As Jews, We Do Not Compromise on Civil Rights
President Donald Trump’s nominee Kenneth L. Marcus awaits confirmation as the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. We believe Marcus has a track record of opposition to students’ civil rights that makes him unqualified for this position. He has supported Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos’s rolling back of key Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault, opposed race-based affirmative action programs in public schools, and though he has expressed concern about “race and sex discrimination against white, male Christian students,” he has not expressed equal concern over harassment of BGLTQ students. Nevertheless, Eric D. Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, has chosen to endorse Marcus’s nomination. We believe that this decision was motivated by Fingerhut’s commitments to supporting Israel, but we reject his decision to prioritize that over the fundamental civil rights of students.
Marcus has committed to supporting DeVos’s efforts to roll back key Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault, including access to accomodations from their universities to pursue their educations and freedom from direct cross-examination by an accuser. Marcus also supports DeVos’s guidelines to implement processes in which only the accused can appeal, and survivors are asked to mediate with their assailants. As Jews, we believe that students should not have to choose between standing with their Jewish community and standing up for the rights of sexual assault survivors and all students. This endorsement is especially disheartening given Hillel’s stated “longstanding commitment to help end sexual assault on campus” and past commitments to campaigns against sexual assault on college campuses. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the responsibility for standing with survivors, especially in the context of pervasive sexual assault and discrimination on college campuses, is clearer than ever.
Furthermore, in his confirmation hearing, Marcus expressed reluctance about intervening in an instance of racial inequality in schools. He is a committed advocate against race-based affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. Additionally, in the hearing, he lacked an understanding of how gender identity is protected under Title IX discrimination law and did not actively commit to protecting the rights of students with disabilities. We call on Hillel members around the country to reject Hillel International’s endorsement of someone who will not actively intervene on behalf of our entire community. We know that identity cannot be compartmentalized, and failures to protect the rights of some identities to the exclusion of others breaks apart our community. Protections based on religion should not exclude protections for students of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and races, and abilities that are critical for us to thrive.
However, it appears that Fingerhut values a narrow approach to American Jewish dialogue and activity around Israel over all the other protections due to students. Hillel International’s endorsement calls him “an excellent partner and collaborative leader on these issues of critical importance to Jewish students,” specifically on “issues related to anti-Semitic activity and anti-Israel activity on college campuses.” These statements reference Marcus’s history of encouraging colleges and universities to classify calls for targeted divestment from Israel as anti-Semitic. We acknowledge that Jewish students have a variety of political beliefs about this issue. Prioritizing single-sided politics not only undermines Hillel’s values of open discourse in the Jewish community but also unacceptably jeopardizes all students’ civil rights.
We strongly support, as have the the Progressive Jewish Alliance and BAGELS, Hillel’s Jewish BGLTQ group, Harvard Hillel in upholding our community’s values of support and respectful disagreement by clarifying that Harvard Hillel does not issue or take part in endorsements of candidates for public office, including this one. We call on Hillel International members around the country to stand with students in opposing the confirmation of Kenneth Marcus, joining civil rights leaders including the NAACP, the National Bar Association, the National Council of Jewish Women, National Education Association, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Whether Marcus is confirmed or not, failing to act signals to students that a bureaucratic affiliation is more important than protecting the rights of students. In the the face of Fingerhut’s unacceptable endorsement, silence is not neutral, and the time to speak out is now.
Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Helene C. Lovett ’19-’20 is a Neurobiology concentrator off-campus.
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