The Trump administration's crackdown on campus criticism of Israel is Orwellian

Joshua Leifer
Photograph: Gerry Broome/AP

If you criticize Israeli policy, you will lose your federal funding. That is the message the Department of Education is sending with its threat to withdraw federal support for the Consortium for Middle East Studies, operated jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, if it does not alter the content of its programming.

Just three months after Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, ordered an investigation into a conference about the politics of the Gaza Strip that the consortium had sponsored – an authoritarian threat, in and of itself – the Department of Education issued a letter demanding that the Duke-UNC consortium remake its curriculum. Or else.

The Department of Education’s letter, published last Tuesday, charged that the Duke-UNC program was failing to meet its federal mandate – by focusing too much on cultural studies and topics like “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and not enough on “advancing the security and economic stability of the United States”. In other words, it seems the program was teaching its students about the complex and varied cultures of countries in the Middle East instead of how to dominate them.

The letter did not mention directly the conference on Gaza, during which several well-respected American, Israeli and Palestinian experts spoke. But it didn’t have to. The DeVos-ordered investigation is part of the Trump administration’s attempt to crack down on campus criticism of Israeli policy – a goal to which the administration made its commitment explicit when it appointed Kenneth L Marcus assistant secretary of civil rights in the Department of Education. That the investigation was followed by the threat of defunding is an indication of just how serious the Trump administration is about this goal.

Marcus’s confirmation was opposed by major civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as by the National Bar Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Council of Jewish Women. The reasons are manifold – for example, Marcus’s opposition to affirmative action, his spotty record on disability rights, and his shaky commitment to LGBTQ equality. A letter signed by the more than 30 groups that opposed Marcus’s nomination noted: “Mr Marcus’s attitudes and beliefs fail to demonstrate a commitment to protecting students of color from discrimination.” It also observed that Marcus had, since leaving the Bush Department of Education, sought to use anti-discrimination law “to chill a particular point of view, rather than address unlawful discrimination”.

In the Trump era, the repression of left-wing viewpoints is free speech; federal intervention in university curriculum is academic freedom

By “chill a particular point of view,” what the civil rights groups’ letter was referring to was Marcus’s work as a professional pro-Israel operative, and, more specifically, his efforts to use civil rights law to shut down the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) on university campuses. Marcus articulated his strategy in a 2013 op-ed for the Jerusalem Post. “At many campuses, the prospect of litigation has made a difference,” he wrote. “If a university shows a failure to treat initial complaints seriously, it hurts them with donors, faculty, political leaders and prospective students.”

Pace Marcus’s op-ed, the threat of litigation or the withdrawal of funds would be enough to pressure universities into clamping down on BDS and BDS-adjacent activism. But, more recently, since assuming his post at the Department of Education Marcus has attempted to take this strategy even further, pushing the government to define the BDS movement as antisemitic and designate anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism as violations of Jewish students’ civil rights. A range of groups, from the free-speech watchdog Fire to the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street, have warned that the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism poses serious threats to campus free speech.

In the Orwellian grammar of the Trump era, though, the repression of left-wing viewpoints is free speech; federal intervention in university curriculum is academic freedom. The Department of Education threat against the Duke-UNC consortium is yet another example of the Trump administration’s spectacular hypocrisy and cynicism, not to mention its clash-of-civilizations-style Islamophobia – among other things, the Education Department’s letter accused the Duke-UNC program of devoting disproportionate emphasis “on understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”

Yet the significance, and the reasons behind, the education department’s attack on the Duke-UNC program goes beyond just Israel-Palestine and even the politics of Middle East studies. In a Trump administration marked by unceasing staff turnover, stark policy reversals, and more general unpredictability and chaos, one of the few constants has been the president and his allies’ hostility to institutions of higher education.

There is a long history of right-wing antipathy to universities, seen as breeding grounds for unpatriotic thought, cultural deviance, and liberal decadence. The Trump administration’s higher policies have largely reflected this view – from the appointment of right-wing, education war stalwarts such as Besty DeVos and Marcus to Trump’s signing of a farcical “free speech” executive order intended “to defend American students and American values that have been under siege”. And the UNC-Duke consortium letter was not even the sole higher-education-related punch the Trump administration landed this week. The National Labor Relations Board announced it would move to strip the right to unionize from teaching and research assistants at private universities.

Indeed, when it comes to higher education, the Trump administration’s approach is uncharacteristically coherent, to fight its enemies – variously conceived of as liberals, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, people of color, and women – by enforcing ideological constraints, amplifying conservative viewpoints, dismantling or manipulating anti-discrimination statutes and, when possible, slashing federal funding.