The Peto thesis and its critics

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To comment on a piece of writing one first must peruse it, pace Ontario MPP Peter Shurman. I have now read “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education,” with what I hope is a critical eye.

There are two aspects of the current controversy caused by the on-line publication of the thesis that need to be examined. The first should, but does not as yet, consist of the arguments raised in the thesis and critical counter-arguments. The latter are proving rather hard to come by at the moment, unless shrill denunciation, calls for a McCarthyite “investigation” of OISE, claims that the author may have committed criminal hate speech, and assorted assertions of the study’s worthlessness without corroborating evidence, are to be taken as serious critique.

The second is precisely that largely illiterate and hostile reception—mainly from journalists with pro-Israel axes to grind, and Canadian pro-Israel organizations, but one or two from members of the academy. Former sociology professor Werner Cohn, for example, has carried out a study (please try not to laugh out loud) of the abstracts of several OISE theses, which prove, he says, that they are left-wing rather than “detached” - thereby indicating how seriously out of touch with current sociological literature he has become.

With staggering chutzpah, Professor Cohn states:

Obviously, had I done a more complete study of the theses themselves, it is conceivable, but not probable, that I would have reached a somewhat different conclusion.

Well, Cohn is in good company. As noted, Peter Shurman, MPP for Thornhill, didn’t think reading Peto’s thesis was necessary—it’s “hate,” Israel needs defending, and that’s that. At least the learned professor emeritus actually read Peto—and suggests that she should be criminally prosecuted for hate speech.

Other hacks have weighed in too. The National Post’s Jonathan Kay refers to the thesis as “a confessional essay with footnotes,” indicating rather strongly that he has read only the first few pages, in which Peto, as current academic practice dictates, situates her own subject-position within the context of her arguments. And another journalist, Robyn Urback, engages in a sleazy polemic studded with gems such as this:

Loosely translated, Peto’s thesis amounts to something in the realm of: “I’m onto you, you rich Jews. You’re using the Holocaust to deny your privileged status and pursue your Zionist exploits!”

She goes on to discount the entire thesis on the basis of a conversation she had with somebody.

Perhaps more difficult to dismiss is a person of the stature of historian Irving Abella:

“It’s not scholarship, it’s ideology,” said Abella, a former CJC president. “It’s totally ahistorical; I found it full of untruths and distortions and held together by fatuous and very flabby analysis. It borders on anti-Semitism…I’m appalled that it would be acceptable to a major university.” [emphasis added]

This isn’t serious academic engagement, however. It’s all assertion, not backed up by a single fact or example. If we’re going to have the debate, let’s have it, in a measured academic manner—not this latter-day recrudescence of the Zhdanov Doctrine in different clothing.

In any case, on to the thesis itself. The paper is well-written and free for the most part of academic jargon (she misuses the technical term “perform,” and I have other quibbles of that sort, but that’s all relatively minor stuff). It advances a position, remains focused upon it, and brings in some current scholarship to support, explain and clarify it.

Peto advances the argument—which surely should be uncontroversial in itself—that the builders and supporters of the Israel project have used the fact of the Holocaust in a political manner. She deals with two current Holocaust education projects—the March of Remembrance and Hope, and the March of the Living, the former educating largely non-white participants about the Holocaust, and the latter directed at Jewish students.

In each case, students are taken to actual sites of the Holocaust in Poland. Peto provides a critique of the educational content of both initiatives. She engages in a detailed analysis, highlighting the paradoxical relation between today’s relatively successful Jewish communities in North America, which have, in comparison with other groups such as First Nations, Blacks and Hispanics, achieved considerable social, cultural and political capital since the end of World War II, and the victims of the Holocaust, whose presence-in-absence permits and indeed encourages a sense of victimhood in those same individuals.

This tension is sharply outlined in an actual March of the Living in which Jewish students retrace the steps of the victims of the Holocaust, while draped in Israeli flags. They are then whisked off to Israel just in time for an annual memorial to fallen Israeli soldiers. This links Palestinians to Nazis, and if anyone finds that overstated, I might note that this conflation is hardly uncommon these days.

This vulnerability, Peto argues, (although she doesn’t call it that) is exploited by the professional supporters of Israel, the latter country represented as a bastion of civilization counterpoised against a ceaselessly threatening Other that stands for the antithesis of civil and humane values. This obscures, she says, the reality of life in the Middle East for Palestinians and even for non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel (and, I might add, the Bedouins of the South Negev).

