Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Defend Jennifer Peto, a Brave Canadian Critic of Zionism

Canada is mostly a diluted version of the USA. But Canadians are justly proud of their country’s resistance to the abrasive style of American politics. In one respect, though, it is more extreme than the United States – it is the only country with a more fanatical Israel Lobby.

When the University of Toronto recently accepted a Master’s thesis critical of Jewish privilege, the Lobby, the media, and politicians, immediately condemned it as ‘hate’. Some of these legislators declared the University should not have awarded the M.A. to Sociology and Equity Studies student Jennifer Peto, an unprecedented interference of the government in academic freedom.

When a Jewish anti-Zionist like Peto is physically threatened by Zionists and denounced by politicians, the first thing is obviously to defend her and her freedom of speech. But there is a danger in giving extra credit to her argument because it has come under such vicious attack from the Lobby.

The extreme reaction of the Lobby to any criticism has the effect of encouraging narcissism in critics, especially Jewish ones – there is nothing like persecution to make people self-righteous, and Zionists know this better than anyone! To be a Jewish critic of Zionism in a Western country today is less risky than to have joined the white anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, who were on the receiving end of letter-bombs as well as abuse. Still, Peto is a brave woman, and her thesis honestly describes her difficult break with her Zionist upbringing.

Her thesis, ‘The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education’, is a development of the tradition of left-wing criticism of various kinds of ‘privilege’ – white, male, etc.1 She reviews How Jews Became White Folks.2 She thinks that race is socially constructed: “race, whiteness and ethnicity produce, and are produced by, nationalist discourses.” She uncritically repeats the idea that Israel is a US ‘client state’ but admits “the discourses that are used in defence of Israel are different than those used to excuse or deny American, Canadian and other Western imperial violence.” It’s not that complicated. Never mind ‘discourses.’ Is it in the interests of the other Western capitalist countries to give unconditional support to Israel, or not? In short, she has no critique of Jewish power.

Peto states, “My work is based in the understanding that Zionism – the belief that Jewish people have a right to a nation-state built on top of the ruins of Palestine – is a racist, imperialist ideology that can only effectively be challenged through anti-racist, anti-imperialist theory and activism.” I argue the exact opposite – I want to challenge her and the left in general to ask why this approach was so effective in the case of South Africa, and so ineffective against Israel. She has nothing to say about ‘the chosen people’ and the festivals which celebrate massacres of gentiles – she makes no attempt to answer the question “is Zionism an expression of Judaism”? She explicitly says, “Jews of European descent now enjoy white privilege,” which implies a) they didn’t used to enjoy privilege at all, and b) the privilege they now enjoy is not specifically Jewish. She compares Canada’s history of ethnic cleansing with Israel’s. This is not how to undermine Zionism.

A thesis is not a political manifesto, but obviously, Jennifer Peto is an activist, and her paper’s argument leads to certain conclusions, certain tactics, for the growing campaign to reduce uncritical support for the apartheid state in the rest of the world. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to criticize it from a tactical point of view.

My argument is, quite simply, that left-wing anti-oppression politics is inadequate for combating Zionism. Telling the white European majority of the Western countries that Jewish privilege is essentially a variant of their own is not only false, it leads logically to solidarity with Israel. Surely it would be more effective to point out that most Americans have no interest in supporting Jewish supremacy, rather than telling them they are ‘complicit’ in racism? Concern with the history of white European racism assisted the dismantling of apartheid in Africa, desegregation, affirmative action, busing and African-American studies, but it doesn’t lead to opposing the Jewish apartheid state.


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