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The Department of Education has launched a campaign against pro-Palestine voices on campus. Many saw it coming.

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Last June, the Trump administration nominated Kenneth Marcus for assistant secretary for civil rights and he was approved by the Senate despite getting no Democratic votes, 50-46. Marcus’ nomination was opposed by a number of organizations for a variety of reasons: he supported rolling back campus sexual assault protections, opposed Affirmative Action, and couldn’t identify one example where he disagreed with Donald Trump on the subject of civil rights.

Some of the deepest concerns about Marcus were voiced by activists and groups that advocate for Palestinian rights. Marcus was the founder and president of the pro-Israel Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, an organization that aims to combat “the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on university campuses.” Marcus has lobbied to push a definition of anti-Semitism (at the federal and state level) that includes criticism of Israel. He’s also pushed for the defunding of Middle East Studies programs at universities and called on congress to pass the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that would censor pro-Palestinian voices on campuses.

“When Marcus uses charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ to quell free speech on Israel-Palestine on campus, where will senators be then?,” wondered Americans for Peace Now legislative director Debra Shushan after Marcus was confirmed. Heading into the confirmation Palestine Legal assessed the potential damage of Marcus being approved:

With respect to the Title VI complaints targeting Palestinian rights advocacy, Marcus has dedicated at least 13 years to promoting such complaints, and he will now shift from the role of advocate to adjudicator.

He will have the authority to investigate universities that allow First Amendment-protected advocacy for Palestinian rights.

He will find universities that allow student speech critical of Israel to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and force such schools to enter “resolution agreements” or “enforcement agreements.” Such agreements would force universities to restrict speech favorable to Palestinian rights, in violation of the First Amendment. Even the threat of an investigation by the federal government is likely to cause universities to interfere with campus speech activity to avoid being investigated.

A year later, these warnings have proven to be prescient.

Last month, Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education (DOE) threatened to cut funding to the Consortium for Middle East Studies, a joint venture between the University of North Carolina and Duke University. In a published letter, the DOE makes it clear that they believe the program is too complimentary towards Islam. “A considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East,” it reads. In order to secure further Title VI funding, the program must revise its criteria and provide the DOE with a detailed breakdown of its spending plans.

The DOE letter was sparked by an investigation into the program that began in June. This past March, the Middle East Studies program held a conference titled,  “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” The events included a performance by the Palestinian musician Tamer Nafar, who sang a satirical song about an Arab falling in love with an IDF solider. A pro-Israel blogger later posted clips from the performance with the necessary context removed and the issue was picked up by GOP Rep. George Holding, who called on DeVos to investigate the entire program.

Elyse Crystall is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UNC and attended the conference. She says that the event has been cynically exploited to censor pro-Palestinian voices and Muslims on campus. “We have students who are Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Arab-American and they’ve been thrown under the bus,” she told Mondoweiss, “Nobody cares how this affects them. They’re flipping out and they have nowhere to go. No one to talk to.”

A number faculty members at Duke recently published a letter condemning the DOE decision. “The Federal investigation is the culmination of a decades-long campaign by anti-Palestinian organizations against academic programing and curricular offerings that are deemed insufficiently ‘pro-Israel’,” it reads, “This investigation targeted a Middle East center, but should concern all of us. Today, all teachers and scholars are at risk when not aligned with national policy and national security priorities.” Additionally, over 100 Jewish scholars (including such names as Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler) have sent a letter to DeVos calling on her to stop its “unfounded assault” on Middle East programs:

Under your leadership, the Department of Education has led a crusade against anyone on college campuses who dares to criticize Israeli human rights violations. Indeed, your designated “civil rights chief” Kenneth Marcus has made a career of attacking critics of the 52-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For years Marcus has sought to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs that allow students and faculty to criticize the government of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people. Marcus’s tenure makes clear that his concern is not with fostering free speech and open academic inquiry, but stifling it.

Many pundits and commentators have insisted that we are living through a campus free speech crisis under Trump, as certain viewpoints have been attacked or shouted down. However, this potentially vast campaign against academic freedom is predictably omitted from the conversation.

Michael Arria

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss.

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9 Responses

  1. Rob Roy on October 8, 2019, 6:59 pm

    People who value human rights should never kowtow to the hatefulness of the likes of Devos and Marcus. I notice when I read comments from Israeli Jews in Israeli newspapers, if I took the word “Palestinian” and replaced it with “Jew,” and entered the same comment, I would probably be shot.
    Professors and staff at these universities that are being censored should NEVER give in to avoid “investigations.” They should create even more space for free speech, middle east studies, conferences with speakers who speak for all humanity; they must expand every time there’s an attempt to shut them down. If they let fear take them down, they deserve to go down.

