Trump’s civil rights enforcer could use law to silence students

Lawmakers have re-introduced a bill that labels speech critical of Israel as anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is aimed at schools and universities and would be used to justify and encourage investigations of Palestine rights activists on US campuses.

The bill was previously killed in the House of Representatives in 2016.

But civil rights experts say that it is critical to challenge the revived version now that a top Israel lobby strategist is leading the federal office charged with investigating claims of anti-Semitism.

Kenneth Marcus was finally confirmed by the Senate to head the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education earlier this month, following his approval by a key committee in January.

It was a strict 50-46 party-line vote, with no Democrats voting to confirm Marcus.

The Trump appointee is known for filing numerous complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, claiming that universities failed to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.

So far, his efforts as a private citizen have proven fruitless. In 2013, the Office for Civil Rights threw out Title VI complaints filed against University of California campuses at Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine.

The previous year the department threw out a similar complaint against New York’s Barnard College.

In 2014, the government also dismissed as baseless a complaint brought against Rutgers University in New Jersey by the Zionist Organization of America.

But now, as the top civil rights enforcer, Marcus “will do from the inside of the Department of Education what he has failed to do from the outside,” Palestine Legal’s Dima Khalidi said last year.

Threatening universities

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has been presented as a solution to what leading Israel lobby group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claims is rising anti-Semitism on campuses.

The ADL boasts that it played a “central role” in “crafting and promoting” the original legislation.

The bill would instruct Marcus to judge whether or not anti-Semitism is taking place on US campuses.

Marcus is “part of the Trump agenda and his main purpose is to silence criticism of Israel on campus,” said Liz Jackson, an attorney with the civil rights group Palestine Legal. Jackson was speaking with Rabbi Joseph Berman of Jewish Voice for Peace in a conversation that can be watched in the video above.

Marcus is now in a position to threaten universities with cuts to their federal funding if they do not silence students who advocate for Palestinian rights, Berman noted.

The legislation was re-introduced by Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and has four sponsors: Democratic senators Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Michael Bennett of Colorado, and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“Dangerous and unnecessary”

The American Civil Liberties Union warns that the legislation is likely to cause universities to stifle protected speech in order to avoid federal investigations.

Anti-semitic harassment is already illegal under a federal law, the ACLU says.

“The new bill does not change that fact, but its overbreadth makes it likely that it will instead silence criticism of Israel that is protected by the First Amendment,” it adds.

The civil liberties group is calling on lawmakers to reject this “dangerous and unnecessary” bill.

A key tactic by Israel lobby groups has been to try to enshrine in legislation and institutional policies around the world a definition of anti-Semitism that treats criticism of Israel and its state ideology Zionism as forms of anti-Jewish bigotry.

That effort has been strongly supported by Israel lobby groups and opposed by Palestinian and Jewish activists, and free speech defenders.

Even the lead author of the controversial definition, Kenneth Stern, has warned lawmakers that its adoption would be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Currently, 25 states have adopted measures ostracizing or attempting to restrict the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, claiming that the campaign to support Palestinian rights is rooted in anti-Semitism.

The US Congress is also considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which could impose prison and heavy fines on companies or their personnel accused of abiding by boycotts of Israel called for by international organizations.

More than 100 rights groups have warned that in addition to prohibiting political speech, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, backed by the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC, “would empower overzealous presidential administrations” to target, surveil and investigate supporters of the boycott campaign.

“We can stop it”

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, meanwhile, does nothing to address and confront actual acts of anti-Semitism occurring across the US by white nationalist organizations, bigots and racists emboldened by the Trump administration, said Berman.

“It’s an incredibly deceptive name because it’s not actually about anti-Semitism,” he said. “It’s about trying to silence students.”

If anything, Berman warned, the legislation would make it more difficult to address real acts of anti-Jewish bigotry because the bill only focuses on students who are advocating for Palestinian rights on campuses.

Berman and Jackson urged human rights supporters to strengthen defense of free speech on campuses as well as challenge Marcus’ agenda.

Through direct pressure on lawmakers, civil rights defenders blocked the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in 2016, “which makes me believe that we can stop it from becoming law now,” Berman said.

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It looks as if the USA is now a dependent colony of Israel, where free speech is no longer tolerated.

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The Zionists criminal agenda is getting out of control with the help of current US dummy administration and of course the blind support of Zionists Christians that has destroyed the democracy. Unfortunately, our freedom of speech and democracy have become available in the market for sale.

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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).