Jennifer Peto

The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education

Sionisme sous pression

Master of Arts Degree 2010
Jennifer Peto
_ Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education
University of Toronto


This paper focuses on issues of Jewish identity, whiteness and victimhood within hegemonic Holocaust education. I argue that today, Jewish people of European descent enjoy white privilege and are among the most socio-economically advantaged groups in the West. Despite this privilege, the organized Jewish community makes claims about Jewish victimhood that are widely accepted within that community and within popular discourse in the West. I propose that these claims to victimhood are no longer based in a reality of oppression, but continue to be propagated because a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state. I focus on two related Holocaust education projects – the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope – to show how Jewish victimhood is instrumentalized in ways that obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.


My first memory of questioning my loyalty to the Israeli state is from the 9th grade. It was 1995 and I was almost 15 years old, attending a private Jewish high school in Toronto. One day, during a Jewish History class, our teacher was giving a lesson on the city of Hebron. During the class, he mentioned Baruch Goldstein – the Jewish settler who, in February 1994, had massacred over 50 Palestinians while they were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. When my teacher said Goldstein’s name, he followed it with ‘zichrono livracha’ which is Hebrew for ‘may his memory be blessed’. This is a common practice among Orthodox Jewish people when mentioning the name of someone who is deceased. I remember being completely shocked that he would bless the name of a man who had committed such a horrible act of violence. I raised my hand and asked him why he had blessed Goldstein and not said ‘yemach shmo’ which, in Hebrew, means ‘may his name be erased from history’ and is commonly said after mentioning the name of an evil-doer that has died. My teacher, who himself was an Israeli settler, became enraged, refused to engage in this debate with me and sent me to the principal’s office where I was reprimanded for being disruptive in class.
By this point in my life, I was quite used to being in trouble with teachers and principals. I had been attending Orthodox Jewish schools since kindergarten and all along I had been questioning the worldview that was being presented to me. In the first grade, after having been told that I could not play the lead in our school play because I was a girl, I decided that god was either sexist or nonexistent. Either way, I wanted to have nothing to do with him. Over the years, both my atheism and my feminism only grew stronger within the sexist, gender-normative and heterosexist educational institutions I was forced to attend. That all these values were reinforced at home only made me more convinced of my own beliefs and ideas about morality and social justice. Another important aspect of my childhood that influenced my politics was my fascination with the Holocaust. Learning about the violence that my grandparents had faced gave me a deep commitment to fighting racism and all forms of hatred. I remember being confused by the racism I saw in my family and community – I could not comprehend why the victims of anti-Semitism could not see that their own racist beliefs and actions were just as wrong as those of anti-Semites.
Despite all of my rebellion against the oppressive beliefs of my parents, teachers and religious leaders, the one aspect of my upbringing and education that I never questioned was Zionism – loyalty to the Israeli nation-state. In fact, Zionism fit within my childhood understanding of anti-oppression politics because I believed that Jewish people – like women, queer people and people of colour – were oppressed and deserved protection and safety. I had been taught that the ‘Jewish state’ guaranteed our safety and would prevent another Holocaust from happening again. I believed this line of reasoning because I had never been taught about Palestinian history or been exposed to any anti- Zionist viewpoints. I thought all Palestinians were violent terrorists who wanted to kill all Jews, just like the Nazis had tried to do. My morbid obsession with the Holocaust as a child likely only fueled my fears of Palestinians and the genocide that I was told was always waiting to happen at their hands.
What stands out about the incident in the 9th grade was not that I got in trouble at school, but rather that it was the first time I faced a backlash for raising questions about Israel and arguing, albeit in the most minor way possible, that Palestinian lives and deaths 3 actually matter. Although this was not a life-changing event that completely rocked my Zionist beliefs, it did lead me to start questioning this aspect of my upbringing that I had yet to dismiss as oppressive. I remained a Zionist until first-year university, one year after I left the primarily Jewish suburb that I grew up in. I was having dinner with a friend who I thought was Lebanese – I later learned that his family were Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. His brother, who had just arrived in Toronto from the United Arab Emirates joined us. He was wearing a necklace with Handala1 on it. I recognized it as Naj Al-Ali’s famous cartoon of a Palestinian child holding a rock behind his back and immediately demanded to know why he had a terrorist on his necklace. We then got into an argument about Israel and Palestine that lasted several hours. I pride myself on being able to win most arguments, but in this case I could not beat him – he had facts and history, but all I had was rhetoric and sound-bites. The next day I decided to do more research so that I could win the re-match. Once I began to read about the history of Palestine, I started to understand the violence that was necessary to establish the Israeli state and the violence required to maintain its existence as a Jewish-only state. It was the beginning of the end of my Zionism. The Second Intifada began shortly thereafter, which only accelerated my shift from supporter of Israel to Palestine solidarity activist.