    • JWalters on October 8, 2019, 8:16 pm

      I completely agree. We are now seeing a full court press to subjugate our freedom to speak and think independently. This effort to destroy a fundamental right specified in the U.S. Constitution is being pushed by an overwhelming financial power. Without that ocean of money behind it, all members of Congress and members of the press would laugh at these efforts to kill our freedom of speech. This is a serious moment, a major battle in the struggle for a society based on truth and justice.

    • genesto on October 9, 2019, 3:48 pm

      I understand the sentiment completely. I was part of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. But, I’d be a bit cautious about condemning those who must put their careers on the line to stand for Palestinian justice. We certainly hope these people stay strong and do the right thing. But, unless we too are ready to make the sacrifices they are being asked to make and risk our professional careers in the process, I’d refrain from being judgmental here.

      What these people need is to see that we in the movement have their backs if they lose their jobs, whatever that looks like. They also need to see that there is a price to pay if they choose to accommodate the Zionists by refraining from criticism of Israel. This is the way forward, not creating divisions by saying that should they, “— let fear take them down, they deserve to go down”. That kind of talk is, I think, counterproductive.

  2. Rob Roy on October 8, 2019, 7:10 pm

    Excuse me. The Israelis never say, “Palestinian”” only “Arab” because

    (1) they think Arabs are less than insects compared to Israelis who are Jewish, and

    (2) since they’ve stolen Palestine, they don’t want to acknowledge that there is a Palestine.

    • N30rebel on October 9, 2019, 9:32 am

      (3) The Israelis, however, do say, “You will all soon be Palestinians.”

  3. Citizen on October 8, 2019, 9:24 pm

    RE: “Many pundits and commentators have insisted that we are living through a campus free speech crisis under Trump, as certain viewpoints have been attacked or shouted down. However, this potentially vast campaign against academic freedom is predictably omitted from the conversation.”

    Yes. The cable tv news shows are constantly said to be Fake News since Trump started it up, but those shows have been Hasbara Central for decades without a peep about Fake News.

  4. Misterioso on October 9, 2019, 10:15 am

    Good news:
    Kudos to Duke !!!!

    https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2019/10/duke-university-concerned-faculty-academic-freedom-middle-east

    The Chronicle:
    “Letter [to the Editor]: 62 Duke faculty respond to Department of Education directive”
    By Concerned Faculty, October 2, 2019

    “We appreciate the recent statement on academic freedom from President Price and Provost Kornbluth following the US Department of Education’s investigation of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East studies. We also welcome the letter to the DOE from 18 American academic associations—including the Middle East Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the American Anthropological Association—who characterized the investigation as ‘an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.’

    “The Federal investigation is the culmination of a decades-long campaign by anti-Palestinian organizations against academic programing and curricular offerings that are deemed insufficiently ‘pro-Israel.’ This investigation targeted a Middle East center, but should concern all of us. Today, all teachers and scholars are at risk when not aligned with national policy and national security priorities. At stake, in the current moment, is the ability of Universities to operate freely and openly without the fear of censure, and the ability of faculty to determine what they ‘teach, how they teach it, what they choose to research or write about, or who can speak on our campus.’ Duke’s continued commitment to open debate is vital. The integrity of our University demands an educational climate where free and open inquiry is encouraged and fostered, in and out of the classroom, even on the most controversial subjects.”

    Signed,
    Elizabeth Albright, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Nicholas School of the Environment
    Anne Alison, Professor, Cultural Anthropology
    Abdullah T. Antepli, Associate Professor of the Practice, Sanford School of Public Policy
    Nancy Armstrong, Professor, English
    Fadi Bardawil, Assistant Professor, Asian & Middle East Studies
    Nicole Barnes, Assistant Professor, History
    Amal Boumaaza, Lecturing Fellow, Asian & Middle East Studies
    Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Professor, Law School
    Joan Clifford, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Romance Studies
    Miriam Cooke, Professor Emerita, Asian & Middle East Studies
    Sheila Dillon, Professor, Art, Art History, and Visual Studies (Chair)
    Prasenjit Duara, Professor, History
    Katharine Dubois, Lecture Fellow, History
    Jan Ewald, Professor Emerita, History
    Luciana Fellin, Associate Professor of the Practice, Romance Studies
    Sara Galletti, Associate Professor, Art, Art History & Visual Studies
    Shai Ginsburg, Associate Professor, Asian & Middle East Studies

  5. Elizabeth Block on October 9, 2019, 11:25 am

    Kudos to Duke, indeed. Let’s hope schools all over the country unite to protect academic freedom. Use it or lose it.

  6. James Canning on October 9, 2019, 12:49 pm

    Kenneth Marcus sees a “problem” with “antiIsraelism” on US college campuses. What does Marcus have in mind for the future of millions of non-Jews in the occupied West Bank and Israel combined? Do we assume he views any concerns for the welfare of those millions of people as not appropriate for an American college campus?

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