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Federal probe opened into alleged antisemitism at University of Southern California

US Department of Education to investigate college after Jewish student government leader forced out of position due to harassment

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: People walk at the University Village area of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Illustrative: People walk at the University Village area of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said Tuesday it has launched an investigation into alleged antisemitic harassment at the University of Southern California that a Jewish student government leader said forced her resignation in 2020.

The federal probe marked the latest in a series of legal battles over antisemitism at US colleges, as Jewish students have recounted harassment from their peers and indifference from administrators on a number of campuses.

The student at the University of Southern California, Rose Ritch, served as the vice president of the university’s Undergraduate Student Government until she resigned in August 2020, saying she had been harassed and bullied due to her Jewish identity and support for Israel.

The Department of Education’s investigation is a response to a complaint, filed on Ritch’s behalf, that alleged the university allowed a hostile antisemitic environment on campus in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal funding. Antisemitic discrimination was included as a Title VI violation in 2019 with an executive order from former US president Donald Trump.

The university said in a Tuesday statement in response to the investigation that it was “proud of its culture of inclusivity for all students, including members of our Jewish community.”

“USC over the last two years has made a number of commitments to combat antisemitism and anti-Jewish hatred,” the university said, highlighting steps including partnerships with leading Jewish organizations, strengthening its Holocaust foundation, and sending leaders to an antisemitism summit, among other measures.

“We are continuing to take these steps to further build on the welcoming environment we have created for our Jewish community,” the university said. “We look forward to addressing any concerns or questions by the US Department of Education regarding this matter.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights only pursues investigations into complaints it deems worthy of a thorough investigation, meaning the probe into the University of Southern California is a significant step. The university is a prestigious private institution in Los Angeles with close to 50,000 students.

The complaint against the university said “severe and persistent” discriminatory harassment created a “hostile environment” that forced Ritch out of the student government.

The complaint alleged that Ritch was illegally denied an equal opportunity to participate in campus life and access educational opportunities due to her Jewish identity. The university was aware of the harassment and allowed the hostile environment to fester, the complaint said. It was filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights group that focuses on Jewish and Israel-related issues.

Ritch was “the victim of a concerted campaign of anti-Semitic harassment that targeted her on the basis of her shared ancestral and ethnic characteristics and sought to exclude her from the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) on account of her Jewish identity,” said the complaint.

Students were “determined to rid the [student government] of all Jewish Zionists” and pressured her to step down from her elected position after she expressed support for a Jewish homeland, the complaint said.

Rose Ritch. (Courtesy)

The harassment began while Ritch was running for a position in the student government. While she was campaigning, her posters were vandalized, and the campaign ads for other Jewish students were ripped down.

She was bullied and harassed on social media, and after she was elected as the student government’s vice president, other students launched an online campaign to get her impeached.

Social media comments against Ritch included, “tell your Zionist ass VP to resign,” and “warms my heart to see [all] the zionist from [the university] and [student government] getting relentlessly cyberbullied.”

Her opponents filed a formal impeachment motion against her, partly based on her support for Israel, which the complaint said was discriminatory, “baseless” and “deeply rooted in Jew-hatred.” Other students said she should be impeached due to her Jewish identity and perceived affiliation with Israel, and accused her of “alienating Palestinians,” without providing evidence.

Some students attacked all Jewish leaders at the university along with the mainstream campus group Hillel, equating Zionists with Nazis and saying Jews had “blood on [their] hands.”

Ritch and Jewish organizations including Hillel called on the university to intervene and condemn antisemitic harassment, but the administration did not directly address the bullying or take action to curtail the activities, the complaint said.

The university took limited action following a warning letter alleging discrimination from the Brandeis Center, but did not directly respond to the letter or void the impeachment proceeding. The university quietly suspended the impeachment after pressure, blaming procedural shortcomings.

Ritch decided to resign from her position as vice president of the student government due to the harassment, citing concerns about her safety and health.

In her resignation letter, she wrote, “I have been harassed and pressured for weeks by my fellow students because they opposed one of my identities” as a Zionist.

“I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist. Students launched an aggressive social media campaign to ‘impeach [my] Zionist a**.’ This is antisemitism.”

“Resignation is the only sustainable choice I can make to protect my physical safety on campus and my mental health,” she wrote.

The university only made a public statement condemning antisemitism after Ritch resigned. The statement was not meant to protect Ritch, but “to protect the University from the public outrage that ensued when it became apparent that Ritch had been forced to resign due to the hostile environment created by discriminatory harassment,” the Brandeis Center said.

“USC failed to intervene; failed to speak out publicly in support of Ms. Ritch; failed to condemn or ever acknowledge the harassment that targeted her; and failed to void the baseless impeachment complaint filed against her. Through its silence and inaction, the University tolerated the discriminatory harassment directed at Ms. Ritch,” the complaint said.

The complaint called on the university to take a series of actions, including eliminating the hostile environment for Jews, adopting the IHRA definition for antisemitism, which includes Zionism, issuing a statement denouncing antisemitism, recognizing Zionism as a part of Jewish identity for many students, and conducting training on antisemitism.

In a similar case, also led by the Brandeis Center, the US Department of Education last year opened an investigation into alleged antisemitic harassment at Brooklyn College.

Brooklyn College is a part of the City University of New York public college system, which has been embroiled in allegations of antisemitism by students and faculty and claims of inaction from its administration.

Jewish students and faculty have also taken legal action over alleged antisemitism in recent years against other universities, including Stanford University and New York University.

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