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‘They are not on my side,’ suspended professor says of USC

Jewish economics scholar John Strauss told JNS that a video circulating about him on social media was taken out of context.

Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California (USC). Credit: Ryan Sabillo/Shutterstock.
Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California (USC). Credit: Ryan Sabillo/Shutterstock.

As the University of Southern California website tells it, John Strauss is “a recognized specialist in the fields of development economics and the economics of the household,” who has surveyed Indonesian and Chinese families with National Institutes of Health funding and who previously taught at Michigan State University, Yale University and the University of Virginia.

USC suspended Strauss following a public outcry after videos circulated on social media of him saying “every one should be killed, and I hope they all are” at a Nov. 9 vigil on the university’s campus for Palestinians killed in the Israel-Hamas war. The event was part of the “Shut It Down for Palestine” protests.

The university subsequently clarified that Strauss—the subject of a long Los Angeles Times article on Nov. 26—was not on administrative leave, as an associate dean had told him he was, but was prohibited from attending campus activities for the rest of the semester.

Although the 72-year-old Jewish professor had said “Hamas are murderers. That’s all they are. Every one should be killed, and I hope they all are all killed,” the Times reported that the clip was shared in bad faith on social media.

“As his remarks raced across the internet, his condemnation of Hamas was often excised, leaving only his ‘hope’ for ‘all’ to be killed. Captions and comments online framed his demand for ‘every one’ to be killed in myriad, at times deceptive, ways,” the paper reported. “One Instagram post shared to millions of users claimed falsely that Strauss told the students, ‘[I] hope you get killed.’”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, was among those who defended Strauss, as did many in the USC community. Others connected to the university called for him to be punished further.

‘Someone yelled at me’

Strauss told JNS that he had walked past student protestors twice, “once on my way to class, and once on my way back from class.”

“Somebody yelled at me, ‘Shame on you, professor Strauss,’” he said. That’s when he turned around and made the statement that subsequently went viral, he added.

Of the university’s response to the incident, Strauss said: “They are not on my side.”

He told the LA Times that he saw “a big Palestinian demonstration” and heard chants to “Destroy Israel” and “calls for the U.S. to revoke funding for Israel.” (The Times reported that students claim that “Destroy Israel” wasn’t chanted.)

“That’s what I heard and I got angry,” Strauss told the newspaper. “I am Jewish and very pro-Israel, so I shouted, ‘Israel forever. Hamas are murderers.’”

In a Nov. 17 “update on free speech, expectations and policies,” the USC provost’s office stated that online and in-person “comments, chants and slogans that are hurtful and disrespectful” can “add to the stress, discomfort and fear many are feeling.”

“As a community, we embrace and encourage academic dialogue and intellectual, rigorous debate—both inside and outside the classroom,” it added. “This is at the core of our great university and our great democracy. All of us should be aware and mindful of the impact our speech can have on others.”

‘Free speech’

Since the incident, Strauss has received hate mail and death threats from all over the country in response to what he told JNS is an edited video of his remarks.

He has also received a lot of support from his Jewish students and from colleagues at the university, and several have offered support, he said.

“It’s too bad USC is following other colleges and has wandered off the idea of free speech on campus,” Jeff Bermant, a USC alumnus and CEO of Tusk Browser, the “free speech browser and search engine,” told JNS.

“So long as you’re not threatening anyone, you should be able to speak your mind,” Bermant added. “As for the protesters, they, too, have the right to free speech as long as they don’t threaten others.”

All students should feel safe, respected and included, according to Bermant, who said speech must be limited when it perpetuates harm or discrimination. “Having protests on campus is dangerous to Jews, who feel they are being singled out and hated for their beliefs,” he said.

In a Nov. 20 letter to the USC president, the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote: “While his [Strauss’s] remarks may have been deeply offensive to some or even many listeners, they are protected by USC policy and thus cannot serve as the basis of discipline. The university must allow Strauss to return to his normal, on-campus teaching responsibilities and cease any further investigation or sanction.”

“As a private university, USC is not directly bound by the First Amendment, but it is legally and morally bound to its own laudable commitment to faculty’s freedom of expression,” FIRE added.

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