Note: In January, 2018, the Senate committee that oversees education approved the nomination of Kenneth Marcus. The full Senate needs to confirm his nomination.
Kenneth Marcus, founder, president and general counsel for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has dedicated most of his career to fighting for civil rights. Marcus was nominated by President Trump for the position of assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Meanwhile, anti-Israel groups have been aggressively working to block his confirmation.
In 2002, flyers showing a soup can with the words “Palestinian Children Meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license” peppered the campus of San Francisco State University (SFSU). A month later, during a Middle-East peace rally held by Hillel students, anti-Israel groups yelled, “Hitler should have finished the job,” and “Go back to Germany, where they knew how to deal with you.” In response, SFSU President Robert Corrigan stated, “It is not animus towards Jews, but there are strong anti-Zionist feelings on this campus.”
And in 2002, a university president could both make this claim and fail to resolve the problem — for two important reasons.
First, while the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education protected students against discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, age, disability and even membership in youth organizations, the OCR did not extend those protections to Jews. In 2004, that changed. Marcus, who was serving as interim assistant secretary of education for civil rights — the very position for which he is currently being considered — directed the OCR to extend protection to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others.
Second, in 2002, there was no clear statement for defining and identifying modern-day anti-Semitism. Is a flyer accusing Jews of killing and eating Palestinian children simply an expression of anti-Israel sentiment, or is it also a modern form of blood libel, a reemergence of the anti-Semitic claim that Jews are consuming the blood of Christian babies?
In 2010, the U.S. State Department established a definition of anti-Semitism that includes demonizing Israel or Jews as a collectivity, denying Jewish people a right to self-determination and applying a double standard to Israel.
The SFSU flyers clearly meet the criteria of anti-Semitic speech according to this definition. However, educators and university leaders, as well as the general public, remained largely unaware of this definition.
Marcus has worked to increase awareness. In 2011, he established the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, whose mission “is to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all” through research on anti-Semitism, education and legal advocacy. The center has pursued landmark litigation and established chapters at 18 law schools throughout the country. In 2015, Marcus published The Definition of Anti-Semitism with Oxford University Press as part of an effort to foster discussion on this issue and promote awareness of the State Department definition.
If Marcus’ nomination for assistant secretary of education for civil rights is confirmed by the Senate, he will once again assume leadership of the OCR. After Marcus was nominated, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, an umbrella group that disperses educational material accusing Israel of ethnically cleansing Palestinians, immediately issued a call to its members, including the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), asking them to tell their senators to oppose the nomination. They falsely accused Marcus of being “a sworn opponent of Palestinian rights.”
In fact, Marcus has never opposed anybody’s rights. Quite the contrary. Under his direction, the OCR during the George W. Bush administration “started taking a stronger approach to enforcing civil-rights laws.” Marcus pressed for the rights of women as well as racial, ethnic and language minorities, and led a national initiative for equal access rights for disabled college students.
Furthermore, in his capacity as president of the Brandeis Center, Marcus has also spoken out against and testified about the harassment of Muslims, Sikhs and other religious minorities.
So why do groups like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and the JVP really oppose Marcus’ nomination? Because they don’t want civil rights law extended to Jews and because they don’t want their false accusations, such as the most recent blood libel about Israel harvesting the organs of Palestinian children, labeled as anti-Semitic. While it is clearly possible to advocate for Palestinian rights without engaging in anti-Semitism, any rhetoric that paints one group as bad and another as good is a powerful tool, and these groups want to make use of this tool with impunity.
Meanwhile, the situation at SFSU has deteriorated: Anti-Israel students regularly disrupt and shut down Hillel events, most notably the Jerusalem mayor’s 2016 speech. In addition, SFSU purposely excluded Hillel from a civil rights event on campus, and Jewish students are harassed to the point of receiving death threats. Not a single SFSU student has faced disciplinary action. So, in 2017, current and former students filed a lawsuit against SFSU claiming that it has fostered institutional anti-Semitism.
Sadly, SFSU is not alone. Anti-Semitism coming from both the far right and the far left is rising sharply on campus. It is vital that OCR — and that states and the federal government in general — adopt a coherent, effective framework to address all forms of anti-Semitism, which is what Ken Marcus, the Brandeis Center and all individuals and organizations engaged in this important cause hope to do.