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New OISE project aims to counter academic anti-Zionism

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OISE building
OISE buildling on Bloor Street West

An anti-Zionist bias has “expunged” the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust from curricula at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and it’s time to reinstate them, says human rights consultant Karen Mock.

A desire to change a campus climate that equates Zionism with oppression has inspired the “The Antisemitism and Holocaust Studies Project: Enhancing Social Justice, Antiracist and Anti-Oppression Education,” a new venture initiated by Mock, a human rights consultant, former executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and former national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, and Bonnie Burstow, an associate professor in adult education at OISE who will act as the project’s faculty chair.

READ: How bad is it on campus for Canadian Jewish students?

The project was officially launched Dec. 8 at OISE at an event that drew about 50 people from the spheres of academia and activism. 

However, while the organizing team invited faculty from OISE’s social justice education departments, Mock said none of them came. Nevertheless, she said the event was successful and will help to create a network of people who will work on this, including from within the local school boards and teachers’ federations.

With a stated mandate to reintroduce what Mock and Burstow say is the “reality of anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish oppression as a critical dimension of social justice education,” the project, which Mock stressed will evolve over time, will entail a library and online collection of scholarly and practical resources related to Holocaust studies and anti-Semitism – including curriculum materials and teacher education resources – and educational events on anti-Semitism and related topics.

The latter will include an annual lecture on anti-Semitism as a prototype of racism and discrimination, presentations, consciousness-raising workshops and conferences.

Mock told The CJN that during the 1980s and ’90s, academic journals about social justice education that were published at OISE typically included articles about anti-Semitism, or about how teaching books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, could help students understand the dangers of totalitarian thinking.

However, she said, the erasure of such teachings in OISE departments that deal with “so-called equity and social justice” has come about as a result of an “anti-Zionist bias” on campus, manifested in the increased popularity of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Israeli Apartheid Week and what Mock referred to as “new anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Israel rhetoric.”

“There are faculty who identify people like us as Zionists and [say we] are therefore not credible in the anti-oppression world, so this is what we’re doing to try to counter that,” Mock said.

READ: Waterloo Student group presses for Israel boycott

She added: “There are those who express ideas like, ‘Holocaust education is just a tool used by Zionists to cover up the atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians’ – That’s the kind of language that’s used [on campus].”

Determined to get their message across in a way that is proactive and rooted in strong academic principles, Mock and her co-organizers created a program focused on what they say is missing in the scholarly landscape and that uses academic teachings to show that underlying the Holocaust was the racialization and demonization of the Jewish people.

Further, the project aims to show that the Holocaust and Holocaust denial are key to understanding modern anti-Semitism, as is the idea that studying anti-Semitism is no longer relevant.

According to the project’s official media release, it “will be doing this in a way that is counterhegemonic and which indeed pays careful attention to systemic oppression and the relationship between oppressions.”

Organizers will be working with like-minded organizations and individuals and stressed they welcome activists and scholars – Jewish and not – to join them in developing the project.