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Elliot Leven

Dr. Catherine Chatterley

The strange case of Jennifer Peto

Op-Ed by Elliot Leven followed by Op-Ed by Dr. Catherine Chatterley followed by letter by Peto's sister

By Elliot Leven, and separate Op-Ed by Dr. Catherine Chatterley, March 2,2010

 [The following is an Op-Ed by  Elliot Leven, a Winnipeg lawyer.Follwong this Op-Ed there is another Op-Ed regarding Jennifer Peto's thesis by Dr. Catherine Chatterley]

A University of Toronto Sociology Master’s thesis called “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education” does not make for light reading.  However, I can report that I just finished reading this tome, authored by a Toronto, Jewish lesbian named Jennifer Peto.  The thesis attacks the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope, based on a review of their websites.

 Ms. Peto is an organizer for the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.  In her thesis, she brags about how she was arrested by the Toronto police on January 7, 2009 for participating in an eight-person occupation of the Israeli consulate.  Though proud of her arrest, she confesses that she was disappointed that it did not get more media attention.  Ms. Peto also mentions in her thesis that she helped to organize Israeli Apartheid Week in 2009.

The thesis made the news in December when two Members of the Ontario Provincial Parliament denounced Ms. Peto in the legislature.  One called the thesis “shockingly anti-Semitic”.  The other was “disgusted”.  Unfortunately, neither actually read it.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the thesis is Ms. Peto’s reminiscence of how, at age 15, she was kicked out of Jewish History class for fighting with her narrow-minded teacher about Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was the lunatic who murdered 50 Muslims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.  

According to Ms. Peto, her misguided teacher referred to Goldstein in a positive way and, when Ms. Peto objected, the teacher sent her to the principal’s office where she was reprimanded. Ms. Peto adds that, at the Orthodox schools she attended, she was always getting in trouble for her unorthodox views.

I am not sure why Ms. Peto included the Baruch Goldstein anecdote in her Masters thesis.  If I were a psychoanalyst, I might speculate that the thesis is Peto’s revenge on all the narrow-minded teachers who ever sent her to the office. Certainly, if not for the hilarious academic jargon (the word “hegemonic” has not been used so often since Chairman Mao died), the thesis might well have been written by an angry 15-year-old, looking for revenge against her Orthodox teachers.

The attacks on the thesis by Ontario politicians became a minor side-show.  These attacks attracted coverage by the National Post and Macleans.  Defenders of Ms. Peto waved the banner of “academic freedom” in her defence.

In any event, this is what the thesis says. It starts with the observation that, in North America today, Jews are “white” (i.e. relatively advantaged).  Though North American anti-Semitism exists, it has declined a lot, and is now fairly minor.  Ms. Peto digresses to note that white Jews in the southern United States and in apartheid-era South Africa were also advantaged. She mentions in passing that some white Jews fought on the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

Ms. Peto then turns to Israel, which she labels an “Apartheid State”.  She feels that Zionism is a “racist, imperialist ideology”.  She believes that, in 1948, Israel “ethnically cleansed” over 750,000 Palestinians.

Next she focuses on the March of the Living (an annual trip to Poland and Israel for Jewish youth), and the March of Remembrance and Hope (an annual trip to Poland for non-Jewish youth).  Her only source of information about the marches was their official websites.  She did not speak to a single participant in either march.  She attacks the “Holocaust industry”.  Jews cunningly emphasize the Holocaust so that they can posture as victims, as opposed to the “white” group that they really are. She feels that both marches serve to strengthen Israeli apartheid.

[The following is an op-ed by Elliot Leven and separate Op-Ed by Dr Catherine Chatterley

Ms. Peto mentions gay rights, and notes that Zionists in recent years have begun to talk about Israel’s tolerance of gays and lesbians.  She comments: “Like women’s rights, gay rights can be deployed as a justification for imperial wars against nations that do not respect human rights.”  She does not say a word about the state of gay rights in the Arab world.

Ms. Peto concludes: “Those of us committed both to preserving the integrity of Holocaust education and to fighting against racism and imperialism, must challenge hegemonic, Zionist Holocaust education that works to defend Israeli Apartheid and to further entrench the white privilege of Jews in the West.”  She offers no practical suggestions for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ms. Peto’s thesis raises many issues.  Firstly, the Ontario politicians who attacked it without reading it were fools.  Secondly, of course, students and professors (and journalists) should have the academic freedom to criticize Israel for its shortcomings.  I regularly criticize Israel in these pages for such things as its West Bank settlement policies. Israel, like all nations, has its flaws.

