The University of Washington law school hosted a controversial lecture this week by Kenneth Marcus, director of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights. He is a former Department of Education lawyer who pioneered the concept that criticism of Israel on campus is anti-Semitism, and sought to transform it into a federal civil rights violation. Marcus has filed spurious complaints under Title VI of Civil Rights Act against major universities like Barnard College, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, accusing the administrations of turning their campuses into places where Jewish students feel unwelcome and even intimidated and physically endangered. Marcus was consulted by a University of California Board of Regents working group which sought to craft a statement which would transform political criticism of Israel into religious discrimination. Among his legal novelties is coining the term “anti-Israelism” and equating it with anti-Semitism. All of his legal stratagems have failed. The Department of Education has dismissed every complaint he’s filed.
The UW law school agreed to host Marcus’ talk, Why Universities Need A Definition of Anti-Semitism, as part of a curiously named “Social Justice Tuesday” series of noontime talks for students. StandWithUs (SWU), which hosted the event was instrumental in arranging Marcus’ invitation. SWU has recruited plaintiffs for a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop in retaliation for supporting BDS, and long with the Bay Area group, A Wider Bridge, which specializes in the propaganda tactic known as pinkwashing, also brought three members of Israel’s LGBT community for a reception. When the local human and gay rights community protested, the reception was abruptly cancelled.
The UW event featuring Marcus is also co-sponsored by the Law School, the Jewish Federation’s lawyer’s group and the campus Hillel.
The campus flyer blurb promoting the talk reads:
Marcus will speak on legal causes of action for students who are affected by religious bias and discrimination on college campuses, and how universities can promote the civil rights of all students by adopting definitions of antisemitism [sic] and other religious discrimination.
It appears that Marcus is trolling for students interested in filing the types of federal complaints which are his specialty -- perhaps even against the University of Washington, or another institution previously targeted by SWU, The Evergreen College in nearby Olympia.
The local campus community, including some Jewish students at the law school, has raised strong opposition to the talk. The administration has been flooded with letters and messages of protest. Seattle University law Prof. Dean Spade, who is a national expert on LGBT legal rights, and who has written extensively on the phenomenon known as pinkwashing, also spoke out against the event.
In response, an assistant dean, Michele Storms, wrote to protesting students to inform them the event would neither be cancelled or modified to permit a more balanced presentation. But she offered what she viewed as a concession to their concerns: she organized an impromptu meeting, which none of the critics had agreed to or requested, with SWU’s director, Rob Jacobs, at which he would: "...Discuss the issues...hear your concerns and to share his views. We welcome this dialogue…"
It was a typical attempt at co-optation. You divert attention from the real issue at hand by asking opponents to “dialogue” with the very people who seek to muzzle their campus activism for Palestinian rights. Then, if the activists refuse the meeting, Jacobs thinks he comes out smelling like a rose: he reached out for dialogue and his opponents disdained his outreached hand. It’s entirely bogus.
The law school administrator did offer to host a separate later talk on the issues, at which protesting students and Jewish Voice for Peace would be welcome to present a talk on the same issues from their perspective.
Though the students are considering this offer, they wrote this letter of protest which has been signed by nearly 500 individuals. Among them University alumni and faculty, law school students, and organizations like the National Lawyers Guild and Jewish Voice for Peace:
We write to express our deep disappointment in the decision to allow Kenneth Marcus...to [speak] with students under the banner of “social justice.” Despite emphatic objections...the UW Law School...extend[s] institutional support for Marcus’ event by sponsoring and advertising it as part of the school’s Social Justice Tuesdays series.
These organizations [the Brandeis Center and SWU] [have] histories of collaborating with explicitly racist and anti-gay organizations; the[y are] notori[ous] for...harassing, and intimidating activists and academics who oppose their rhetoric; the[y]... label both political criticism of Israel and Palestinian rights activism as anti-Semitic...This campaign propagates Islamophobia and Anti-Arab racism.
[Law school] Dean Testy wrote, “We are deeply committed to equity and inclusion at UW and to modeling respectful dialogue on difficult issues.” We are disheartened that Dean Testy has failed to understand how the work of Kenneth Marcus...undermines the basic principles of equity and inclusion. Instead, [he seeks] to censor speech on campuses across the country, suppress academic diversity, marginalize Arab and Muslim students, and elide the political and ideological diversity within the Jewish community.
Among Marcus’ more bizarre claims was that a photograph posted to social media of a Muslim-American Michigan University student stabbing a pineapple with a knife alongside the caption, “It’s on,” was an example of violent anti-Semitism on campus. Further investigation of the 2014 incident at the University of Michigan showed it was a jocular taunt directed against the Arab members of a competing basketball team.
That didn’t stop Marcus from claiming the picture was a violent gesture linked to Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Further, he likened the pineapple to a stand-in for Israel, as it is “the closest one can get in a Michigan grocery store to a sabra, a fruit associated with Israel and Jewish people.” Marcus’ claims were featured in the Washington Free Beacon, a Breitbart-like Islamophobia-spouting online tabloid.
Marcus’ group, the Brandeis Center, receives significant funding from one of America’s most notorious pro-Israel ideologues, Daniel Pipes. He has a veritable empire of Islamophobic projects including the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch, Islamist Watch and Middle East Quarterly. Pipes acts as a financial conduit for other pro-Israel projects whose donors seek to conceal their identity (in much the same way that the Koch Brothers’ Donor Capital Fund does). In fact, The Nation noted the Koch libertarian philanthropic juggernaut offers tremendous support to a panoply of pro-Israel and Islamophobic groups:
The billionaire conservatives also fund, through the Donors Capital Fund, anti-Palestinian groups such as CAMERA and Stand With Us, in addition to Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Foundation, which in turn has acted as a “conveyor belt” for funding ultra-Zionist organizations such as the Brandeis Center and the AMCHA Initiative.
Similarly, Marcus’ donor passes the funding through Pipes’ 501c3, where it earns a tax-deduction. It then goes to the Brandeis Center, with Pipes taking a percentage for the “service” he provides.
Pipes’ IRS 990 form shows that in the last filed report (2013), he provided $51,000 to Marcus. That was one of the largest gifts to the group and provided nearly 20% of its entire annual budget. The Koret Foundation, a large Bay Area Jewish foundation and major funder of Islamophobia, donated $20,000 to the Brandeis Center in the same year.
In an indication of how the specter of ‘anti-Semitism” is being instrumentalized, the president of Western Washington University, Bruce Shepard, told the Seattle Times last week that his campus -- which had witnessed threats against Black students a year ago -- had also seen three anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks. A campus spokesperson said the nature of the incidents was being kept secret for undisclosed “privacy” reasons. As a result, Pres. Shepard planned to convene a task force, much like the controversial one appointed by the UC Board of Regents that recently equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. The WWU body would “recommend ways to educate and help people better understand the impact of anti-Semitic actions.” So far there is no indication whether these incidents involved criticism of Israel or whether the campus task force is considering such activism to be anti-Semitic.
But it is almost a given that pro-Israel lobbyists from SWU will inject themselves into this case as well. And it will be lobbying strenuously for Palestinian activists and those critical of Israeli policies to be considered anti-Semitic.
AlterNet emailed a series of questions about the event to Dean Storms, who declined to answer them saying: “I [am] swamped and do not have the time to do your questions any justice.”