Bright is not necessarily right

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 24, 2011

On December 17 last, I devoted this column to a consideration of the academic accomplishments of Ms Jennifer Peto, who had submitted to the University of Toronto a Master's thesis entitled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.

In this thesis, and on the basis of what I considered its shallow consideration of two Holocaust education projects, Ms Peto had sought to condemn "Jewish people of European descent" who enjoy what she termed "white privilege" and who perpetuate (in her opinion), "claims about Jewish victimhood" merely to garner support for the state of Israel.

I asked how such an esteemed seat of learning could think it right to award academic credit for a work of unbridled propaganda.

Following publication of that column, several of you contacted me to ask why I had not seen fit to allude to the fact that Ms Peto is Jewish. I deliberately refrained from alluding to this because it seemed to me irrelevant to the argument I was making, which was one related to the academic standards of the University of Toronto, and not to Ms Peto's ethnic and/or religious identity.

The ethnic and/or religious identities of my students are of no consequence to me when I evaluate their work: it was this professional objectivity that I automatically applied to the Peto case.

How can an Orthodox synagogue nominate an opponent of brit milah?

But, in the case I now bring to your attention, the ethnic and religious identities of the student are pivotal; I have no hesitation whatever in alluding to them.

The student in question is Ms Rebecca Steinfeld, currently undertaking doctoral research at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. The title of her thesis is War of the Wombs: The History and Politics of Fertility Policies in Israel, 1948-2010. Upon her website, Ms Steinfeld summarises for us what she is setting out to prove:

"The research… focuses on the extent to which the archival sources substantiate the claim… that Israel has established and maintained an ethnically selective pro-natalist policy that seeks to simultaneously encourage a higher Jewish birthrate and a lower non-Jewish, specifically Palestinian-Arab, one with the aim of ensuring a Jewish majority through internal population growth."

This is a legitimate subject of research and I look forward to reading the fruits of it in due course. I must confess that the fact that Ms Steinfeld's doctoral supervisor is Professor Avi Shlaim causes me some slight unease but I have sufficient confidence in the examination procedures of the University of Oxford to rest assured that the thesis will be subjected to the most rigorous independent assessment.

But that is not why I am bringing Ms Steinfeld to your attention. I bring her to your attention because, on the Guardian's website on June 14, Ms Steinfeld co-authored a polemic against brit milah - the circumcision of males as ordained by the Torah and as practised for millennia throughout the Jewish world.

While acknowledging the importance of freedom of religious practice, Ms Steinfeld and her co-author (a fellow Oxford doctoral student) declared:

"In the 21st century, it is time to remember that men, too, can be victims of unjust hegemonic systems tolerated in the name of tradition, culture or religion. If we oppose female genital mutilation, has the time not come for us also to oppose male genital mutilation?"

As the JC reminded us last week, Ms Steinfeld is establishing for herself a track record as a leading anti-Jewish Jew of the younger generation. On her own Twitter page she has reportedly evinced some sympathy for the BDS movement and she (or someone bearing her identical name) was a signatory of the notorious full-page advertisement in The Times of December 1, 2009, supporting the now-discredited Goldstone Report. More to the point, she is reported to have described shechitah as "awful" and to have criticised the Board of Deputies' support of it.

Ms Steinfeld was appointed by the New West End synagogue as one of its under-35 "observers" at meetings of the Deputies. It is an orthodox synagogue. Understandably, therefore, the synagogue has now withdrawn her accreditation - for how could it have continued to endorse someone who opposes shechita and brit milah? And to Ms Steinfeld I put what's essentially the same point. In purporting to represent an orthodox synagogue, were you not deliberately sailing under false colours? Would you not now feel happier joining (if they will have you) the San Francisco chapter of Jews Against Circumcision?

Last updated: 11:35am, June 24 2011