A Climate of Intimidation

The reopening of the U.S. Department of Education's investigation into Rutgers University is not, as claimed, about anti-Semitism, argues Tallie Ben-Daniel.

October 17, 2018

White supremacist groups have turned their vitriol to college campuses under the Trump administration. Those hate groups exploit the First Amendment to openly recruit members, stage rallies and garner news-media attention. Faced with this rise of open racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, college and university administrations have struggled to balance protecting the First Amendment while also providing a welcoming educational environment to marginalized students.

This is surely a time for strong guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. But instead of providing that guidance, Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, has launched a campaign against students who support Palestinian human rights and the colleges and universities that permit them such freedom of speech.

The Office for Civil Rights is charged with protecting the civil rights of protected classes at public institutions of education. Sadly, Marcus’s track record and recent actions indicate he’ll be doing the opposite. He is best known for his leadership of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, where he claimed campus advocacy for Palestinian rights creates a hostile environment for Jewish students. Such claims were spurious and often made at the instigation of pro-Israel advocacy groups -- many of them targeting interfaith solidarity actions which included Jewish students. Over the course of the past 10 years, the Department of Education found not a single one of the claims had merit.

And yet, for Marcus, that doesn’t really matter. That’s because he isn’t actually worried about anti-Semitism in universities. He’s focused on creating a climate of intimidation so that universities will censor students supporting Palestinian human rights.

The New York Times, Politico and several other outlets recently reported that Marcus had sent a letter to the anti-Muslim extremist group Zionist Organization of America, promising to reopen a seven-year-old case against Rutgers University. That would represent one of Marcus’s first acts as the chief of the Office for Civil Rights and so presumably is a precursor of things to come. And yet the previous administration closed the investigation for good reason. The event in question, featuring Jewish Holocaust survivors, is not indicative of the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students by any definition. Nonetheless, the ZOA, representing Israel advocacy groups who protested the event, claimed the event targeted Jewish students -- because to them, any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. After the Obama administration held a three-year investigation, the claims were found to be without merit, much like all the other claims brought by Marcus himself.

When administrators learn that allowing students to advocate for Palestinian human rights on campus garners the attention of the federal government, and possibly a Title VI investigation, they will have a significant incentive to institute harsher restrictions on those students. Moreover, Palestinian advocacy on campus has already been the target of right-wing attacks and tightly constrained by university administrations for over a decade. So such student activists -- who come from all walks of life and religious backgrounds and are moved by personal or familial experience, moral clarity, or a desire to see justice realized everywhere -- are already facing well-orchestrated opposition.

This harassment includes fliers falsely identifying them as terrorists and online smear tactics with their personal information shared by shadowy groups. With the launch of Marcus’s intimidation campaign, administrators may enact stricter rules against student protest, faculty members may refrain from teaching or talking about Palestine, more classes on Palestine may be canceled and minor disciplinary infractions may lead to more serious repercussions. That is what Marcus wants.

Marcus’s supporters may say that all of this is necessary, that advocating for human rights does in fact create a hostile climate, and that at the core, isn’t it most important to fight anti-Semitism with all the tools we have? But the Education Department’s Title VI investigations do nothing to make Jewish students safer on campuses. They won’t give Jewish students more access to kosher food or allow them to take time off from their studies to celebrate religious holidays. They won’t provide education about white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism. They certainly won’t provide tools or financial support to fight hate groups and hate speech.

Instead, these investigations will seek to define Jewishness as a narrow political ideology: that of unquestioning support for the Israeli government. This harmful understanding will further marginalize all Jewish students. Many Jewish students are a part of the campus movement for Palestinian human rights, and many more simply want to attend college without having the Trump administration define what counts as Jewish. More students from all backgrounds are growing increasingly aware of the conditions of Palestinians and question the ongoing relationship between the United States and Israel. That process -- learning new information and therefore changing and clarifying one’s personal opinions -- is precisely what colleges and universities are for.

Discussions of what the First Amendment means for this generation of students often focus on student efforts to deny a platform to racists and fascists, claiming that this generation doesn’t respect free speech or that protesting racist speech is violating the speaker’s free-speech rights. What this argument doesn’t account for is the actual threat to the First Amendment: the Trump administration’s creation of an environment that silences student speech, political advocacy and education.

History has shown that colleges and universities operate best when there are clear resources for students to do their best work, when free-speech rights are protected, and when faculty members are offered the fullest forms of academic freedom. College and university administrators should recognize Marcus’s reopening of the investigation against Rutgers for what it is: an attempt by the federal government to suppress the free-speech rights of students. If colleges and universities as institutions are to survive this administration, students, faculty members and administrators need to stop Kenneth Marcus’s intimidation campaign before it starts.


Tallie Ben-Daniel is research and education manager at Jewish Voice for Peace.


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