused the university administration of denying them their First Amendment rights.
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