'It used to be where we studied, now it’s a hotbox of tension'

As USC cancels graduation amid anti-Israel protests, some Jewish students feel unsafe

One student at University of Southern California says she removed dog tags calling for release of hostages amid concerns for her own safety, others are doxxed for supporting Israel

Faculty join pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel students at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, on April 24, 2024. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)
Faculty join pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel students at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, on April 24, 2024. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Inside the University of Southern California Hillel, there were signs of normalcy. Some students were making matzah pizza in the courtyard, while another set up an art installation devoted to actor Larry David. Students and staff discussed plans for the evening’s Shabbat programming.

But outside the building, students only a block away could be heard hawking cookies and other baked goods at their makeshift “Bake Sale 4 Gaza.” Their table was set up next to another booth with a large sign declaring that “‘I stand with Israel’ = ‘I stand with genocide.’”

And in a plaza a few steps away, the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace was hosting a pro-Palestinian Passover gathering, complete with Streit’s matzah and bottles of grape juice. One attendee held a large poster listing the “10 Plagues of Zionist Idolatry.”

The scene on Friday follows a chaotic stretch in which USC canceled the planned commencement speech of its valedictorian, who had drawn criticism for harshly anti-Israel content on her social media. USC then scrapped its celebrity commencement speakers, before announcing Thursday that the entire main-stage commencement event had been canceled. Pro-Palestinian protests broke out on campus, as they have across the country, leading to 93 arrests on Wednesday. Parts of campus now have security checkpoints to enter.

The whole situation, which has garnered international media attention, has led some Jewish students to question their safety on campus. One Israeli-American student, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, said she has removed the dog-tag necklace she wears in honor of the hostages to protect herself, and has friends who have been doxxed because of their support for Israel.

“We’re keeping our head down, we’re just trying to get through the school year,” said the student, a sophomore neuroscience major whose parents are Israeli. “It’s definitely been hard when there’s helicopters circling 24/7 and your friends are posting hateful things on Instagram.”

A University of Southern California protester is detained by USC Department of Public Safety officers during a pro-Palestinian student occupation at the campus’ Alumni Park, April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The student said the increased attention on USC has made it difficult to focus on school, even as final exams are around the corner.

“Our campus has become such a spotlight,” she said. “It used to be a place where we learned and studied, and now it’s this hotbox of tension and news and all eyes are on us.”

Brandon Tavakoli, a junior and the president of USC’s Trojans for Israel club, said the last few days have been “sobering and quite shocking,” especially because USC is not typically home to the type of activist culture that’s seen as commonplace at schools like Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley.

“We don’t have an organized student activist base, but that has changed in the last week,” Tavakoli told JTA. “I think that was quite shocking for a lot of Jewish students on this campus who aren’t used to seeing the Israel hatred that is shown regularly on a campus like UC Berkeley.”

Tavakoli said the whole episode, beginning with the selection of the valedictorian, was “completely preventable.”

“I believe that if the university did their due diligence, and saw the propagation of antisemitism that this valedictorian has exercised and expressed, we would not be in this position,” he said “Our campus would not be seen as a target for anti-Israel activism.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march at an encampment in support of Gaza at the University of Southern California on April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, visited USC Hillel on Friday to speak with staff and student leaders. Greenblatt said he has visited nearly a dozen campuses in the past few months. (USC Hillel pointed to the statement it posted on Instagram on Wednesday but declined to comment further.)

“Jewish students showed up to learn, to have a college experience, and then find themselves caught in this maelstrom,” he told JTA. “They find themselves deeply affected by the tragedy of October 7, deeply affected by the death of civilians in Gaza. I think they feel generally compassionate about the loss of life on all sides, and yet, really disturbed by these sorts of activities on campus, which are well beyond the parameters of typical protests.”

Greenblatt said the ADL supports free speech and the First Amendment, but said he views some of the rhetoric on college campuses as beyond the scope of what universities — and the law — ought to allow.

