More than 100 Jewish academics sign open letter demanding the Trump administration stop exploiting anti-Semitism in order to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses.
Jewish academics are fighting back against the Trump administration’s attempts to silence criticism of Israel on college campuses. More than 100 Jewish scholars have signed an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education in response to its demand that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies modify its curricular programming or face defunding.
The open letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signatories include renowned scholar Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and artist Molly Crabapple, condemns the Education Department’s recent investigation of the consortium and subsequent ultimatum as “an unfounded and anti-democratic campaign of intimidation” and charges the Education Department with “exploiting fears of anti-Semitism” and “using Jews and our concerns over anti-Semitism to try and justify repressive policies.”
The letter also denounces the “shocking Islamophobia running throughout” the Education Department’s letter announcing the investigation’s findings.
DeVos ordered the investigation into the Duke-UNC Consortium following a complaint that a conference it hosted last March on the politics of the Gaza Strip — which featured several well-respected American, Israeli, and Palestinian experts — demonstrated “severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
The Education Department has, under Trump, adopted an aggressive posture toward criticism of Israel and particularly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — a change perhaps best embodied by the appointment of the department’s civil rights chief, Ken Marcus. A longtime professional pro-Israel operative, Marcus has pushed the government to define the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and to designate anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism as violations of Jewish students’ civil rights.
But while the initial complaint of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism was the ostensible catalyst for the Education Department’s investigation, the letter announcing its findings made no mention of either anti-Semitism or Israel. Instead, the Education Department claimed the Duke-UNC consortium was failing to meet its requirements for federal funding by focusing too much on cultural studies courses and topics like “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and not enough on “advancing the security and economic stability of the United States.” Thus, what began with the pretext of investigating an already spurious accusation of anti-Semitism turned into a rare federal intervention in the curricular programming of an academic institution.
“We have the Department of Education leveraging an attack on a conference related to Gaza to have a chilling effect on free speech overall on campuses,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and one of the speakers at the conference on Gaza last March. The DOE’s actions, she said during an interview, were “effectively a broadside against Middle East studies programs nationwide that accept any federal funding.”
“The attack on the Gaza conference was bogus from the start,” Friedman added. “Anyone who actually reviewed what happened at the conference would say, ‘this is not anti-Semitism.’ And it appears the Department of Education was unable — assuming they were motivated to try to find antisemitism — to find it.”
Charlotte Rosen, a doctoral student in history at Northwestern University who worked on the Jewish academics’ open letter, called the Education Department’s investigation “a cynical use” of Jewish historical trauma and an attempt to police the conversation about Israeli policy and silence already marginalized voices.
The Jewish academics’ letter, she said, was intended to send a message to the Trump administration of “a rejection coming from the very community they claim to be acting and speaking on behalf of.” Rosen added that the goal going forward would be “to continue to lift up the point that criticism of Israel and Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.”
The Education Department’s investigation into the Duke-UNC consortium is part of the pro-Israel right’s ongoing anti-BDS offensive. Aided by the Trump administration, that offensive includes Assistant Secretary Marcus’s efforts to change the government’s definition of anti-Semitism, attempts to stifle campus criticism of Israel and Palestine solidarity activism, and anti-boycott bills — which the ACLU considers unconstitutional — that have passed in at least 27 states. American Jewish establishment organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, have largely supported these measures.
“We are prepared, apparently, as a community to quash free speech across the board, on campuses, in the public space, if that’s what is required to have an exception for Israel,” Friedman said of the Jewish communal organizations’ approach to the Education Department’s investigation and the rash of anti-boycott bills. “The fact that this is happening at a moment of rising illiberalism, rising lethal anti-Semitism, and our community is actively participating in and contributing to the closing of space for free speech, for social protest, for political protest, is unconscionable.”