(August 26, 2020 / JNS) The anti-Semitism that Rose Ritch endured at the University of Southern California has been all over the media. Ritch resigned as vice president of USC’s undergraduate student government after she was harassed for months by fellow students for one reason only: She is proudly Jewish and expresses her Jewish identity by supporting the State of Israel. Students launched an aggressive social-media campaign against Ritch to “impeach her Zionist ass.”
Heartbreakingly, Ritch felt that she had to resign to protect her physical safety and mental health.
Ritch’s ordeal is outrageous and unacceptable. But sadly, it’s not surprising or new. She is the latest example of what Jewish students have been enduring on their campuses for years.
Consider, for example, what happened in 2015 to UCLA student Rachel Beyda, whose application to serve on the Student Council’s Judicial Board was initially rejected after several councilmembers questioned her fitness based on her identity as a Jew. Beyda was asked: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
Beyda’s expression of her Jewish identity—she belonged to a Jewish sorority and was involved in UCLA’s Hillel—had absolutely nothing to do with her fitness to serve on the judicial board. She was eminently qualified to serve. But that didn’t stop anti-Semites from bullying her and trying to derail her nomination simply because she proudly affiliated with her Jewish community.
Consider, too, what happened to Jesse Arm in 2015 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Members of an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel student group on campus (“Students Allied for Freedom and Equality,” or SAFE) instigated what can truly be described as a witch hunt against him. They called for his removal from his position in the student government simply because he exercised his right to object to the timing, taste and appropriateness of an anti-Israel display in the center of the campus. SAFE set up the display on the very same day that two deadly terrorist attacks occurred in Israel, killing five people.
The university leadership did not protect Arm’s legal right to express his views, even when the student government forced Arm to appear before its ethics committee to determine whether he engaged in unethical behavior or conduct unbefitting a student government representative and should be punished. Arm was ultimately exonerated, but that he was besieged simply because he exercised his right to condemn Israel-bashing is a disgrace.
All of these situations were plainly motivated by anti-Semitism and nothing else. So why do they recur? Why is the recent persecution of Rose Ritch the latest in a history of harassment directed against students simply because they are proud Jews and proud supporters of the Jewish state?
One reason is the failure of university leaders to take the steps that are morally and legally required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to assure students a campus environment that is safe and welcoming to them as Jews. There are numerous examples of university leaders who quickly and appropriately respond when other groups are targeted and harassed. However, they seem to react less forcefully or are even silent when the targets of the bullying are Jews.
In response to Rachel Beyda’s ordeal, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement weakly stating that he was “troubled by recent incidents of bias” on campus. Block did not condemn the perpetrators’ conduct, simply describing it as “unfair.” He did not even mention anti-Semitism.
In Jesse Arm’s case, University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel issued no statement at all. In fact, months after Arm’s nightmare, SAFE erected an anti-Israel “apartheid wall” on Rosh Hashanah in the center of the campus. They assembled Israel-bashers dressed up as Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers who yelled at students passing by.
Anguished Jewish students implored Schlissel to speak up. He did not, even though just one week before he did speak up when black students were targeted. After racist flyers were found on campus, Schlissel issued a statement that “behavior that seeks to intentionally cause pain to members of our community is reprehensible.” Yet he failed to acknowledge the pain that SAFE deliberately caused to the Jewish community or condemn SAFE for its disgraceful actions.
In response to Rose Ritch’s harassment, USC president Carol Folt issued a statement expressing her belief that “it is critically important to state explicitly and unequivocally that anti-Semitism in all of its forms is a profound betrayal of our principles and has no place at the university.” Yet Folt failed to explicitly acknowledge that anti-Semitism was a problem on her own campus. And she failed to make it clear to her community that anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism are forms of anti-Semitism that USC won’t tolerate.
Not one of these university leaders made sure that their rules and policies against harassment and discrimination were enforced. Had they done so, the perpetrators of anti-Semitism would have been punished for their actions, and the rest of the university community would have gotten the message that if you harass and discriminate against students because of their Jewish identity, then you will bear the consequences.
USC’s Folt did announce a new “Stronger Than Hate” program and invited the community to participate. But that’s not enough. If they are truly committed to addressing anti-Semitism, university leaders must mandate training on anti-Semitism for students, staff and faculty. The training must differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel and criticism that is a mask for Jew-hatred. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism is an excellent frame of reference.
Ritch is the latest example of Jewish students who are being bullied for expressing their Jewish identity. University leaders must do everything they can to ensure that she’s the last.
Susan B. Tuchman is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice. Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
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