By Jeff Robbins
At last month’s Senate hearing on the nomination of civil rights lawyer Ken Marcus to be the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) praised Marcus for his advocacy on behalf of a Virginia Tech student threatened by a white supremacist working for the university.
Marcus and the Brandeis Center for Human Rights that he heads, Kaine said, “laudably, I think, helped the student out and weighed in with the administration of Virginia Tech and said, ‘You got to take this seriously; white supremacy is wrong; neo-Nazi ideas are wrong.’ ”
Having praised Marcus for doing the kind of work he has done for years, Kaine then proceeded to join all of the Democrats on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in opposing Marcus’ nomination, which only cleared the committee by a 12-11 vote because of Republicans’ unanimous support. For Democrats who find Donald Trump loathsome but worry that their party has lost its bearings, the Democrats’ vote against Marcus is more reason to worry.
Marcus’ “problem” is that he has devoted the last several years of his life to defending the rights of Jewish college kids who, caught in a vise between white supremacism on the far right and ugly, beyond-the-pale anti-Israelism on the far left, have been subjected to increasingly widespread, increasingly repugnant anti-Semitism on American campuses.
Jewish students face this challenge: Hostile conduct aimed at intimidating them — which would be readily understood to have the effect if not the purpose of delegitimizing students of color or women or members of the LGBT community — is regarded as acceptable in some quarters when directed at Jewish kids, particularly but not exclusively those who care about Israel.
The problem is both significant and growing. Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, says simply: “Campuses have become the incubator for anti-Semitism.”
This conduct strikes Marcus as deeply wrong, and he has challenged the right of certain groups, pro-Palestinian groups prominently among them, to engage in it. These groups, in turn, want to operate free from any scrutiny, and they have made the predictable accusations against Marcus and mobilized others to oppose his nomination.
That’s their prerogative. The question Democrats will have to answer is whether it is right or wise to be roped or cowed into doing the bidding of bullies simply because their goal is to have their bullying left unchallenged.
Boston attorney Jeff Robbins was a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the Clinton administration.