Peto traces the history of Jews in America, and in so doing deploys the term “whiteness” to describe the location of American Jews in a profoundly racialized society. The binarism of Black-white relations in the US is hardly controversial—Governor George Wallace referred unselfconsciously to “the opposite race,” and there’s plenty of that sort of thing around today as more than a few Americans continue to react with shock, anger and dismay that a Black person is presently occupying the White House. Peto argues that US Jews have benefited from being included, willy-nilly, in the “whiteness” category. That is precisely, in fact, where her application of the notion of “white privilege” arises. I see nothing particularly controversial there.

Terms like “white” and “whiteness” should not, in any case, mislead the reader. Peto is not reifying the concepts, but referring to what Brubaker and Cooper call a “category of practice” (as opposed to a category of analysis). She might have helped herself by clarifying this, and placing “white” and “whiteness” in quotation-marks to mark their constructed nature.

Peto argues that a human rights discourse, one of tolerance, can be used to the opposite effect. The humane and the tolerant are the enemies, after all, of the inhumane and intolerant, and if the enemies of Israel can be placed in the latter broad category in classic binary fashion, then whatever happens to them can be rationalized. It is a supreme irony, for example, that a Museum of Tolerance in Israel is literally being built at the moment on the graves of Muslims.

The two educational initiatives that she deals with, in short, are fraught with paradox and ideology. The remembrance of the Holocaust that they evoke is a specifically constructed remembrance, one that has clearly political content.

Perhaps both the strengths and weaknesses of Peto’s thesis are summed up in this comment of hers:

Even as I argue that this victimized Jewish subjectivity is deployed strategically, there is a historical and contemporary basis for white Jews to feel insecure and concerned about continuing to fight anti-Semitism. What I am critical of is that this struggle against anti-Semitism has become so enmeshed with Zionist politics that the effects of hegemonic white Jewish human rights activism are often racist and imperialist. Many hegemonic Jewish Zionist organizations that work on issues of anti-Semitism operate within the discourse of human rights, either in place of, or alongside notions of tolerance and diversity. (67)

I think, broadly speaking, that Peto has a point, in fact several points, and, furthermore, that they are much better argued than her current detractors seem capable of admitting. But there are also weaknesses in her position that detract from the case she is rather too easily attempting to make.

First of all, her range of reference is distressingly short—he bibliography is only two pages or so in length, and contains such familiar anti-Zionist commentators as Norman Finkelstein and Ilan PappĂ©. She rarely rises above a superficial critique of her sources, which tend, in any case, to be in large part her ideological allies: too often she simply recapitulates their arguments. She does leave herself open, therefore, to the charge of confirmation bias in her selection of sources.

This is only enhanced by obvious errors such as this:

Palestinians who want to run for government office must pledge their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish only state. (10)

It is true that new citizens may be required at some point to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish state,” and that is distasteful enough in a country that allegedly adheres to democratic values. But Israeli Palestinian office-seekers are not currently required to take any such oath, let alone having to proclaim loyalty to a “Jewish only state.”

More importantly, however, there is a signal lack of nuance, and, I would argue, a concomitant lack of humaneness, in her rather too blanket approach. If, as she maintains, “the struggle against anti-Semitism has become so enmeshed with Zionist politics that the effects of hegemonic white Jewish human rights activism are often racist and imperialist,” I would have liked to see some attempt at unmeshing in her thesis.

Are such educational projects, for all their obvious political function, entirely free of decent motives such as the desire simply to convey the profound unease of a people for many of whom the Holocaust still remains a living memory? Are all participants merely shills or dupes? There is rather too much two-dimensional commentary in the paper, in which there is only one “Zionism,” of necessity racist, where Jews are presented monolithically despite the occasional nod to the contrary, and where categories such as “white privilege,” even given their validity, obscure the various contestations and counter-currents within the “Jewish community”—certainly exemplified by Peto herself.

She tends to fall prey, in other words, to the very binarism that she deplores. While she raises provocative and timely questions, ones well worthy of serious discussion rather than polemical dismissal, she seems locked into an ideological position that is too narrow to permit a more multi-faceted analysis in which (for example) the various Jewish critiques of the state of Israel can be accounted for.

Worth an MA? Certainly. But if Peto goes on, perhaps she might find it worthwhile to apply her obvious powers of analysis and insight to some of her own bedrock assumptions.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on December 11, 2010 3:10 PM.

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