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Debate over Peto thesis reaches the halls of government as Israel/Palestine proxy battle rages on in Canada

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Check out this extraordinary exchange in Ontario’s legislature (Hoskins is the Liberal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the other two are Conservative members of the provincial parliament.) Here’s a portion:

Mr. Steve Clark: My question is for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Jewish groups are criticizing the University of Toronto for accepting a shockingly anti-Semitic master’s thesis. The Holocaust is a horrible chapter in human history that claimed the lives of six million Jews, yet this disgusting paper attacks educational programs working to ensure such evil is never repeated.

Minister, this House unanimously passed a resolution from the member from Thornhill condemning Israeli Apartheid Week. What are you doing as Minister of Citizenship to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: I deeply appreciate the member opposite raising this. I too was greatly disturbed and, in fact, disgusted when I read the media reports. I want to say first and foremost that this government remains absolutely committed to fighting discrimination in all its forms. I want to add as well that the McGuinty government denounces all acts of anti-Semitism, which we believe are a particularly vile and pernicious form of discrimination, and we will continue our work to protect the human rights of our Jewish community and of all Ontarians.

I was proud that earlier this year, this Legislature in fact came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our university campuses, and we will continue our hard work on behalf of all Ontarians, including our Jewish community. . . .

Mr. Peter Shurman: I wish I could say that this hateful and poorly researched paper attacking programs that use the horrors of the Holocaust to somehow show the dangers of discrimination and racism by Jews was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it’s only the latest example that we’ve seen. There are too many other cases, including this summer, where anti-Semitic material was found at the Scott Library, not to mention an attack on the Jewish student association. Minister, will you today speak up on behalf of Jewish groups who have been so deeply hurt by this piece of garbage and condemn it, not as an academic paper but for the hate it actually is?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: Again, I appreciate the question from the member opposite. I join them in condemning this attack on Ontario’s Jewish community.

I want to reiterate that, as I mentioned, I was very proud earlier this year when the Legislature came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our campuses and in other fora.

What’s going on up in Canada? Is there a frightening new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the land? I take on the debate over “the new anti-Semitism” in Canada in my latest documentary for Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English TV

One of the people I interview in the piece is Jenny Peto – the author of the Masters thesis cited above. She’s not a face-tattooed neo-Nazi pamphleteer, but a Jewish anti-Zionist, active in Canada’s Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Contrary to what those Ontario politicians suggested, she is not opposed to Holocaust education – she is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and deeply engaged with that history. However, her thesis is critical of a particular form of Holocaust education, namely the March of the Living, which, as Mondoweiss readers well know, are the subject of intense debate inside and outside academia.  In the midst of a mini media storm, Peto’s graduate work has become what is likely the only unpublished student paper ever to be debated on the floor of a Canadian legislature. 

What happened is that a right-wing blogger dug up her thesis, and wrote a shrill undergraduate-style hit piece about it, which was picked up by the comment site of Canada’s most right wing national newspaper. The story was followed up both in that paper, The National Post, and Canada’s most liberal daily, The Toronto Star, and voila – suddenly Ontario parliamentarians are falling over each other to denounce it, while at least one of them has admitted that he hasn’t even read it.

So what does this episode tell us about the “rising tide of anti-Semitism” in Canada?

Well, there is actually no such thing, according to the conservative Zionist who is the opinion editor of The National Post. Jonathan Kay, who couldn’t resist his own contribution to the Peto party, told me in an interview what he has written before – that “Canada is the least anti-Semitic country in the entire world, including Israel.” 

So I asked Scott Reid, Conservative politician and Chair of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism if there is a spike in the kind of hate his Coalition was formed to address.  He said, “No, no, no. Absolutely not. It’s funny – I’ve heard people who have criticized us saying that we think this, but there is absolutely no spike in the kinds of anti-Semitic incidents that appall us.” 

Ok, so what exactly is going on here?  

Well, first of all, Canada has been ruled for the last five years by a hard right Conservative government that is now widely recognized as Israel’s most fervent supporter on the world stage. In the same period, the BDS movement has been growing stronger in Canada, along with Israeli Apartheid Week – which launched in Toronto in 2005 and is now in more than 60 cities around the world.  

Amir Gissin, Israel’s Consul General in Toronto, says in the documentary that Canada has emerged as “the most important arena in the world…for this new battlefield that on one hand has all those who want to delegitimize Israel and on the other all those who want to represent it in all its colors.” 

So Canada is the site of a vigorous proxy battle in the Israel-Palestine debate, the government of Israel is watching very closely, and the government of Canada has abandoned its traditional pretense of being neutral and is energetically backing one side – including slashing funding to organizations that are critical of Israeli policies, and hosting an international conference on combating anti-Semitism.

While the savvier players will not even attempt to argue that Canada is in the grips of a renaissance of Jew-hatred, a climate has been created in which growing criticism of Israel’s actions is easily conflated with anti-Semitism, and mainstream media outlets report enthusiastically about each supposed hatefest.  

Peto’s thesis is just the latest fuel for this fire. 

Avi Lewis is a documentary filmmaker and host of the Al Jazeera English show Fault Lines. Lewis is the former host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) current-affairs program On the Map.

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