Masterful ignorance rewarded

A typical master's degree consists of a number of taught courses and a short thesis - generally 25,000 or so words. I have examined hundreds of such offerings.

A master's thesis is not expected to reflect substantial, original research or the discovery of new knowledge - though some I have examined have in fact fallen not far short of doctoral standard. At master's level, the typical thesis will address a particular topic, present a critical survey of the current literature on it and, through the use of a few examples, will test interpretations of the topic and offer reasoned insights into the validity of the interpretations chosen for discussion.

Polemic - by which I mean a scarcely concealed personal rant, grounded in a highly selective and biased evidential base - has, or ought to have, no place in a master's thesis. I have in fact failed outright more than one such thesis for being just that. But, until last week, I had never come across a master's thesis that (a) fell foul of these strictures, (b) was nonetheless deemed to have reached the required standard and (c) became, thereby, a matter of debate in a national parliament and national news media.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Peto submitted to the University of Toronto a thesis in partial fulfilment of the university's requirements for the award of the degree of Master of Arts. The thesis is entitled: The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education. You can read the entire work (112 pages) on the web, as I have.

Can this seat of learning explain its academic award to a work of propaganda?

Let me, however, summarise Ms Peto's argument for you: Zionism is racism and Israel is a racist state, established through the deliberate ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs and which survives through the implementation of cruel and inhuman policies.

Any endeavour, therefore, which serves to portray this state in a positive light is worthy of condemnation and must indeed be condemned by all right-thinking people.

Ms Peto identifies for special condemnation, "Jewish people of European descent" who enjoy what she terms "white privilege" and who, inter alia, perpetuate "claims about Jewish victimhood" merely to garner support for the Jewish state.

She then singles out two related Holocaust education projects - the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope - to show "how Jewish victimhood is instrumentalised in ways that obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state".

Just for a moment, allow me to make a controversial assumption. I am going to assume that the charges Ms Peto makes against these two Holocaust education projects are credible - at least in theory - and that it is entirely proper for them to be measured against Ms Peto's yardsticks. In that case, I would have expected her to have carried out extensive research into both projects, and indeed to have made this research the focal point of her thesis.

In fact, very little of the thesis concerns itself with such a forensic examination. Peto does not seem to have interviewed a single participant in either of these projects. Indeed, at page 82, she offers the breathtaking excuse that it "was beyond the scope of this project for me to interview [March of the Living] participants, but it would be quite interesting and important to learn about how non-European Jewish youth experience this trip. Without first-hand accounts, I can only hypothesise their discomfort at being forced to identify with Ashkenazi Jewish history".

On the basis of these two sentences alone, I would have failed this thesis: the evident failure to gather empirical testimony and the descent into totally unsubstantiated guesswork. But I should add that I would have failed it on other grounds, too - for example, the failure to survey critically all the literature relevant to the charge of "ethnic cleansing".

But the authorities of the University of Toronto took a different view. They passed the thesis and awarded Ms Peto the master's degree. Whereupon, to his credit, Ontario's minister of citizenship and immigration, Eric Hoskins, roundly condemned the thesis in the provincial legislature earlier this month.

The university is now trying to deflect mounting criticism by appealing to the concept of academic freedom. But the real issue here is academic standards. Can this hitherto esteemed seat of learning explain how it came to award academic credit to a work of mere, unbridled propaganda?

    Last updated: 3:17pm, December 21 2010