Left-Wing Jewish Groups Defend Justice Department Nominee Accused of Anti-Semitism

Kristen Clarke hosted an anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist at Harvard

Kristen Clarke / Getty Images
April 9, 2021

Left-wing Jewish groups are defending embattled Justice Department nominee Kristen Clarke against charges of anti-Semitism related to an event she sponsored for an anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist.

The National Council of Jewish Women and other groups say those accusing Clarke of anti-Semitism are misrepresenting her record. This defense is unusual for the NCJW, which has traditionally been vocal in opposing nominees for past views. Clarke, who President Joe Biden tapped to lead the department's civil rights division, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The battle over Clarke's record comes amid a broader debate over the Biden administration's commitment to Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the resumption of tens of millions of dollars in aid for Gaza and the West Bank on April 7 that will likely benefit the Palestinian Authority.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University in 1994, Clarke hosted an event with Wellesley College professor Tony Martin. Just one year earlier, Martin published a book called The Jewish Onslaught, which purported to show the global slave trade was controlled by Jews. The book accused Jews of attacking black scholars and undermining community leaders. A majority of Martin's faculty colleagues condemned the book as anti-Semitic.

Clarke invited Martin in her capacity as president of the Black Students Association. The decision deeply divided the campus and was covered at length in the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. A letter to the editor from a Jewish student, Martin Lebwohl, who attended the event noted that Martin "lavished praise" on Clarke "who, he said, had courageously invited him 'in the face of enormous pressure from the forces of reaction.'"

In addition to the National Council of Jewish Women, Clarke has received support from the American Jewish Congress and the Union for Reform Judaism. Writing in defense of Clarke in February, NCJW CEO Sheila Katz said calling Clarke to account for decisions she made in college is proof of a double standard for nominees of color. 

"Black women in our country too often get disproportionate criticism and harmful backlash for the same actions or behaviors that would be overlooked from white and male colleagues," Katz wrote. 

The argument is atypical for the usually vocal organization. The NCJW opposed at least two of former president Donald Trump's judicial nominees, one of whom was a woman of color, in light of statements they made in college.

Ryan Bounds was made to withdraw his nomination for the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 after the NCJW publicized opinion columns he wrote about campus race issues as an undergraduate at Stanford University. The columns generally derided campus multicultural initiatives and criticized campus affinity groups in hyperbolic terms. Bounds withdrew after Sens. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) decided to oppose his confirmation. 

NCJW likewise attacked Judge Neomi Rao for her undergraduate writings while her nomination was pending in the Senate. Rao, whose parents emigrated from India, once argued in the Yale Herald that women bear some degree of responsibility for date rape. Rao disavowed the piece and was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Clarke has since acknowledged that inviting Martin to Harvard was a mistake and pointed to her experience enforcing anti-discrimination laws in New York state as proof of her commitment to equal protection. And a chair of Harvard's Hillel coordinating council defended Clarke contemporaneously in the campus newspaper, claiming that she invited Martin merely to show that the "racist opinions of white Harvard 'scholars' are publicly debated while racist opinions of black 'scholars' are categorically rejected."

Other Jewish students who attended the event took a different view of things. 

"What, I ask myself, was she thinking when she invited Martin to come to Harvard?" Lebwohl’s letter to the editor reads. "Did she think black students needed to hear what he had to say? When she told the Crimson that 'Professor Martin is an intelligent, well versed black intellectual who bases his information of indisputable fact,' was she being serious?"