Civil rights ace now seeks to trump anti-Semitism

Not long ago, Kenneth Marcus served as one of the government’s top civil rights enforcers, helping Hispanics and blacks fight discrimination.

For the past three years, he has been fighting the good fight on behalf of his fellow Jews.

As director of the Anti-Semitism Initiative for the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, Marcus keeps a lookout for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred.

Though IJCR is headquartered in San Francisco, Marcus, 44, is based in Washington, D.C., where he conducts research, writes reports and articles, sends out news and information over Twitter and speaks out against anti-Semitism.

A graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, Marcus said he has seen plenty of anti-Semitism — and to right those wrongs, he often recommends remedies he drew on during his government service days.

Such as the full force of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“When I entered into civil rights enforcement, it was to protect the rights of all people,” he said during a recent phone interview, “thinking it was primarily racial minorities, women and the disabled. I was horrified that not only were there remaining problems of anti-Semitism, it was worsening in some areas. Once I found it, I had to deal with it.”

A native of Sharon, Mass., Marcus grew up in a proudly Jewish home. After getting his law degree in Berkeley, he went on to serve as a litigator for 10 years before beginning six years of public service.

First, he held a position in which he was the principal civil rights adviser to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Then, from 2002 to 2004, he became head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, again serving as a top adviser, this time to DOE bigwigs.

In 2004, he got a promotion, being appointed by President George W. Bush to be the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Until 2008, he served as the commission’s CEO, providing leadership and direction to the agency’s staff.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that he took an agency that was in disarray and turned it around. “The Commission has rarely been better managed,” the paper wrote, adding that it “deserves a medal for good governance.”

Through his government work, Marcus befriended the late founder of IJCR, Gary Tobin, who launched the anti-Semitism initiative shortly after 9/11 when he witnessed a worsening of anti-Jewish hatred on college campuses.

Marcus saw the same thing while at the Department of Education, and realized the federal government was not equipped to handle it.

Recalled Marcus: “We needed a change in policy. When I told Gary I was leaving the government to teach, he recruited me to do work for the [IJCR], first as a consultant.”

Since joining the IJCR staff in 2008, Marcus often educates legislators. Last month, he testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the same body on which he once served.

Usually he testifies about the upsurge in anti-Semitism on college campuses and elsewhere.

Marcus said the purpose of IJCR’s Anti-Semitism Initiative is not only to track incidents, but also to take action. To that end, he has worked with officials to develop strategies to reduce anti-Semitism in higher education.

“We press the Office of Civil Rights to follow up its policy with effective enforcement,” he said. “We’ve also been urging the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to work on this.”

One victory came last October when the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights accepted his recommendation “to return to its former policy of placing Jewish students under Title VI under the Civil Rights Act,” he said.

The pertinent section of the Act states that no person shall be excluded or discriminated against “on the ground of race, color, or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

That means Jewish students who face anti-Semitic attacks on campus may seek redress, just as blacks and disabled people have for years, Marcus said.

“The initial response has been positive,” Marcus noted, “but we are still very concerned. Having good policies is one thing, strong enforcement is another. They can use federal civil rights laws to combat hostile environments.”

While he is glad to claim some victories, he remains concerned with the pace of rising hatred of Jews and Israel. He sometimes wonders if there will be any safe havens for Jews over time.

“What keeps me up at night,” he said, “is worrying my family will be no more safe in the United States in 20 years than some Jewish families are in Western Europe, and families there may be as vulnerable in 20 years as they would be in some Arab countries.”