Q&A with Kenneth L. Marcus: Defining Anti-Zionism as Anti-Semitism

Kenneth L. Marcus COURTESY PHOTO
Kenneth L. Marcus COURTESY PHOTO

Kenneth L. Marcus is the founder, president and General Counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. He recently wrote a book entitled The Definition of Anti-Semitism, in which he elaborates on the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and how anti-Semitism is sparking critiques of Israel across North American college campuses.

The CJN had a chance to speak to Marcus via email, where he discussed the EU’s new guidelines on Israeli settlement products, anti-Semitism on college campuses, and what students can do to fight discrimination.

Could you please tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in your own words?

As an American civil rights lawyer, I never expected that I would end up dedicating so much of my career to the battle against campus anti-Semitism. Two decades ago I would have told you that anti-Semitism was a tragic part of our history. When I left my law firm in 2001 to fight housing discrimination and then to head the civil rights branch of the U.S. Education Department, my work involved protecting the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women and the disabled. However, during that time and then later when I directed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I sadly discovered that anti-Semitism was surging on university campuses.

“The EU’s actions make sense only as an example of anti-Jewish hate”

Government and university leaders were ill-equipped to deal with this growing problem. While I was in government, I issued new policies to address religious prejudice, including guidance specific to the rise in anti-Semitism. I also began writing books and articles and speaking publicly to raise awareness about this escalating problem. Then in 2011, I founded the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all. Our primary mandate is to use legal tools to fight campus anti-Semitism.

How do you feel about the EU’s recent ruling in the labelling of products originating from Israeli settlements? Could this type of legislation bolster anti-Semitism globally? 

The European Union’s labelling policy is classically discriminatory in that it subjects products produced in Jewish-owned businesses to adverse treatment. It is no mere response to occupation. Other countries are engaged in occupations, but Europe does not treat them in this way. What makes Israel different? It is a Jewish state. The EU’s actions make sense only as an example of anti-Jewish hate. The EU may protest that they are not anti-Semitic. But their actions speak for themselves.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Europe’s leaders are treating Israel as the collective Jew, assailing its legitimacy in the same way that their ancestors challenged the legitimacy of the Jewish people. Do labels matter? They do. In his classic novel, Night, Elie Wiesel tells the story of his father’s response to the yellow star that he and other Jews were forced to wear. “The yellow star?” he asked. “Oh, well, what of it? You don’t die of it.” Wiesel knew better. “Poor Father!” he lamented. “Of what then did you die?”

Where do we go from here? Now that we have a working definition and connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, how do we combat it? 

Although these tools exist, they are not consistently used. For example, the U.S. government applies its State Department definition of anti-Semitism to incidents that occur outside the United States but not to those that apply domestically. We need all governments and all universities to apply these tools consistently as a basis for education, training, orientation, etc.

“Universities have become havens for extremist ideologies”

The Ottawa Protocols have excellent language recommending precisely this course of action, but they are not widely followed. Part of the problem is that anti-Semitism is not widely enough understood. That is a big part of why I wrote The Definition of Anti-Semitism. We need to support educational institutions like the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, not to mention my own organization. Education should be the first step. When education is insufficient, we need to take more forceful, concerted efforts. Sometimes it is necessary to use law and public policy, which is the specialty of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Why do think anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism has found a rebirth in college campuses? Why has BDS gained such ground amongst academics?

There is bitter irony here. Universities should be oases of reason and tolerance, but they are not. In many cases, they have become havens for extremist ideologies. These ideologies are not all hateful, but some of them are. North American campuses often harbour radical left-wing movements that are hostile to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people.

Could BDS be likened to anything else in the history of anti-Semitism? Or, is the BDS movement not a permutation but rather a new addition to the long history of the persecution of the Jewish people?

The BDS movement extends age-old anti-Jewish hatreds in new settings. Anti-Semitic boycotts are not new. In The Definition of Anti-Semitism, I trace BDS’ origins back to the Nazi boycott of 1933 and beyond. We must remember that the Nazi boycott was one of the first steps in the planned extermination of the Jewish people. It did not come out of nowhere. Rather, it provided a new rationale and a formal structure to supplant the haphazard thuggish German attacks on Jewish businesses that preceded it. In the same way, the contemporary BDS movement merely provides a new rationalization, in the politically correct terminology of our day, for the anti-Jewish boycotts that have been deployed against Israelis uninterruptedly throughout the history of the State of Israel.

What can college students do to fight against this on-campus racism?

There are many things students can do, but here are ten to start with:

  • Maintain the moral high ground – Do not use the vicious tactics of Jewry’s enemies.
  • Stay safe – Do not put yourself in harm’s way.
  • Know your priorities – Do not let campus politics get in the way of your studies, your grades, and your graduation.
  • Stand tall – When it is physically safe to do so, do not be afraid to speak your mind.
  • Organize – There is safety in numbers, and you will be more effective when you work with other students.
  • Collaborate – Jewish students are stronger when they work with other groups. Stand up for them when they need help and call on them when you need it.
  • Educate – Our biggest enemy is ignorance, so use social networks, teach-ins, lectures, videos, and panel discussions to raise awareness.
  • Cooperate – Several Jewish communal organizations, including my own, are available to help, so do not think that you are on your own.
  • Laugh – Maintain a sense of humour, creativity, and inventiveness.
  • Fight – When necessary, put up a good (honest, lawful) fight, and don’t forget that there are many allies available to help you.

Could you provide specific examples of recent anti-Semitism in a Canadian context? Did you research any recent events or actions in Canada (or at Canadian universities) that constitute as anti-Semitism?

We have many Canadian luminaries at the Brandeis Center, including the chairman and several members of our advisory committee, as well as some of our most generous financial supporters. We have included research on Canadian universities in several of our publications. In my book on The Definition of Anti-Semitism, I point out that modern efforts to establish a uniform definition of anti-Semitism were deeply influenced by the tragic firebombing of a Montreal Jewish elementary school a decade ago. More recently, one thinks about the trial of Arthur Topham.

Where do you see Israel in ten years? Where do you see the state of global anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism in ten years?

The future of Israel and of the Jewish people is in our hands. Ten years ago, we may look back at the year 2015 as a time when global anti-Semitism was swelling and spreading from the Middle East to Europe to North American university campuses, before ultimately infecting all of North American society. Things could get a lot worse for North American Jewry and for Israel. Alternatively, we could look back at 2015 as a time when people became aware of the threat of global anti-Semitism and began to fight back in earnest. We might find that this fight was successful and that the problems of the early twenty-first century turned out to be something of an aberration. We do not know what the future will bring, but we do have the power to change it. That’s why I wrote The Definition of Anti-Semitism. It is why I founded the Louis D. Brandeis Center. And it is why we must continue this fight every day.

To  learn more about the Louis D. Brandeis Center, visit the website here.