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Protect Jewish and Zionist students on campus

The verbal harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students is generally treated as free speech and ignored or downplayed by school administrators.

A gate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Credit: Ganna Tokolova/Shutterstock.
A gate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Credit: Ganna Tokolova/Shutterstock.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

After months of mounting pressure from numerous Jewish organizations and leaders, the University of Southern California has announced measures to help combat the alarming anti-Semitism that has created a hostile environment for many Jewish and pro-Israel students on its campus.

USC’s announcement comes on the heels of an uproar over the university’s failure to adequately respond to virulently anti-Semitic and threatening tweets from a USC graduate student, which included, “I want to kill every mother f***king Zionist,” “Zionists are going to f***king pay” and “yel3an el yahood [‘curse the Jews’].” This was just the most recent example of the anti-Zionist-motivated harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students. In 2020, a pro-Israel Jewish student government vice president felt compelled to resign her position following a relentless social-media campaign to oust her from office, which included such comments as “impeach her Zionist a**” and it “warms my heart to see all the Zionists from USC … getting relentlessly cyberbullied [smiling emoji].”

The Jewish community deserves kudos for getting President Carol Folt and the USC Board of Trustees to commit to addressing the problem, including through the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Jewish Life and ensuring Jewish representation in DEI efforts. These are hopeful first steps. However, to make significant and lasting change, there is more to be done. Most importantly, the university must acknowledge and address the underlying nature of the problem: the unacceptable double standard when it comes to the university’s response to the harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students.

This double standard was summed up nicely by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center when he posed the question that many in the Jewish community have been wondering: “If [similar social media] comments were made about black students, what would the school’s response be?” Almost no one doubts USC’s response would be fast and furious, and would not necessitate months of mounting pressure.

By now, this double standard is well known on campuses across the country. The anti-Zionist-motivated verbal harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students is generally treated as free speech and ignored or downplayed by school administrators, while similarly harassing speech directed at other minority groups is addressed promptly and vigorously, with the harassers duly disciplined.

What is less well known is that this egregiously unfair double standard finds its source in campus harassment policies.

Take USC, for example. Its Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation opens with “the University of Southern California believes all members of the university community should pursue their work, education, and engagement in University programs and activities in a safe environment, free from discrimination and harassment.” So far, so good—just what every USC parent wants and expects to hear.

But if parents were to read just a tad further, many would become rightly alarmed. For while the university professes that all students should be free from harmful behaviors that threaten their safety or deny them opportunities to fully participate in their college experience, the school’s policy only affords protection to victims of “discrimination and harassment based on protected characteristics.”

What this means is students who don’t fit into certain identity groups cannot rely on any of the policy’s protections, even if they fall victim to behavior that exceeds the policy’s threshold for “hostile environment harassment.”

Granted, the list of protected identity groups is quite long, and many students will easily find their niche. But for Jewish students experiencing anti-Zionist motivated harassment, it’s not so simple. And not just at USC.

While all school harassment policies include “religion” as a prohibited characteristic, and most, such as USC’s, also include “ethnic origin” or “ethnicity,” Jewish students who fall victim to harassment motivated by their support for Israel are often not covered by these policies since many administrators do not consider support for Israel an expression of a Jewish student’s religious beliefs or ethnicity. And despite recent efforts by Jewish students and communal organizations to get schools to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which includes examples identifying anti-Zionist rhetoric as anti-Semitic, most administrators are hesitant to do so, fearing growing pushback from anti-Zionist students and faculty.

To make matters worse, the unequal treatment of pro-Israel students is compounded when it comes to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Although most universities proudly advertise their firm commitment to protecting their students’ freedom of expression, these same schools carve out an exception for the verbal harassment of protected groups, which is not considered free speech and will be subject to punishment. USC, too, makes a free-speech exception for protected-class verbal harassment, but is one of the few schools to offer a reasonable justification for it, suggesting that harassing conduct is itself a suppression of expression: “[W]hen harassment is committed against students … it threatens their academic freedom.”

Well, of course, it does. The Supreme Court’s definition of harassment, which USC and almost all schools incorporate into their harassment policies—calling it “verbal, physical, written, electronic, or other conduct … [that] is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with, limits, or denies that individual’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s educational program or activity”—makes it crystal-clear that such conduct does indeed deprive its victims of freedom of expression. So, kudos to USC for pointing out the obvious, that a student’s right to express him or herself should be vigorously protected unless that expression tramples on another student’s freedom of expression.

Except that’s not how it works at USC or on most other campuses for students who aren’t members of a protected identity group. Their right to be protected from verbal harassment does not outweigh their harasser’s right to free speech. This is a double whammy for pro-Israel students: not only are their harassers afforded free speech protection that is, in effect, license to continue verbally harassing them, but their own freedom of speech and academic freedom are diminished by the harassment.

Which brings us back to USC and its newly announced efforts to address campus anti-Semitism.

In order for these efforts to succeed, they must include an acknowledgment of the elephant in the room, namely, the gaping inequality between “protected” and “unprotected” students in USC’s harassment policy and its profound impact on student safety and freedom of expression. They must also commit to expanding the school’s policy or establishing a new one that will apply the same stringent standard of protection from harassment prescribed by federal and state law to all students at the university, not just some.

Once USC can guarantee that all students are equally protected from the harassing behavior that threatens their safety, squashes their self-expression and prevents them from fully participating in campus life, they will have gone a long way to creating a welcoming and healthy campus climate not just for Jewish and pro-Israel students, but for all students.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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