Comedian Noah Trevor has said of Trump nominees, “It’s almost like before he hires anyone, Trump Googles ‘opposite of,’ and then he just gets that person.” At first glance, Kenneth Marcus seems an exception to a panoply of appointments in which for example, the head of Labor is an anti-labor CEO, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency denies climate change, the head of the Department of Education opposes public education, and so on. Marcus, Trump’s nominee to head the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, actually has a background in civil rights. However, a closer look reveals something well known to anyone who advocates for Palestinian rights: Kenneth Marcus actively works to pass and enforce legislation that suppresses civil and human rights and criminalizes constitutionally protected free speech.
Marcus’s nomination points to the increasing convergences of white supremacy, fascism, and Zionism. Zionism is a political ideology that, in promoting the belief that Jewish welfare depends upon a Jewish state, erases Palestinian rights, especially to self-determination. Marcus has spent years pressuring universities to punish students who advocate for Palestinian rights. He has done so as founding president and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. As Assistant Secretary of Education at the Office for Civil Rights and as Staff Director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under George W. Bush, he focused on abuse of Title VI, and on codifying the State Department Definition of antisemitism in order to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Marcus has worked to try to deny Middle East studies departments funding if they do not make a platform for pro-Israel stances. Particularly targeting BDS organizers, through the Brandeis Center and through his “civil rights” work, Marcus has promoted a racist and rabidly Zionist agenda that, in particular, targets BDS. Should Marcus be appointed, we can expect a ramped up enforcement of this agenda, including the strengthening of legislation criminalizing BDS, a return to the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, and enforcement of the State Department’s definition of antisemitism that includes any criticism of Israel.
Because Marcus’s positions are so clearly unconstitutional (boycott has repeatedly been held up in the courts as a protected form of free speech), his nomination exposes how the question of Palestine, and attacks on BDS, cannot be bracketed or ignored in attempts to confront fascism, and in arguments over free speech. Even as the boycott of Israel is increasingly criminalized, neo-Nazi organizing and speakers such as Richard Spencer who foment violence are protected under the banners of free speech and academic freedom, augmented by efforts of Trump appointees such as noted antisemite Steve Bannon.
On the one hand, anti-Zionists, especially if Palestinian, have never enjoyed the rights of free speech and academic freedom. They have been subjected to job loss, law suits, and exhausting forms of harassment for exercising these rights. Steven Salaita, who experienced this first hand when fired from a tenure-line job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has called attention to this “Palestinian exception” to free speech and the first amendment.
On the other hand, as the overt embrace of fascism that characterizes the Trump administration’s approach to Israel becomes more widespread, we can see the Palestinian exception becoming less exceptional. The criminalization of those supporting Palestine is becoming the model for university and donor supported attacks from the newly emboldened “alt right” on professors and students organizing against fascism, antisemitism, and racism. Tithi Bhattachharya and Bill Mullen have called this the “Salaitaification” of higher education. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore what is a creeping fascism, or the way in which Palestine brings so clearly into focus the political limits of academic freedom and free speech—and the convergence of neo-Nazi white supremacy and Zionism.
In the time of Trump, Zionism’s inextricability from white supremacy and its compatibility with antisemitism is coming ever more sharply into focus, and in ways that implicate Kenneth Marcus. Like other Trump appointees, Marcus seeks to undermine the very rights he is charged with protecting.
Rather than a single-issue, it is increasingly clear that a free Palestine is intrinsic to decolonial and anti-fascist struggles here and beyond, and that to oppose white supremacy is to oppose Zionism—and to oppose the nomination of Kenneth Marcus.
Cynthia Franklin is Professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i, coedits the journal Biography, and is a member of the USACBI Organizing Collective and Jewish Voice for Peace. Publications include two monographs on academic politics, and a special Biography issue, “Life in Occupied Palestine,” available open access.