Most importantly, the thesis is poorly written.  The idea of analysing a program based only on an official website is so ludicrous that I can’t believe Ms. Peto and her thesis advisor ever entertained the thought.  Websites are often superficial. Official websites are at best one piece of information among many.  Perhaps an essay for a marketing course might focus entirely on a website.  But a Sociology Masters thesis? 

As for Ms. Peto’s arguments, there is a tiny kernel of truth in what she says.  But, like an angry 15-year-old, she overplays her hand.  Yes, North American Jews have suffered less than other minority groups such as African Americans.  Yes, North American anti-Semitism is much less pervasive than it used to be.  Yes, Israel has shortcomings, and some Diaspora Jews are too timid about discussing them.  Yes, we sometimes put a bit too much emphasis on the Holocaust. Yes, the March of the Living does include a Zionist message.

If Ms. Peto had stuck to these facts, she might have written a very thoughtful thesis. Unfortunately, “thoughtful” is not Ms. Peto’s style.  She never uses an objective statement when overblown rhetoric will do.  The thought that human beings often have mixed motives never crosses her mind. The idea that the organizers and participants in the two marches might feel genuine sorrow about the Holocaust and might find the marches a heartfelt way to remember its victims, never occurs to her.  

The historical question of whether millions of lives might have been saved if a tiny little State of Israel had existed in the Tel Aviv area in 1933, is not one which Ms. Peto cares to think about.

The issue of whether modern Israel might be a mixture of positive and negative qualities (e.g. a genuine respect for gay rights, but a set of unjust policies in the West Bank) does not fit into Ms. Peto’s black-and-white narrative.

Pity.  Maybe someone will write a thoughtful Masters thesis about the ways Canadian Jews think about the Holocaust.  But that someone is not likely to be Jennifer Peto.



By Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Founding Director, Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA)

Reading Jennifer Peto’s MA thesis, “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education,” I was struck by how wounded this young woman sounds and by how self-referential and self-indulgent the thesis is as a piece of writing. This text is a diatribe placed between two confessional diary entries. The author admits to feeling like an outcast, to resenting her Orthodox upbringing, and to experiencing violence and oppression in the Jewish community. These are very real personal feelings but whether they form a legitimate basis for a scholarly investigation into some of the most complex problems we face today is questionable indeed.


The goal of scholarship is to understand difficult and complex human problems through the application of balanced and well-reasoned analysis of all available evidence. In contrast, politicized writing is self-serving and interested only in one’s own evidence and perspective, and often it serves itself by attempting to misrepresent its opponents or to ignore their arguments entirely. I am not sure that Jennifer Peto knows the difference between scholarly and politicized writing but the faculty members of her thesis committee should, and it was their pedagogical responsibility to make sure that the work of this young student adhered to the well-established standards of scholarly research, regardless of her personal wounds and political opinions.


The problems in the thesis are too many to mention but here are just a few: “Jewish privilege” is a questionable concept that requires further interrogation; antisemitism is not simply a form of racism and cannot therefore be fought by simply fighting racism; “whiteness” is an American concept that does not resonate in Canada or in Europe the way the author imagines (for example, Jews were considered “orientals,” among others things, in Europe); and, on the flawed equation of Israel and Apartheid South Africa the author fails to even acknowledge that there is an established debate on this proposition.


My view of the subject is diametrically opposed to that of Jennifer Peto. Holocaust education is far from hegemonic and, in fact, rather than being propagandistic this education has been universalized to focus on generic human hatred so that it appeals to everyone. Holocaust education, as I have written elsewhere, has not adequately taught students about the nature and history of European antisemitism, which is the ideology that actually produced Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Jennifer Peto’s thesis in fact reflects this fundamental lack of understanding. And this misunderstanding leads her, and many others, to accuse Jews of having failed to learn the “universal lessons” of the Holocaust—a most cruel and distasteful irony.


Editor's note:  A letter to the Editor written by  Jennifer Peto's brother David Peto entitled Leave Grandma Out of This was published in the  National Post and is worth a read.   In it David Peto  says that he cannot  allow his sister "to misappropriate publicly our grandmother’s memory to suit her political ideology."
The letter begins:  "It is not my desire to get involved with the details of my sister Jenny Peto’s thesis, which has recently generated tremendous controversy. There are people far more qualified than I to debate the merits of the thesis, or lack thereof. There is, however, one point that I would like to contest. My sister dedicated her thesis to our late grandmother, Jolan Peto. She asserted that if our grandmother “were alive today, she would be right there with me protesting against Israeli apartheid.”  To read the  rest of the letter, click here:



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