This could change everything.
The White House announced key additions to the Trump administration Thursday, among them the President’s nomination of Kenneth L. Marcus of Virginia, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, as the next head of civil rights at the Department of Education (DoE).
Should he be confirmed, Marcus would become assistant secretary for civil rights, assuming the duties of the controversial Candice Jackson, who has served as acting assistant secretary for civil rights there since April (Jackson was criticized this summer for saying that sexual assaults on college campuses are “primarily the result of students being drunk or having a bad breakup”, comments for which she later apologized).
This former Bush official is an excellent choice for OCR
Marcus is extraordinarily qualified for the job, and is an excellent pick for leading the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
He’s got considerable experience on the issues at stake for the OCR, having previously been the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for four years during the George W. Bush administration and, prior to that post, serving as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the DoE.
In terms of the fight against the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement and rising antisemitism on American colleges and universities, Marcus has been a leading voice for years (he’s argued that some efforts to boycott Israel’s academia are “illegal”, antithetical to the “mission and values of academia” and “really thinly veiled anti-Semitism” because only Israel is “singled out for boycott”).
He currently serves as the director of the initiative on antisemitism at the Institute for Jewish Community Research in San Francisco, and was the Lillie and Nathan Ackerman Chair in Equality and Justice in America at the City of New York’s Baruch College (School of Public Affairs).
He’s also written extensively on the topic of antisemitism.
While at the Department of Education, he wrote the policy used by the OCR to investigate allegations of antisemitism on campuses. At the Brandeis Center, he’s been an outspoken supporter of Jews on campus, who are increasingly threatened and ostracized by virulently anti-Israel student groups, and even faculty who are often allowed to act with impunity.
Marcus’s work at the Brandeis Center
The Brandeis Center is an independent, nonprofit organization established to advance the civil and human rights of Jewish people and to promote justice for all. It conducts research and advocacy to combat the resurgence of antisemitism on college campuses.
For example, the Center has been instrumental in helping to author legislation that essentially classifies anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism for the purpose of investigating claims of racism at state universities.
Last year, the Center filed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association on behalf of a group of distinguished ASA professors and longtime members, arguing that the ASA’s support of the academic boycott of Israel fell outside of the scope of the organization’s mission and charter.
Marcus has frequently criticized the OCR for “turning a blind eye” to campus antisemitism, such as at California’s public universities, where (as we’ve noted in many posts) Jewish students have been persistently verbally and physically harassed, ostracized from student government, and have had their events repeatedly disrupted. Watch Marcus discuss hate speech and censorship, and the limitations of freedom of speech for pro-Israel students on the University of California campuses in this short video from 2013:
Marcus is well aware that on many college campuses, Jew-hatred “disguises itself” under the guise of anti-Israel and that pro-Zionist Jewish students face a level of discrimination that’s frequently “unnoticed, under-reported and unaddressed” (Marcus is on record supporting the U.S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism which considers demonizing, delegitimizing and applying a double standard to Israel as forms of anti-Jewish animus).
You can see him here speaking at the U.S. capital, where he discussed these challenges facing Jewish students, and how allegations of antisemitism are all too easily dismissed. As Marcus rightly noted in his talk, “You can be as hateful as you want to be, but make it about Israel, and they won’t recognize that the hate is against the Jews” (note: Marcus has raised this concern in other writings, and in the film Hate Spaces: the Politics of Intolerance on Campus, where he was a featured speaker; see our review of the film):
Anti-Israel activists livid over the Marcus nomination
It’s been less than 24 hours since Trump announced his pick for OCR, but the pile-on by vehemently anti-Israel activists and organizations has already begun.
The incongruously named Jewish Voice for Peace is spearheading an on-line petition opposing the nomination for faculty to sign. The petition alleges that Marcus has “bullied students and faculty that advocate for Palestinian rights.”
Academics, please sign:
His tactics dilute the definition of antisemitism so much that it becomes useless, and… https://t.co/lVnWCkKlMK
— USACBI (@USACBI) October 27, 2017
Anti-Israel activist and writer Richard Silverstein, disparaging Marcus as an “Islamophobe hoaxster”, also called the appointment “antithetical to civil rights”, accusing Marcus of defending only Jewish Zionists to the exclusion of others. He claims that Marcus believes that “criticism of Israel is antisemitic and impermissible” and that at the OCR he will work to “police campus speech” and “mute criticism of Israel”.
These charges are baseless.
In fact, Marcus has publicly stated that “people who hate Israel” should “not be silenced” (see his remarks in the above video, for example).
Based on his prior work at the Brandeis Center, what Marcus is likely to do as the OCR’s new head is to ensure that antisemitic harassment on America’s institutions of higher learning is addressed with the same vigor as would any other type of racism—so that all students are able to learn in a safe and welcoming environment.
So we’ll likely see more efforts to use the Title VI of the civil rights act to open investigations of allegations of harassment of Jewish students at various universities and colleges.
He’ll likely also do more to address the ways in which federally-funded university Middle Eastern Studies (MES) centers are failing to provide a diversity of perspectives on the region, in non-compliance with the Higher Education Act’s mandate, a topic we discussed in a recent post, Case Study: Biased curriculum on Israel and Islam in a Massachusetts school system.
As Marcus noted in the above videotaped talk, virulently anti-Israel propaganda on America’s campuses—and its infiltration into off-campus spaces such as K-12 education via the MES centers’ “public outreach”—is “a problem that’s funded by the U.S. Congress”.
(Personal note: several months ago Marcus helped walk me through various ways to address ongoing efforts by pro-BDS faculty to implement an academic boycott on the Syracuse University campus, which we covered in a recent post. His advice was timely, provided at a critical time for my campus. If confirmed, my sense is that Marcus will take that kind of hands-on, detailed-oriented approach in his new post).
An absolutely stellar choice! https://t.co/EBSKRHzqaw
— stevesheinberg (@stevesheinberg) October 26, 2017
Bottom line: The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for ensuring equal access to educational opportunities, to promoting educational excellence, and to ensuring that students can learn in a racism-free environment. It can initiate lawsuits against universities and colleges that fail to protect the civil rights and safety of students and that don’t deal properly deal with racism, including antisemitism. Those who want to foster campus free speech and academic freedom, while protecting all students—Jewish and non-Jewish—from discriminatory harm, should be very pleased with the President’s nomination of Kenneth L. Marcus to the critical job of chief of civil rights in the DoE.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElmanDONATE
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