Thursday, March 4, 2021

Fighting Anti-Semitism on Campus, One Person at a Time

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Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Stephen Smith
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

There is no question that America has been a land of opportunity for the Jewish people. But there’s also a tendency in this country to ignore extreme Jew hatred on both the right and the left. To let it fester. To rationalize it. To try to explain it.

After 3,000 years of exclusion, persecution and bloodshed, we should know that when people threaten Jews, they mean it. Every form of Jew hatred carries within it the existential threat of genocide. Jews must be alert to threats, stand up and fight back.

That history is what underlies recent events at USC, where I teach.

I am a scholar of genocide and I am deeply committed to recording the testimony of Holocaust survivors and learning from their experiences. So when a Jewish USC student said she was the victim of Jew hatred, my instinct was to learn everything I could about what transpired.

First, some background. The death of George Floyd in May while in police custody sparked a long overdue national reckoning with systemic racism. As part of that reckoning, several social media accounts were established for Black students, staff and faculty to share their experiences of the hidden scourge of anti-Black racism across many campuses, including USC. An Instagram account, @black_at_usc, reported incidents of racial insensitivity on the part of USC’s then-student body president Truman Fritz. After Abeer Tijani, a Nigerian-born Muslim student demanded his impeachment, Fritz resigned.

Tijani alleged that Fritz’s vice president, Rose Ritch, who is Jewish, was complicit in Fritz’s racial insensitivity. She sought to impeach Ritch, claiming the vice president “did not come forward to condemn [Fritz’s] behavior in a swift manner.” When other students, alumni and random bloggers began to target Ritch with strong anti-Semitic language, Tijani quickly and publicly clarified that she had not called for Ritch’s impeachment based on her Jewish identity, and did “not condone anti-Semitic sentiments of any kind.” I followed the posts in real time. I was simultaneously appalled by the anti-Zionist hatred hurled at Ritch and impressed that Tijani condemned it.

I wrote an essay about the incident, emphasizing that Zionism isn’t racism and that Jews are allies in the anti-racist effort. Rather than calling for Tijani’s expulsion, as some did, I made a more old-fashioned call: I picked up the phone to speak with her. Because I am a teacher and because I do not fight straw men, I wanted to know more about her as a human being.

When we spoke, I discovered an intelligent woman who has strongly held religious beliefs and cultural confidence. By her own admission, she had made some errors in judgment, but she is no anti-Semite. Tijani was thoughtful, curious and articulate. She called out my essay on anti-Zionism, saying she felt it left it ambiguous as to whether she was the ant-Semitic perpetrator. We engaged deeply on tough issues. “You are the first person from the Jewish community to talk to me,” she told me. I wondered why no one else had.

I know the fear Jews feel is real and well founded. There are pernicious anti-Semitic movements targeting Jewish students that need to be held accountable. But a campus is not a battlefield; it’s a place for learning and listening. As the controversy went on, I was encouraged that members of my own circle began calling Tijani. Unfortunately, too many others judge her without knowing her.

I’ve also come to know Rose Ritch. In spite of the blatant hatred she received, she was quick to urge me to ensure that the USC Stronger Than Hate program — a campus-wide open forum that utilizes the power of eyewitness testimony to raise awareness about and counter all forms of hatred — is inclusive. She was not operating from fear either, but from a place of dignity and empathy.

I’ve learned that these two young women, Ritch and Tijani, seeming antagonists at the center of a cyber-storm of recriminations, are both strong, principled leaders. I am a professor, but they both are my teachers. On the outside, there is anger and pain, communities pitted against each other based on assumption, identity and fear. In person, each is wise beyond her years, passionate and driven.

We are wired to suspect the other at a group level. But that doesn’t mean we can’t connect with one another, human to human and break down barriers. We may not always agree, but we will never agree if we do not talk.

Virtually all of the non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust had one thing in common: They knew Jewish people personally before the Shoah. We’d do well to remember that hatred is less dangerous to all of us when we spend time with those who are not like us.

Ritch’s passion and fundamental decency inspire me. So, too, does Tijani’s passion and acute sense of identity — and the humility she showed in her willingness to engage members of the Jewish community and the richness that flowed from conversation.

These women, and people like them, are how we’ll solve America’s problems of hatred.

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