The process of becoming an anti-Zionist Jew can be extremely painful because it requires Jewish people to stop seeing themselves as victims and to accept that by supporting Israel, they are supporting a brutally oppressive regime. For many, this is a devastating realization. It can also have serious repercussions for Jewish people who, upon expressing anti-Zionist views, may become alienated from their families and communities.2 This process has been the subject of many autobiographies of anti-Zionist Jews who reflect on the difficulties they encounter as their views on Israel shift and they become more vocal about their rejection of Zionism and their criticisms of Israel.3
My experience was less painful because I was already an outcast in the Jewish community, and estranged from my family for being atheist, queer, gender-queer, feminist and generally outspoken in a highly normative, Orthodox setting. I had less to lose in terms of family and community than many anti-Zionist Jews. Beyond my already outcast status, I believe that the key factor in my ultimate rejection of Zionism was my ability to let go of the idea that Jewish people are inherently victimized. This was in part due to my education within feminist, anti-racist politics, which had taught me to be able to critically analyze power relations, privilege and oppression. I had already come to see myself as a white-skinned, upper-middle-class person living in the West and had begun to recognize the privilege that I held. As I learned more about the history of Palestine, my political and educational background provided me with the framework necessary to see the privilege that Israelis and all Jewish people have in relation to Palestinians. It is also significant that I had long seen the organized Jewish community as extremely oppressive. As someone who had experienced violence and oppression within my own Jewish community, it was not very difficult for me to accept that Jews could be oppressors and by extension, that the so-called ‘Jewish state’ could itself be oppressive and violent.
I have chosen to start my thesis with this brief history of my own rejection of Zionism because it informs my research and lays the foundation for my primary research questions. In my own narrative of becoming an anti-Zionist Jew, I talked about the significance of the Holocaust in forming my first anti-oppressive ideas. Even after I rejected Zionism, the Holocaust still informed my anti-racist politics. I strongly believed in the idea of extending ‘Never Again’ beyond a fight against anti-Semitism, to a fight against all forms of oppression, including Zionism. I started my Master’s degree hoping to understand why others did not feel the same way. My initial research question was why has the Jewish history of oppression not led more Jewish people to take up anti- oppressive politics, particularly around Palestinian human rights? Throughout the course of my degree, I began to realize that my research question revolved around the assumption that a history of oppression should logically lead people to oppose the oppression of others and to interrogate their own privilege. Not only is this assumption naïve, it also has moralistic undertones about the duties of the oppressed to fight for the rights of others.
Not wanting to see myself as naïve or moralistic, I began to explore the underpinnings of my assumption that victimhood should lead to anti-oppressive politics. I now understand that this assumption may very well have its roots in my Zionist upbringing. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was taught that Jewish people were history’s greatest victims and that we therefore have a unique understanding of suffering. I may have then extrapolated that it was my duty as a Jewish person to use this understanding of suffering as motivation for fighting for the rights of others. In doing so, I never questioned the underlying assumption that as a Jew, I had an intimate, special knowledge of oppression. This is an assumption that ignores the privilege enjoyed by myself and other Jews of European descent. By focusing only on victimization as a potential motivation for identity formation, my original research questions inadvertently reified Jewish victimization, ignored white-Jewish privilege and, I believe, offered little hope of understanding how Jewish identities – both Zionist and anti-Zionist – are formed.
Instead of taking Jewish victimhood as a fact, I have made it the very subject I want to interrogate. I start from the premise that Jewish people of European descent are a group that today holds power and privilege. In Israel, this dominant group oppresses Palestinians and non-white Jews. Worldwide, the organized Jewish community works tirelessly to support the racist Israeli state and in doing so, aligns itself with oppressive forces in their own countries. It has become abundantly clear that the historical victimization of Jewish people has not led the mainstream Jewish community to support anti-oppressive or anti-racist politics. This phenomenon cannot be blamed on a lack of knowledge about this history of oppression because the last thirty years have seen a proliferation of well-funded memorial projects, feature films and an enormous literature, both popular and academic, dedicated to the subject of anti-Semitism in general, and the Holocaust specifically4. My research is therefore aimed at answering the question of how can we explain the existence of a tremendous educational apparatus dedicated to teaching about the history of Jewish suffering within a mainstream Jewish community that is dominated by racist and Zionist ideologies? Rather than asking the morally loaded question of why most Jewish people seem not to have learned from their history, I instead want to ask what are they learning from the history they are being taught? In other words, 7 what are the effects of education projects that focus on Jewish victimhood? Given the privilege – and I would call this white privilege – now enjoyed by Jews of European descent, how and why has Jewish identity continued to revolve around victimhood? Who benefits from the construction of a victimized Jewish identity?
