Last week, President Trump signed an Executive Order intended to suppress academic freedom on campuses across the United States. The order threatens to withhold federal funds from universities that fail to combat what it considers to be anti-Semitism, a term it reframes, using a highly tendentious redefinition, to include criticism of Israel.
According to this redefined notion of anti-Semitism (which has been promoted by Israel’s army of advocates in this country for the best part of a decade), pointing out the racism of the Israeli state—a state that legally enshrines racial discrimination—would itself be considered a form of racism. Calling for equal rights throughout that state, which institutionally privileges Jews over non-Jews, could similarly be considered hate speech. Students and teachers criticizing Israel’s policies, let alone those daring to advocate Palestinian rights, would be silenced.
It ought to be obvious that Trump’s move has nothing to do with fighting expressions of genuine anti-Semitism (which targets Jews for who they are, rather than a state for its brutal policies), in which he has himself frequently indulged. Rather, this order, which was apparently urged by his partisan son-in-law Jared Kushner, is the culmination of years of effort by Israel’s defenders to shield that state from criticism on American campuses, including the one where I teach.
A generation ago, it was possible to simply tune out criticism of Israel in the United States. But the consolidation of rigorous scholarly histories, a vast library of meticulously researched and damning UN and human rights reports, the relentless televisual spectacle of Israel’s devastation of Palestinian civilians, and the emergence of a new generation of Arab and Palestinian writers, speakers, and activists with native proficiency in English who have been finding their voices across a range of media—all these have altered the cozy domestic consensus that had developed around Israel by the 1980s.
Indeed, the task of defending Israel has become infinitely more difficult in recent years, as that country’s image has deteriorated because of its violent repression of Palestinian rights and the increasingly explicit forms of ethno-nationalism to which it has turned. A proliferating array of advocacy organizations has sprung up in order to foster support for Israeli apartheid among skeptical and well-informed university students. That is no easy task, and to facilitate it, these organizations have repeatedly tried either to crowd out or simply suppress voices critical of Israeli policy, including by developing crudely caricatural blacklists of students and faculty and engaging in vulgar forms of intimidation and harassment.
Their energies have recently centered on administrative suppression of free speech on campus, especially via the adoption of the new definition of anti-Semitism just embraced by Trump. In 2016, for instance, a coalition of Israel advocacy organizations campaigned to have the Regents of the University of California redefine anti-Semitism on campus along exactly these lines.
The only thing that has stood in the face of all these efforts—including the one in the UC system—has been the principle of freedom of speech, with which they are manifestly at odds.
The person charged with using this new executive order to place our campuses under renewed surveillance is Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights. He is the perfect Trump appointment, because he’s a man with a long track record of opposing the very rights he’s nominally supposed to protect. Marcus has opposed affirmative action and efforts to enhance diversity; he has opposed broadening the framework of civil rights to include LGBTQ rights; he has supported recent efforts to rescind Title IX guidance on sexual assault and increase protections for accused abusers.
Above all, however, Marcus has devoted his career to suppressing criticism of Israel. He is the founder of an organization whose stated purpose is to combat what it calls “anti-Israelism on college campuses.” His outfit has tried to use legal means to target the First Amendment rights of those who advocate Palestinian narratives or criticize Israel. He used his former position to file lawsuits against a series of universities for allowing the advocates of Palestinian rights to speak on campus. All of those lawsuits have been dismissed as baseless by the courts—but now Marcus is the one who will be adjudicating them from his position in the Department of Education, and he’ll have the power of a presidential executive order to add to his repressive toolkit.
So here we are: citizens and teachers in a republic that formally enshrines the equality of all citizens, being put on notice that we are henceforth not allowed to criticize a state that formally enshrines the inequality of its citizens—because to do so, we are told, would be a form of racial discrimination. Not even Orwell could have imagined such a sweeping abuse of language and power.