Israel lobby prompts federal investigations over Palestine events

Two men clasp hands

Trump’s order is meant to shield Israel from criticism on US campuses.

Gripas Yuri Abaca via ZUMA Press

The US Department of Education has opened two separate investigations into the University of California at Los Angeles because of events that discussed advocacy for Palestinian rights.

The investigations have been prompted by complaints filed by Israel lobby groups, which allege that Palestine-related education or advocacy on campus is inherently anti-Semitic and discriminates against Jewish students.

They follow US President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed in December, which allows mere accusations of anti-Semitism against campus critics of Israel to result in lengthy inquisitions by the government.

Israel lobby groups recently filed similar complaints against Columbia University and Georgia Tech.

In November, before the executive order, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into New York University, after an Israel-aligned student claimed that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine created a “hostile atmosphere.”

The Middle East Studies Association’s committee on academic freedom has called on NYU’s president to reject “all efforts to weaponize allegations of anti-Semitism in order to advance a political agenda.”

An investigation that was previously closed by the US government against Rutgers University in 2014 was re-opened in 2018 by the Office for Civil Rights.

That office is led by Kenneth Marcus, who as an Israel lobbyist working outside the government pioneered the strategy of filing complaints to the Department of Education under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The complaints typically allege that universities fail to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism or teaching about Palestine.

Marcus developed this lawfare strategy when he was head of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights, an Israel lobby group unaffiliated with Brandeis University.

Marcus will adjudicate the findings of these new investigations. He could determine if universities like UCLA will lose federal funding for not suppressing student advocacy for Palestinian rights.


One of the investigations into UCLA was instigated by the Zachor Legal Institute, an anti-Palestinian think tank that claims it is “taking the lead” against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

In November 2018, student activists from around the country gathered at the national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine to build anti-racist organizing strategies.

Mere hours after the conference began, the Zachor Legal Institute filed a federal complaint against UCLA.

The complaint alleges that the university expressed an “intentional act of anti-Semitism” in hosting the conference. It added that SJP is a “terror front” and claimed that the conference was an “attack on Jewish students.”

Following Trump’s executive order, the US Department of Education accepted the group’s federal complaint and opened the investigation.

Leading up to – and during – the conference, student activists were subjected to a relentless smear campaign and targeted attacks by Israel lobby groups, UCLA administrators and local lawmakers.

While pro-Israel advocates pushed for UCLA to cancel the conference, members of the Los Angeles city council unanimously passed a resolution condemning Students for Justice in Palestine. The motion alleged that the conference “undoubtedly would promote anti-Semitism” and that Jewish students on campus would face discrimination.

A week before the LA City Council’s resolution, the UCLA administration sent students a cease and desist letter claiming that their illustration of a bear on conference promotional materials violated the university’s trademark. The Bruin bear is the university mascot.

UCLA backed down after receiving a letter from the civil rights organizations Palestine Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union.

These complaints and the newly opened investigations are meant to have a sharp chilling effect not just on students and professors but on university administrations, Amira Mattar, a legal fellow at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

“It’s strong-arming universities to be censors, to cut Palestine advocacy or risk their funding,” Mattar added.

Attacking free speech

The second UCLA investigation was instigated by the Israel lobby group StandWithUs, which alleges that a Palestinian professor did not take a sufficiently pro-Israel position during a discussion with a student.

In May 2019, professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who teaches at San Francisco State University and has been a longtime target of Israel lobby groups, gave a lecture at UCLA about Islamophobia and settler colonialism.

During the question and answer session, “a student told Abdulhadi that as a Jew she identified with the political ideology of Zionism and was offended by being placed ‘in the same category as a white supremacist,’” according to Palestine Legal.

Abdulhadi responded “that she respects the student’s feelings but does not agree with them,” the civil rights group added.

Several students claimed that the lecture was a form of hate speech and said they planned to file a complaint to the university.

UCLA conducted an internal investigation and concluded months later that there had been no wrongdoing or discrimination.

In its complaint, StandWithUs claims that the university did not adequately punish Abdulhadi.

“The logical conclusion of this argument is that federal law requires UCLA to intervene when professors fail to support Israel,” Palestine Legal warns.

Micromanaging academia

Meanwhile, members of Congress are calling on Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary, to pull federal funding from universities that have Middle East studies programs where members of faculty support the academic boycott of Israel.

Invoking Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the lawmakers insist that Middle East Studies National Resource Centers – which are housed at many US universities – are “misusing” their federal grant funds because directors and members of faculty support the academic boycott.

Title VI of the Higher Education Act provides federal funding for foreign language and area studies. It is unrelated to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and is not supervised by the Office for Civil Rights or Kenneth Marcus directly.

However, Marcus does have influence, Mattar told The Electronic Intifada, “because when he was at the Brandeis Center, he led this campaign to cancel all Title VI funding of Middle East Studies programs because of their [alleged] bias against Israel.’”

The lawmakers cite DeVos’ threats last September against Duke University and the University of North Carolina over a conference focused on Gaza, which was sponsored by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.

DeVos threatened to cut funding to Middle East Studies unless the universities provided a “revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.”

Mattar called it an unprecedented “micromanagement of the content of academic affairs” because the department was deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians.

UNC and Duke University settled with the government and are looking into ways to be in compliance with the government’s demands, she added.

“They’re in a position where they can’t actually explore academic content – it’s confined now, it’s limited,” Mattar said.

In addition, Congress member Denver Riggleman of Virginia called on DeVos to block federal funds from Georgetown University, claiming that the institution’s faculty at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies are anti-Semitic due to their support of the BDS movement.

Mattar said that although these threats are lingering over the heads of students, faculty and university administrators, students are continuing their advocacy for Palestinian rights “the way that the US Constitution permits it.”

Trump’s unilateral action to implement a distorted definition of anti-Semitism in order to silence Palestine rights campaigners “should not change their movement for justice, equality and peace, despite the backlash and the smearing. Your First Amendment rights remain unchanged,” she explained.




Very soon, the US will be called USI, the United States of America and Israel. Never did so few, make so much noise over free speech. Standards under this President are becoming the lowest in history.

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).