I have chosen to focus my thesis on issues of Jewish identity, whiteness and victimhood. I will present evidence showing that anti-Semitism has massively declined and today, Jewish people of European descent, also known as Ashkenazi Jews, enjoy white privilege5 and are among the most socio-economically advantaged groups in the West. Despite this privilege, the organized Jewish community makes claims about Jewish victimhood that are widely accepted both within that community and within popular discourse in the West. I will propose that, in North America, these claims to victimhood are no longer based in a reality of oppression6, but continue to be propagated because a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are extremely beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state. It is this study of the instrumentalization of Jewish victimhood where I seek to answer the questions of how and why Jewish identity with victimhood persists despite the tremendous decline in anti-Semitism.
The paper is divided into three main chapters. I will begin by substantiating my
claim that Jews of European descent now enjoy white privilege. I will do so by reviewing, and synthesizing the growing literature on Jews and whiteness. Having shown that Ashkenazi Jews are now privileged white people, I will then work to expose some of the tactics that are used to perpetuate the idea that Jews are inherently and forever victimized. There are a wide range of tactics used to (re)produce the ‘Jew as victim’, but I am going to focus on hegemonic Holocaust education because I believe that the Holocaust is central to these claims of victimhood. My sites of study will be two related Holocaust educational programs – the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), and the March of the Living (MOL). Both projects take youth from around the world on a week-long tour of Holocaust memorial sites in Poland. The MOL is designed for Jewish students, while the MRH targets non-Jewish students. The MOL has an additional week of touring in Israel, directly following the tours in Europe; MRH participants do not go to Israel. Since the MRH is a Holocaust educational program that specifically targets non-Jews for Holocaust education, my chapter on the MRH will allow me to examine the effects of hegemonic Holocaust education where Jews perform whiteness by presenting themselves to others as victims. The MOL is a program designed for Jews, so it will allow me to study the effects of presenting Jews as victims when such presentations are made within the organized Jewish community itself – when Jews perform whiteness through seeing themselves as victims.
My study involves in-depth research into the promotional and educational materials used on both the MRH and the MOL. This data was publicly available on the websites of both projects. Due to the limitations of a part-time Master’s degree, I was unable to conduct interviews or participant observations on either trip. Should I pursue further studies, I would certainly want to observe the trips and speak to participants about 9 their views of their experiences. Instead of speaking with participants, I have relied on many of the testimonials posted on the trips’ websites. I acknowledge the limitations of this approach because organizers control the website and thus only certain testimonials are available. I still consider this a reliable source of data because my goal is to understand the intended effects of the trips; analyzing the testimonials that organizers consider to be success stories helps expose what they see as a desired outcome.
Jewish anti-Zionism
It is important for me to note that I am, of course, not the first anti-Zionist Jew to take up these issues. There is a long history of Jewish scholars and activists resisting and opposing Zionism. In recent years, two anthologies of such work have been published – Wrestling with Zion: progressive Jewish-American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon and Prophets Outcast: a century of dissident Jewish writing about Zionism and Israel edited by Adam Shatz. These anthologies feature articles written by a wide range of prominent Jewish intellectuals including Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and Judith Butler, alongside scholars such as Marc Ellis, Sara Roy and Ella Shohat whose academic work focuses on anti-Zionism, Israel and Palestine. Jewish and Israeli historians and political scientists, including Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, Uri Davis and Joel Kovel have written extensively on the history of Zionism and Israeli Apartheid. There is also a growing body of autobiographical work by Jewish anti-Zionists, including Jeff Halper’s An Israeli in
Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel
and Mike Marqusee’s If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. In my thesis, I will build on the work of these and other anti-Zionist Jewish scholars. I hope to contribute to this growing body of 10 literature by integrating critical anti-racist theory into Jewish anti-Zionism. 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.
Israeli Apartheid
Throughout my thesis I will be using the term Apartheid in reference to Israeli state policies and practices. I understand that this term remains controversial so I therefore want to briefly explain my decision to characterize Israel as an Apartheid State. Apartheid is a term that means ‘separation’ in Afrikaans and is commonly associated with racial discrimination South Africa. Apartheid is a crime with a definition under international law:
the term "the crime of apartheid", which shall include similar policies and
practices [emphasis added] of racial segregation and discrimination as
practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.7

