"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jennifer Peto: Jews, Zionism and Holocaust Education

Jenny Peto
Currently, a controversy has arisen regarding University of Toronto graduate Jennifer Peto’s thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.” According to certain members of the Canadian government as well as Holocaust educators, Peto (a queer anti-Zionist Jew, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor) has produced a “shoddy” piece full of “unsupported” theories which constitute an outrageous form of “anti-Semitism.”

That critics would attempt to silence Peto under the banner of self-hating anti-Semitism is altogether unsurprising. Very few have even bothered to read the work before dismissing it wholesale, else they make superficial criticisms such as the contention that Peto did not defer to mainstream texts on Holocaust education or that regardless of her supporting arguments, questioning Holocaust education in any context is unacceptable.

Beware of sensationalism. Peto does not suggest that all Holocaust education must be done away with, or that all Jews are racists or anything else of the sort. Outside of the apparently controversial idea that Jews possess the capacity for racism, she focuses her thesis on the contention that as a result of various factors (which she discusses at length) Ashkenazi Jews have surpassed the mantle of victimhood in Western society. In the same vein as Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah, using empirically demonstrative data, Peto argues that rampant, entrenched anti-Semitism is all but gone. She then criticizes specific methods of what she terms "hegemonic" Holocaust education  which seek to not only obfuscate this fact, but use invocations of perennial victimhood to excuse various Israeli policies. An example: the March of the Living takes Jewish youths on a week-long tour of Polish concentration camps, and has them "march" down the same path as their murdered ancestors draped in Israeli flags. Peto argues that the march is purposefully constructed this way in order to implicitly suggest that the state of Israel is the only thing standing in the way of another Holocaust, and thus must be shielded from any criticism. She also takes issue with various manifestations of ethno/eurocentricism embedded within particular Holocaust education centers. 

Because the controversy has stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of Peto's arguments and supporting evidence, before judging their merits I encourage you to read the entire work for yourself.
It is my sincere hope that the landslide of negative attention will do more to expose Peto’s ideas to a wider audience, magnifying the impact of her work than it will to tarnish her reputation, thereby mitigating her extremely powerful words.

Again, I encourage you to read Peto's thesis on your own. Nevertheless, I have copied her conclusion below; Judge it for yourself.


On December 27, 2008 I sat down to finish my thesis. As is my usual habit of  procrastination, I decided to check my email before getting started. My inbox was flooded with messages informing me that Israel had begun a full-scale military strike on Gaza that had killed over 300 people in the first few hours of bombings. Any thoughts of writing my thesis immediately disappeared. I am an organizer with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto and we immediately began planning our response. Within 24 hours, we organized a rally outside the Israeli consulate that had over 1000 people in attendance. By the next week, the demonstration had grown to over 10,000 protesters. The Jewish Defense League, an extremist, right-wing Zionist group organized small counter-demonstrations at each of our rallies. The media coverage of our demonstrations chose to focus on tensions between pro-Palestinian and Jewish groups, often skewing the numbers of protestors on both sides to make the demonstrations appear even in size. The Canadian government ignored demands to call for sanctions against Israel. Instead, they expressed unconditional support for Israel and repeatedly spoke of Israel’s right to self-defense. Although the mainstream Zionist community was late to enter into the public debates over the war on Gaza, they eventually mounted a campaign against Palestinian activists and their allies. The Canadian Jewish Congress held a press conference, alleging anti-Semitic hate crimes had taken place at many of the demonstrations across the country. Their evidence of these claims was merely video footage of protestors chanting in Arabic and burning Israeli flags – activities that are in no way anti-Semitic.

During the first week of the war, I attended an informal meeting of people looking to engage in direct action to bring attention to the war crimes being committed in Gaza. At that meeting, a group of Jewish activists, myself included, decided to occupy the Israeli consulate in Toronto. Our goal was to disrupt the dominant media message that this is an inter-religious conflict and that all Jews support Israeli aggression and violence. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that many Jews oppose Israel’s actions, in order to help neutralize attempts by Zionists to characterize all criticism of the war as anti-Semitic. Our hope was that this action would allow others – both Jewish and non-Jewish – to feel more empowered to voice their criticism of Israel’s violence against Palestinians without fearing accusations of anti-Semitism. On January 7, 2009, eight of us occupied the Israeli consulate for about two hours before being arrested. We were held in the back of a police wagon for about an hour before being released without charges. All the major news networks were at the consulate and many of us were interviewed, but the story never aired on the evening news. Some articles were published in local newspapers, but for the most part, the media in Canada kept the story quiet. Word of the action spread around the world and we received messages of support from across the globe. In the following days there were similar actions in Montreal, Los Angeles and San Francisco. One success of the action was that after the occupation, there has been noticeably more acknowledgement in the media that there is dissent within the Jewish community and that there are Jewish people who oppose Israeli Apartheid. 

