Jenny Peto — At the centre of a firestorm over her U of T master’s thesis.
When Jenny Peto received her master’s degree from University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in June 2010, she had no idea she would become the target of political denunciation reminiscent of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Cold War.
In December, two members of the Ontario legislature, Tory MPPs Steve Clark and Peter Shurman used question period to denounce Peto. Citing her master’s thesis as “shockingly anti-Semitic” and expressing surprise that the University of Toronto would accept it, Clark asked citizenship and immigration minister Eric Hoskins what he was doing “to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism.”
Shurman followed up — describing Peto’s thesis as a “hateful and poorly researched paper attacking programs that use the horrors of the Holocaust to somehow show the dangers of discrimination and racism by Jews” and asking the minister, “Will you today 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 it actually is?”
Rather than defending academic freedom, Hoskins responded to Clark that he was “greatly disturbed and in fact disgusted when I read the media reports.” To Shurman, Hoskins said, “Again, I appreciate the question from the member opposite. I join them in condemning this attack on Ontario’s Jewish community.”
Media coverage revealed that none of the three had read Peto’s thesis entitled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.
In the thesis, Peto used critical race theory to construct an interpretive framework for examining two Holocaust education projects — the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope. Peto argued that these programs make political use of the history of Jewish martyrdom and suffering in the Shoah, thereby perpetuating claims to victimhood that “are no longer based in a reality of oppression,” but rather produce effects that benefit “the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state.”
CAUT executive director James Turk said he was “shocked” by the politicians’ attacks on Peto and academic freedom. “But the good news is, the university administration spoke out immediately upholding academic freedom that is the foundation of post-secondary education.”
University of Toronto vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak told the Toronto Star on Dec. 7 that “freedom of inquiry lies at the very heart of our institution” and that “the best way for controversy to unfold is for members of our community to engage with the perspectives and arguments they dispute.”
In an open letter
to Premier Dalton McGuinty, University of Guelph professor Michael Keefer expressed his concern about the denunciation of Peto and the attack on her academic freedom. He said, “In contrast to your colleagues in the Legislature, I have read Ms. Jenny Peto’s thesis … 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.”
Keefer noted that no one questions whether our children should know the history of the murder of six million Jews so they can dedicate themselves to ensuring that horrors of this kind can never be repeated.
“What is at issue, rather,” Keefer wrote, “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.”
According to Turk, the reemergence of McCarthy-like attacks on academic freedom in the Ontario legislature, with an outpouring of support from many newspaper editorials, blogs and radio talk shows, is worrying.
“But unlike the 1950s, there was quick and unequivocal defence of academic freedom by the university administration and by colleagues around the country,” he said.
He speculated that a lingering impact will be self-censorship within the academic community — causing students and faculty to avoid important research that may be controversial and may elicit political attacks. “If this happens, then we will all be the losers.”