Many activists, legal experts and scholars have argued that Israel’s policies of discrimination against Palestinians fit this definition of the crime of Apartheid. In June 2009, the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) released a study indicating that Israel is practicing both colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.8 This analysis has growing support from many who were involved
in the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu has characterized Israel as an apartheid state9, as have former ANC minister Ronnie Kasrils10 and John Dugard, a law professor and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.11 Israeli scholars and activists, including Ilan Pappe and Uri Davis have called Israel an Apartheid state.12 Former American President Jimmy Carter has characterized Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories as Apartheid.13 The parallels between Israel and South Africa have prompted Palestinian activists and their allies to adopt many of the tactics used to resist apartheid in South Africa. One such tactic is the call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli Apartheid that was issued in 2005, by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. The BDS movement uses the apartheid paradigm to draw international attention to the crimes of the Israeli State.14
Although a comprehensive analysis of Israel as an apartheid state is beyond the scope of my research, I want to bring in a few examples of ‘separation’ in Israel to explain my use of this term in my thesis. Perhaps the most blatant apartheid policies relate to citizenship. Israel considers itself to be a Jewish state – citizenship rights are therefore tied to ethnic and religious identity. According to the Israeli ‘Law of Return’, all Jewish people can become Israeli nationals simply by virtue of their ethnicity. At the same time, Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to their homeland – a right which is enshrined in international law. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza live under direct military occupation without citizenship and with few basic legal rights. Until 1967, Palestinians living in Israel were denied citizenship and lived under military law.15 Although Palestinians living in Israel can hold Israeli citizenship, they belong to a separate, lesser category of person under the law. Palestinians who want to run for government office must pledge their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish only state, even though such a state excludes non-Jews by definition. In late 2008, the Israeli Knesset voted to ban Arab parties from running in the federal elections. This decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court, but that it was passed by legislators and had public support is quite telling.16
Israel’s apartheid policies extend beyond discriminatory laws and different categories of citizenship. In 1948, over 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in order to ensure a Jewish majority on historic Palestine1 7. This ethnic cleansing continues through policies designed to make life unbearable for Palestinians. One manifestation of these policies is the multi-billion dollar Apartheid Wall being built by the Israelis in the West Bank. The Wall was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, but construction continues. The Wall cuts off Palestinians from their land, water resources and divides the West Bank into incongruous blocks which make travel difficult and at times impossible.18 Perhaps the most recent blatant examples of Israeli aggression
can be seen in the Gaza Strip which is completely sealed off and has been under siege since 2006. The siege continues even after Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza that
began in December 2008. Over 1400 Palestinian people were killed in that assault.19
In summation, I went to emphasize that under the legal definition of the crime of apartheid, the crimes of an apartheid state need to be similar, but not identical to the crimes of the South African regime. Although there are differences between the two contexts, there are enough similarities to warrant applying the term apartheid to Israel. Given the systemic discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, the brutal military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the refusal of Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, there are legitimate grounds to accuse Israel of being an apartheid State. I have therefore chosen to use this term throughout my thesis when referring to Israeli state policies and violence.
Lire la suite de la these de Jenniifer Peto 2010 ici
1 - Handala is a character who is featured in Palestinian artist Naj Al-Ali’s cartoons. He is a cartoon of a
