How Trump’s new civil rights enforcer will attack civil rights

Israel lawfare strategist Kenneth Marcus will now lead the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. (Palestine Legal)

On Thursday morning, the US Congress confirmed top Israel lawfare strategist Kenneth Marcus to head the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, in a vote split along party lines.

Numerous civil rights groups and legal experts vigorously opposed his nomination.

Marcus previously served as the Office for Civil Rights’ top enforcement officer from 2002-2004, under President George W. Bush, and has held other government jobs.

The Trump appointee is known for filing numerous civil rights complaints – to the office he now leads – claiming that universities fail to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.

His legal complaints were thrown out due to lack of evidence.

But now, he will be in charge of adjudicating the outcomes of such complaints in the future.

Marcus has been given the authority to open new investigations, while determining policies that could stifle speech and political organizing on US campuses.

He has called his own leadership style “blunt micromanagement.”

Liz Jackson of Palestine Legal, a firm that defends students, faculty and activists against the kinds of smears and litigation in which Marcus engages, told me that his position as the country’s top enforcer of civil rights in education is “ominous.”

According to Jackson, Marcus’ long record consists of being “singularly focused on attacking First Amendment-protected speech and the scholarship of people who are vocal about Palestinian rights on campus.”

Smears and lawfare

Marcus’ record of hostility or indifference toward Palestinian and Muslim students, LGBTQ students and students of color should have disqualified him from any public office.

As head of the right-wing pro-Israel lawfare group, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, Marcus has over the last decade attacked Palestinian human rights and those who advocate for them.

He is also a former board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a cynically named group supported by leading anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic funders and figures.

SPME’s board members have also included such high-profile anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim agitators as Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Daniel Pipes.

Erosion of rights

But the elevation of an enemy of civil rights as a top enforcer of civil rights is no aberration.

Like many of Trump’s appointments, Marcus’ leadership is meant to mock and dismantle the basic infrastructure and social needs each federal department is supposed to serve.

This comes after years of austerity, especially in education, that has severely weakened public institutions and made them ever more vulnerable to political pressure.

Students and faculty who advocate for justice in Palestine have learned to work with fewer resources, expect fewer protections and endure more harassment.

The language of civil rights and free speech are weaponized and stripped of their content and meaning.

For example, in the same week that Marcus was confirmed, the Trump administration also created a “civil rights” division within the Department of Health and Human Services.

It is tasked not with protecting patients and members of marginalized communities from discrimination in medical care and social services, but rather with shielding providers who hold bigoted anti-transgender and anti-abortion views from performing services that would violate their religious beliefs.

In short, the job of the new office is to protect the “freedom” to discriminate.

In this spirit, under Marcus’ direction, students, faculty and activists should expect the Office for Civil Rights to mount a direct, systematic and relentless attack on their civil rights.

Protection

To help mitigate these chilling effects, students and faculty should take refresher courses on the First Amendment. “It’s the number one protection here,” Palestine Legal’s Jackson said.

“No matter what Marcus says, no matter what the federal government says, they can’t take away basic free speech rights to criticize Israeli policies and advocate for Palestinian freedom,” she added. “It’s an enshrined right.”

In this climate, the more that students stand up for their rights, the better those rights will be protected. “To survive this period of repression is the best resistance,” Jackson added.

We can also take some small solace from the observation that when the government moves to repress a certain movement, it’s often a sign of that movement’s strength or potential.

That’s exactly why Israel and its lobby groups are attempting to criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

But in a leaked secret report last year, Israel conceded that despite its efforts it has failed to stem the “impressive growth” and “significant successes” of this movement.

Appointing a fox like Kenneth Marcus to watch the henhouse of education – where scholarship and critical thought should be nurtured and celebrated – is yet another indication that Israel is desperate.

Marcus may have his sights on them, but students and faculty defending free speech and Palestinian rights have everything to fight for.

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I'm not so sure the SCOTUS views 1st Amendment rights quite the way Liz Jackson does, take Citizens United and the Travel Ban as examples but her point about stepping up the fight is a critical one.
I do think though that it means protest leadership must go to great pains, to leave no doubt about their commitment to respecting those rights for their adversaries as well. They must try to engage propagandists rather than blow up (metaphorically of course) their events, if at all possible.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).