“Freedom of speech isn’t the freedom to slander people because of their faith, and freedom of expression isn’t the freedom to incite violence against people because of their nationality,” he said. “Free speech, you’ve got to allow for it. But sitting in front of the Hillel and screaming at the Jewish students walking inside for a Shabbat dinner, or a havdalah service and calling them ‘baby killers’ is different.” It was not clear whether Greenblatt was referring to specific incidents.

Greenblatt said universities need to do more to ensure students’ safety, including by enforcing their codes of conduct, prohibiting full-face coverings and coordinating with local law enforcement.

Tavakoli said that the way USC, and campuses in general, have treated pro-Palestinian activity compared to pro-Israel advocacy has led to a double standard in the enforcement of free speech.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally at an encampment in support of Gaza at the University of Southern California on April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

“I’ve never understood why, when there’s bigotry against Jewish students, we have to bring up a conversation about free speech, but when there’s bigotry against anyone else, we are clearly denouncing it as bigotry,” he said. “It’s personally hurtful that I as a Jewish student have to prove to other people that what I’m experiencing is intimidation, hatred and harassment.”

The Israeli student said that many of the activists who have been involved in protests at USC in recent days are not students.

“Non-students are coming to our campus and just hindering the environment and increasing tension within the students,” she said. “It’s non-students igniting this flame.”

At least some of the participants at the campus’ Jewish Voice for Peace Passover gathering, which drew a few dozen people and took place a block away from Hillel, were not affiliated with USC. The group was gathered around a large cloth canvas decorated with imagery from a traditional seder plate.

Amid speeches and songs, the group also adapted various texts and practices from the Haggadah, including the recitation of the 10 plagues while dipping one’s finger in wine. In this version, the plagues had parallel meanings related to the Israel-Hamas war — the water turning to blood, for example, represented the lack of safe drinking water in Gaza.

Benjamin Kersten, a Jewish graduate student at UCLA who helped plan the event, said JVP chose to use Passover to “continue to call for President [Joe] Biden to take action towards a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, August 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Kersten, who was also involved in this week’s protests at UCLA, said he has “a lot of empathy and compassion” for fellow Jewish students who feel uncomfortable or unsafe when they hear phrases like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which was chanted repeatedly at the JVP Passover event. Many Jewish groups believe the phrase is antisemitic.

“I think it’s important that we think about the differences between discomfort and unsafety and hatred,” he said. “I really listen to the words of Palestinians when they say that when they use the phrase ‘from the river to the sea,’ they’re calling for justice and equality for everyone who lives in that land.”

Kersten added: “I would invite people who feel uncomfortable to realize that it’s freeing to actually enter into a Jewish community that recognizes that safety comes from solidarity with all marginalized people.”

Back in Hillel, the matzah pizza-making continues. Jason, a junior pre-health student who declined to share his last name, said he chooses whether to wear his large Star of David necklace depending on where he is and who he’s with.

“I’ve accepted the situation, but it hasn’t changed how I think about my Jewish identity,” he said.

Jason said it’s been difficult to navigate the environment at USC in recent weeks, especially as the tension from the protests has begun to seep into the classroom, where he said the conversations used to be much more civil.

Students are seen on campus at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California, on April 16, 2024. (Robyn Beck/AFP)

For some students, the situation has elicited shock — and even laughter — more than fear.

“I don’t really feel scared, I find it hectic, chaotic and ridiculous,” said first-year Caleb Ouanounou. He said that when he saw the pro-Palestinian protests, “I was both appalled and honestly I was laughing because of how absurd it was.”

And for Tavakoli, with the semester coming to an end, he said he needs to focus on schoolwork, not worry about his safety.

“I have papers and final projects due this weekend. I have to be prepared for my final exams next week,” he said. “I believe that is representative of the experience of all Jewish students on this campus — we just want to be like every other student on campus, like every other Trojan.”

He continued: “It should not be my top priority to be or feel safe. It should be my top priority to be the best student that I can be and close out the semester as best as I can. It’s the university’s top priority to make sure I am [safe] and I feel so.”

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