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.