Donald Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Kenneth Marcus, has quite the record of trying to intimidate, silence, if not effectively outlaw, campus activism and progressive voices targeting Israeli occupation of Palestine. His campaigns have gone beyond Students for Justice in Palestine and smeared researchers and scholars who challenge Zionist mythologies. Seeking to impose what Palestine Legal describes as a “Palestine Exception” to academic freedom, as founding president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law [sic], Marcus pressured Congress to “end or mend” federal funding for Middle East Studies departments because of their alleged “anti-Israel and anti-American programming.”
Once Congress rebuffed Marcus’s efforts to impose biased political standards on universities, Marcus turned his attention to the more fertile territory of falsely crying anti-semitism to shut down criticism of Israel. Long before he was nominated to lead it, Marcus has prodded the ED’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011 to investigate “anti-Semitic incidents that masquerade as anti-Israelism.” Following three years of investigating the claim, the ED concluded in a 2014 decision that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and that pro-Palestinian activism represents “robust and discordant expressions.” A year earlier, in 2013, the ED dismissed similar cases, which led Marcus to threaten that universities were “on notice” and that “even when [accusations of antisemitism are] rejected,” they still “expose administrators to bad publicity.” As Assistant Secretary, Marcus will be in position to make good on his threat.
Marcus’ record also includes a callous dismissiveness for the well-being of Latina/o, African-American, undocumented immigrant, women, and LGTBQ students along with campus sexual assault survivors. He has attacked affirmative action as “reflect[ing] racial prejudice” against Whites, a longstanding ploy branding remedies of past injustice and promotion of equality as unfair to white Americans. Moreover, Marcus has promoted the supposition that the racial disparity between white and black students at American universities is due to the alleged “cultural dysfunction” and “family structure” of black communities. In a previous post at ED under the Bush administration, Marcus defended a white male undergraduate student when a professor challenged his “conservative Christian views” on homosexuality. Marcus’ defense indicates that, under his tenure, religious dogma could take precedence over civil liberties. During his Senate hearing, when asked if he would defend the civil rights of undocumented students, Marcus demurred that he “lacked jurisdiction” to do so. The truth is that he would have jurisdiction: in 2014, the Office for Civil Rights issued guidance stating that discrimination on the basis of legal status is prohibited, but it’s clear Marcus has little desire to come to the defense of undocumented students. Lastly, Marcus supports weakening protections for victims of sexual assault by supporting ED Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rescinding of sexual assault guidance to college administrations.
UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, the National Urban League, and the National Women’s Law Center have joined Palestine Legal, a pro bono group defending students, calling on Congress to reject Trump’s decidedly anti-civil rights nominee to the Office for Civil Rights. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s summed up the opposition, “I don’t think we need someone in this position whose view of civil rights enforcement is to do as little as possible to protect as few students as possible.”
Meanwhile, several American-Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, have endorsed Marcus’ nomination. More pertinent, so has Hillel International, the largest Jewish organization on American campuses. Their support of a nominee who has shown disregard for the rights of a broad range of minorities and of women is a perfect example of the distorting impact Zionism has on American liberties. Such organizations would rather promote partisan illiberal practices for the sake of securing the appointment of a pro-Israel enforcer in the federal government.
This comes as a survey by the Jewish Agency, a quasi-state institution in Israel, reports the “extremely worrisome” finding, in the words of Jewish Agency CEO Alan Hoffman, that support for Israel dropped 32 percent amongst Jewish college students between 2010 and 2016.
More and more Jewish students are learning about the injustices caused by the Israeli occupation, choosing to support Palestinian rights, and shun the hardline pro-Israel dogma of older Jewish organizations. On several campuses, Jewish students have started Open Hillel as an alternative to Hillel’s refusal to accommodate any dissent or criticism of Israel. Hillel’s expedient endorsement of Marcus may drive even more progressive Jewish students away as they learn that support for Israeli policies is incompatible with liberal values. Moreover, Hillel, like many other organizations, has aligned itself with Marcus and Trump’s alt-right agenda against the emerging coalition of feminists, queers, and people of color. Indeed, a PEW poll revealed last week the partisan gap on support for Israel across party lines is now wider than at any point in the past thirty years. According to the poll, 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats.
In the mind of his proponents, Marcus’ nomination may be the logical approach to stem the turning tide in favor of Palestine. But, given the widening partisan gap, the promise of blind bipartisan support for Israel is likely to diminish with time, and by throwing in their lot with Marcus and Trump, pro-Israel forces are only accelerating the partisan gap that could eventually wreck the pro-Israel majority in Congress and compel the new generation of Democratic lawmakers to support Palestinian human rights as a progressive litmus test no less than gay rights or abortion rights.