In the weeks that followed the occupation of the consulate, I became one of two main spokespeople for the group that was involved. I was asked to speak at rallies, teach-ins and other events about Gaza and Israeli Apartheid. I received a great deal of attention and recognition for having been part of the action, as well as an outpouring of gratitude from my friends and comrades in the Palestinian community. It was an overwhelming experience and it was difficult to maintain perspective given the pseudo-celebrity status that often comes with direct action. Given the magnitude of suffering in Gaza, alongside the on-going brutality of Israeli Apartheid in the West Bank, Israel and for Palestinian refugees worldwide, it felt inappropriate to be receiving so many accolades for having been arrested and held for just over an hour in a police wagon. The whole experience, especially the attention and praise, only made my privilege that much more evident. I began asking myself a lot of questions about the role of allies in solidarity movements and the place of Jewish anti-Zionist activists in Palestine solidarity work. 

This questioning continued after Israel stopped bombing Gaza as I worked with other activists to finalize preparation for Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). In March 2009, the fifth annual IAW was held in over 40 cities worldwide. Here in Canada, we faced a tremendous backlash for organizing this week of lectures. Members of Parliament, including Liberal leader Michael Ignatief and Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, issued statements condemning IAW as a ‘hatefest’. Several Zionist organizations, including B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress called on universities to ban IAW from their campuses. The poster for the event was banned at Carleton and the University of Ottawa. Here in Toronto, our posters were vandalized and torn down as quickly as we could put them up. The Jewish Defense League protested outside our events and on at least three separate occasions, their members assaulted our organizers and guests. University security and police forces at Ryerson University, York University and the University of Toronto did little to protect organizers and participants from this violence. 

It was during IAW and the intense protests leveled against us, that I once again saw the importance of anti-Zionist Jewish participation in Palestine solidarity activism. I remain convinced that it is not our role to speak for or about Palestinians and will openly criticize other anti-Zionist Jewish activists when they cross that line. Our role is a supporting one – where possible and appropriate, we can help to open up spaces to talk about Palestine and Israeli Apartheid. We can work to counter the false accusations of anti-Semitism and hate crimes that are being increasingly aimed at events like IAW and other Palestine solidarity activism. As Jews we can use our privilege to put forward the argument that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, but is actually part of a broader movement towards social justice. We need to fight for and defend the rights of Palestinians and their allies to speak without fear of spurious accusations of hatred and anti-Semitism. It is vital that we constantly recognize our privilege and find ways of being allies without falling into the narcissism that so often comes with white privilege, narcissism that would make us mistakenly believe that this is somehow our movement to lead. All Jewish anti-Zionist activism must start with an understanding that there would be no movement without Palestinian resistance and we must always remember that this is a Palestinian-led struggle, in which we can and should play a supporting role. 

Jewish anti-Zionism must be rooted in genuine solidarity and the desire to fight for justice, but to be sincere in these efforts we need to admit that we as individuals, and the Ashkenazi Jewish community as a whole, have much to gain from the ending of Zionism. I personally come to this work out of a strong commitment to fighting racism and imperialism, but I also have a stake in reclaiming Holocaust memory and taking back the history of my ancestors from the Zionist hegemony that has co-opted it. I believe that we need to find ways of honouring the Holocaust that are focused on healing the Ashkenazi Jewish community and that challenge Zionism and Jewish racism, as well as the oppression and violence that exists within the Jewish community. To do so, we need to express our rage and sadness about the abuse of Holocaust memory for Zionist and racist purposes. We need to openly challenge hegemonic Holocaust memorial institutions, which have become sacrosanct within Jewish and non-Jewish communities. We must demand a drastic change in the ways in which we engage with the violence of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It is time to end memorials that are meant to traumatize and re-traumatize by forcing generations of Jewish people to try to recreate and relive the horrors. We must force the Ashkenazi Jewish community to face the trauma of our past and admit to the ways in which we have chosen to align ourselves with power in an attempt to ensure that we are not victimized again. We must focus on healing from the trauma of the past so that we can move forward because this morbid focus on victimization and the Holocaust prevents us from understanding the wrongs we commit within the community and against others that are less powerful than we are. 

I am well aware of the controversy that comes with challenging Zionism and the even more intense controversy that can happen when doing so involves criticizing Holocaust memorials and education. I chose to take up these issues because it is my hope that my academic work can be useful in exposing the ways in which Holocaust education and Jewish claims to victimhood are being used obscure Jewish racism, and to garner support for Israeli Apartheid. If my thesis can contribute, even in some small way, to normalizing criticism of Israel and Jewish racism, and if it can open up conversations about the damaging effects of hegemonic Holocaust education I will be satisfied with this academic endeavour.

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