Spurious Reversal on Dept. of Education Investigation Is About Suppressing Free Speech on Campus — Not Combating Anti-Semitism

September 12, 2018

The decision by the Department of Education (DOE)’s Kenneth Marcus to reopen a previously closed investigation into a 7-year-old incident of alleged anti-Semitism at Rutgers University shows that the Trump administration is inclined to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses — even if that means trampling on constitutionally-protected free speech.

The initial Rutgers investigation into an event held by a Palestinian group on campus was triggered by a complaint from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — an ultra-right group that has sought to suppress virtually all activities critical of Israeli government policy, and which regularly traffics in anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim bigotry. The complaint was thoroughly investigated and dismissed by the DOE in 2014. Its reopening is not about upholding civil rights or a serious effort to combat anti-Semitism, but about advancing a right-wing agenda that seeks to silence open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To do so, the Trump administration intends to wield a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that equates criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism — and which was never intended for use on college campuses. Ken Stern, the renowned anti-Semitism expert who authored this definition, has argued vehemently against its application to college life, publicly opposing proposed Congressional legislation that would codify it into US law.

Stern has written that “If this bill becomes law it is easy to imagine calls for university administrators to stop pro-Palestinian speech… students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.” That is likely precisely what Marcus and his backers now intend.

At J Street, we strongly oppose anti-Semitism in all of its forms. We work to challenge ill-informed criticism of Israel and Zionism — including on college campuses, through the efforts of our student movement J Street U. We strongly believe that such criticisms can and must be treated as constitutionally-protected free speech — not banned and punished by Congress or the executive branch. While we stand against the Global BDS movement, we also believe that labeling all critics of the Israel and BDS supporters as anti-Semites only undercuts advocacy for Israel and for peace. Pro-Israel students need space to freely engage with and respond to difficult issues and ideas on their campuses. They don’t need Trump officials and university administrators to penalize students for their political opinions or to serve as the arbiters of what is acceptable debate.

We continue to urge Members of Congress and pro-Israel organizations not to support dangerous and misguided legislation that would hand further ammunition to the Trump administration for the suppression of free speech on campus — and that would do nothing to actually combat and reduce the real threat of anti-Semitism.