When neo-con politicians, media attack academics: Interview with Sheryl Nestel

| January 26, 2011

In recent months, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) has been accused of producing anti-Semitic scholarship.

The attacks have been spurred by opinion pieces published in The National Post by Richard Klagsbrun, John Kay, and the NP editorial board. While condemning OISE as a whole for its "extremism," The National Post zeroed in on a Master's thesis completed in 2009 by Jenny Peto and her supervisor, Dr. Sheryl Nestel.

Peto's thesis examined several Holocaust Memorial projects through a critical race framework. In a rare occurrence (Master's theses seldom receive this kind of attention) the accusations made it all the way to the Ontario Legislature. On Dec. 7, 2010, Tory MPPs Steve Clark and Peter Shurman attacked Peto's thesis and called for the citizenship and immigration minister Eric Hoskins to respond. Hoskins added his voice to the anti-Semitism charges.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Sheryl Nestel to find out her response to these accusations. Nestel has been a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at OISE/UT since 2000. Her research focuses on race and racism in the health professions and she has taught numerous courses relating to social inequality. Her book, Obstructed Labour: Race and Gender in the Re-emergence of Midwifery (UBC Press, 2007) received the Canadian Women's Studies Association Annual Book Prize for 2008.

Nestel feels that these critics are driven by a neo-conservative agenda that seeks to invalidate and silence any criticism of the state of Israel. In addition, she sees a connection to the general Conservative attack on research on marginalization. While Nestel is shocked that MPPs would be discussing one of her student's theses in the legislature, she is warmed by the responses from students, faculty, and the University of Toronto administration, who have defended the research and the right to academic freedom.

To read Jenny Peto's thesis, entitled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, please click here.

VS: What do you think has motivated The National Post attacks on the Jenny Peto thesis specifically, but more generally on the type of graduate research that is conducted at SESE, OISE/UT?

SN: The National Post is Canada's premier neo-conservative newspaper and it's pretty clear that neo-con politics demand unconditional support of Israel as a key ally in the "Clash of Civilizations." I think the attack on OISE is simply an attack on progressive academia and on burgeoning student activism against Israeli human rights violations. Those who unconditionally support the Israeli state have been frustrated by their failure to shut down Israel Apartheid Week on many campuses in Canada, including U of T. The "discovery" of Jenny's thesis offered them an opportunity to attack pro-Palestinian activism on campus by other means.

VS: It seems that there are two serious accusations being made by The National Post, the above-mentioned MPPs, and their supporters: First that the work is anti-Semitic, and secondly, that Jenny Peto's and other SESE theses are not academically rigorous. How do you respond to each of these accusations?

SN: The accusation that the thesis is anti-Semitic has to be seen in light of the campaign to deem criticism of Israel and as a form of anti-Semitism. This intention was made very clear in the recent work of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, a non-governmental group who made clear in their recently released document "the Ottawa Protocol" that their intention is to have criticism of Israel rendered a form of anti-Semitism punishable under hate crime legislation.

This attempt to dictate the limits of academic inquiry is shocking but can be seen as part of a concerted campaign to demonize and discredit Israel's critics. Those whose support of Israel is unconditional regularly attempt to delegitimize even the most reputable scholars and jurists when they dare to demonstrate Israel's human rights abuses in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel proper. The vicious attacks on Judge Richard Goldstone and on the document he produced, The Report of the UN Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict ( the "Goldstone Report"), represent a particularly egregious example of this. That a Master's thesis would become an object of surveillance for those seeking to defend Israel's policies seems like an act of desperation.

As to the issue of academic rigour, I believe this charge to be completely gratuitous. Some of those who rendered judgement of thesis' academic quality early on (such as MPPs Peter Shurman and Eric Hoskins) admitted to not even having read it. Others who have made such pronouncements have criticized the thesis as "unscholarly" for having utilized an autobiographical approach in the first chapter. As someone who has taught qualitative research methods at the graduate level, I can verify that this approach is widely accepted in social science research. In addition, critics chose to ignore that the thesis contains a lengthy literature review and examines the studied documents using discourse analysis. This is a commonly accepted research methodology for a Master's thesis in the social sciences.

Many of these critics are completely out of touch with today's methodologies and academic standards. I believe that once the University of Toronto administration, correctly citing academic freedom principles, refused to engage with these critics around the content of the thesis, the only strategy that was left for them was to allege that the thesis was of poor quality. If quality is their concern, they should be working to increase student funding, decrease tuition and expand hiring of professors and librarians in the social sciences and humanities, not conduct a suspiciously-motivated witch hunt for what the deem to be poorly-written Masters' theses.

VS: It does seem bizarre that a Master's thesis inspires this much debate. What do you make of the fact that Jenny's thesis was discussed in the Ontario parliament?

SN: The attack on Jenny's thesis in the Provincial Parliament was an unprecedented event. While the discussion of a Master's thesis in the legislature was shocking, what was more shocking was the exchange among MPP's and a minister of a document that none of them had even read. Myself and two other constituents of Dr. Eric Hoskins' riding have sent letters of protest to his office requesting a meeting. He has yet to respond.

VS: Many academics are concerned about the repercussions of these accusations, not just for people wishing to do research related to Israel, but also for other scholars who do work that is perceived as political. What is your feeling on this?

SN: There is no doubt that the nature and scope of this attack on critical scholarship has had a chilling effect on both students and faculty. These attacks have to be seen in light of campaigns throughout North America to discredit scholars who criticize Israel. McCarthyite initiatives such as neo-conservative Daniel Pipes' website Campuswatch encourage harassment and have endangered and in some cases sought to end faculty careers. The attacks on both Jenny and me have been very personal and have continued in an unrelenting way for two months now. I'm sure no student or professor wants to be subjected to that kind of assault.

The message is clear: if you engage in scholarship that is critical of Israel, you will be targeted. However, this incident has not been limited to scholarship related to Israel. The scholarship of all the students and faculty of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies has been deemed to be tainted because much of it is seen as somehow less than "objective." SESE is a department world famous for scholarship that promotes social justice by analysing the ways in which societies foster social inequality. The demonization of work that has contributed in innumerable ways to efforts to eliminate gender, racial and class inequality in Canada is ignorant and unconscionable. The number of federal and provincial scholarships, Canada Research Chairs, major research grants and academic and community awards given to members of this department positions it as one of the most productive in the country and yet graduating students are now fearful that their degrees will be looked upon with scepticism in the wake of the unfounded and scurrilous attacks on students and faculty.

VS: The University of Toronto vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak has gone on the record defending, not the thesis specifically, but the right to academic freedom. What do you think of the University of Toronto's reaction to these attacks?

SN: I have been very heartened by responses of President David Naylor, Provost Cheryl Misak and OISE/UT dean Julia O'Sullivan, who have rejected unequivocally the attempts to circumscribe intellectual inquiry at the University of Toronto.

VS: What has been the student and faculty reaction to these attacks?

SN: The support that both Jenny and I have received from the student and faculty communities has been tremendous. Faculty groups such as Faculty for Palestine and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have pledged their support. Letters to the Premier Dalton McGinty, MPP Eric Hoskins and others have helped to demonstrate that attempts to de-legitimate academic criticism of Israel will not be supported.

Vannina Sztainbok is a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She teaches in the areas of gender, race, social inequality and citizenship studies.

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