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Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Thesis That Hurts

Over the past few weeks, much ink has been spilled over the University of Toronto master's thesis written by Jenny Peto, "The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust."

Eli Rubenstein, National Post

Over the past few weeks, much ink has been spilled over the University of Toronto master's thesis written by Jenny Peto, "The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust." It attacks two student programs --the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope -- that I have been intimately involved with for a combined total of 30 years. Both programs involve student visits to the sites of Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe (including Auschwitz-Birkenau) as well as many former sites of Jewish life and culture. The March of the Living, which also includes a week-long trip to Israel, is mainly aimed at Jewish high school students. Its goals are both universal (to make the students better human beings, to fight racism and injustice, etc.) and particular (to fight anti-Semitism and to strengthen the students' Jewish identity and connection to Israel).

The March of Remembrance and Hope is aimed at university students from diverse faiths, ethnicities and origins, and has attracted a variety of types of students including First Nation, Rwandan, Sudanese, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Baha'i, Atheist and others. Through the study of the Holocaust and other second world war genocides, the March of Remembrance and Hope teaches about the dangers of intolerance and strives to promote better relations among people of diverse cultures.

A key element of both programs is the testimony of Holocaust survivors who share the memory of their wartime experiences in the very places where they unfolded. Ms. Peto accuses both programs (and the Canadian Jewish community) of abusing the memory of the Holocaust to defer attention from, among many alleged crimes, the Jewish-Canadian responsibility for the genocide of aboriginal peoples, the actions of "racist and imperialist Israel" and the further entrenchment of white privilege of Jews in the West. But Ms. Peto did not bother calling one student, one staff person or even one survivor who took part in the March of the Living or March of Remembrance and Hope programs.

Ms. Peto's thesis suggests that identifying with Israel and the Jewish community while supporting human rights is impossible. Had Ms. Peto tried a little harder, she would have learned that contrary to this contention, and her belief that the March of the Living is a "racist" program, recently published studies show the exceptionally positive long-term impact of the March of the Living on universal values (such as fighting genocide, combatting general racism and tolerance for other groups). These same students surveyed also felt a heightened commitment to their Jewish identity and Israel after the trip, illustrating that commitments to Israel and to human rights are mutually compatible values.

Just a little more effort by Ms. Peto would have shown her that Canadian alumni of the March established two campus organizations dedicated to combating racism and speaking out against genocide. These organizations, SHOUT (Students Helping Others Understand Tolerance) and STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) were created by March alumni, who felt compelled to act after their trip overseas.

Holocaust survivors -- and I have spoken to a number of them -- have been especially hurt by Ms. Peto's charges. Many lost their entire families during the war, yet still share their stories on the trip, despite the enormous personal cost. Every time they speak, the memories return, as they recall lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. But they do it because they want to build a better world for all members of the human family.

Ms. Peto is entitled to her own opinions, but not to her own facts. Sadly, it is the Holocaust survivors who will bear the greatest burden for her mistakes.

- Eli Rubenstein has been national director of the March of the Living for over two decades, and was the founder of the Canadian March of Remembrance and Hope program and the co-founder of the international program of the same name.