refugee child, whose image has become not only Al-Ali’s signature, but a symbol of the Palestinian
resistance. For more information visit
2 In “Mapping Jewish Dissent: Jewish Anti-Occupation Activism in Toronto”, Outlook, May 2004, Sheryl Nestel and Mary Jo Aiken discuss the complex issues that face Jewish anti-Zionists, including rejection
from family, the mainstream Jewish community and for some, the positive feelings of community they get
amongst other anti-Zionist Jews.
3 See for instance: Halper, Jeff An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel, Pluto
Press, 2008 and Marqusee, Mike If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, Verso, 2008 and (?)
4 As Norman Finkelstein pointed out years ago, the Holocaust has become an industry all its own: Norman
G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust industry : reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering, 2nd pbk. ed. ed.
(New York: Verso, 2003).
5 This is not to say that all white-skinned Jewish people enjoy the same privilege as white Christians. Jewish identity is always hidden. Orthodox Jews’ religious beliefs proscribe dress that makes them quite
visibly Jewish and visibly different from secular Jews and white Christians. This visibility can lead to
stigma and discrimination.
6 I have chosen to focus on North America partly because it is my context, but also because it can be argued that anti-Semitism is more systemic in Europe, particularly in France where there are more frequent violent
attacks against Jewish people and institutions. That said, the level of discrimination faced by Jews in Europe is far less than the racism experienced by other minorities including Arabs, Muslims and Roma
7 “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid ”
8 The full report is available at
9 Tutu made many statements, as early as 2002, about Israel publicly that have been widely reported. See
for example an article pulished by Tutu in The Nation “Against Israeli Apartheid”
10Kasrils is very vocal in his opposition to Israeli Apartheid. See for instance his speech at Israeli Apartheid
Week in 2009
11 Dugard has made comparisons between South Africa and Palestine. See for instance his comments after
the war on Gaza “Occupied Gaza like apartheid South Africa, says UN report”
12 Pappe is quite outspoken about Israeli Apartheid see for instance “Citizenship law Makes Israel an
Apartheid state”h ttp : //ila n p a pp e. co m/? p =75. Davis wrote a book entitled Apartheid Israel.
13 In 2006, Cater wrote a best-selling book entitled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.
14 For more information about the BDS movement and the use of the Apartheid paradigm see:
15 Pappe, Ilan “Citizenship law Makes Israel an Apartheid state”
16 “Israel bans Arab parties from running in upcoming elections”
17 For a comprehensive history of the ethnic cleansing see Khalidi, Walid All That Remains: The
Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992 and
Pappé, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
18 For more information about the Wall visit
19. For a detailed account of the war on Gaza, see for instance “Operation Cast Lead and the Distortion of
International Law A Legal Analysis of Israel’s Claim to Self-Defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter”
published by Al-Haq


Jennifer Peto1 article

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The Victimhood of the Powerful:
White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education - A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts
Graduate Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto 2010

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2 commentaires

  • Archives de Vigile Répondre

    24 décembre 2010

    La thèse est aussi disponible à l’université de Toronto pour ceux qui ne veulent pas s’inscrire sur SCRIBD.
    Directement sur le lien suivant.
    Le fondement de la thèse Mme Peto semble être ceci:
    Les Juifs, du moins au Canada, sont efficaces et ne rencontrent pas de préjudices important. En conséquence, les Juifs ne devraient pas se voir comme opprimé, mais plutôt comme faisant partie de la structure oppressive de la société.
    L'Holocauste est simplement de l'histoire ancienne et le souvenir toujours exagéré il faut le dire de la propagande est généralement conçu pour permettre aux Juifs de faire semblant d'être opprimés plutôt que d’être vu comme les oppresseurs.

  • Archives de Vigile Répondre

    23 décembre 2010

    J'applaudis le courage, l'esprit critique, et le sens moral de Jennifer Peto.
    Je nous souhaite tous de recevoir de si beaux cadeaux en cette fête de Noël de 2010.
    Joyeux Noël à tous !