Why Is It so Hard for There to Be Zero Tolerance for Jew-Hatred on Campus?

If you treat Jew hatred differently (and less seriously) than you treat other forms of bigotry, then you are effectively engaging in Jew hatred, too.
October 1, 2020

On March 7, 2015, members of the University of Oklahoma (OU) chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) were filmed on a bus performing a racist song that used the “N word” and enthusiastically referencing Jim Crow.

The video of the incident was reported by The Oklahoma Daily on March 8. That same day, the national office for SAE closed the OU Chapter house, and OU officials gave SAE members until the end of March 10 to move out. Soon after, OU Facilities Management removed the fraternity’s Greek letters, put a padlock on the facility’s gate, blocked off the SAE chapter house parking lot, and changed the locks on the building. At the same time, OU’s President David Boren, ordered Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, the frat members singing in that video, be expelled.

By the middle of March, OU had completed its seizure of the former SAE house. And by the beginning of the 2016 academic semester, the frat house had become the location for OU’s Disability Resource and Student Veterans Association. OU responded swiftly and arguably thoroughly to the racism exhibited by one of its fraternities in an off-campus incident.

Approximately five years before that, at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), there was an incident called the “Compton Cookout.” The off-campus party, hosted by several UCSD students, was intended to mock Black History Month. Attendees were invited to wear costumes that stereotyped minorities living in “ghettos,” particularly African Americans.

UCSD promptly announced a new diversity campaign, “Racism: Not in Our Community,” held an on-campus teach-in about diversity and tolerance, and further responded by carrying out long-standing demands presented to the school administration by the Black Student Union. The UCSD Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion created a “EDI Unit plan” that listed strategic goals, initiatives and accomplishments for furthering equity, diversity and inclusion at UCSD. And in 2011, UCSD made taking and passing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion course a requirement to graduate. Like OU, UCSD responded swiftly and substantively to the Compton Cookout and made it clear that racism, even off-campus racism, had no place at UCSD.

In 2015, at the University of Southern California (USC), an allegedly drunk member of a fraternity threw a drink at then-USC Student Government President Rini Sampath, and called her an “Indian piece of [excrement].”

In response to her Facebook post about the incident, USC’s dean of Religious Life was quoted in The Washington Post, expressing that USC had a zero-tolerance policy for such racist behavior and asking Sampath to file a formal complaint. Four days after the incident, the vice president for student affairs signed a letter condemning any expressions of racism or bigotry at USC. Subsequently, the USC Interfraternity Council issued a statement saying it was “deeply saddened by the incident involving racist comments directed towards Student Body President Rini Sampath by a member of a fraternity” and that the council supported “the actions taken by the chapter to hold their member accountable by suspending his membership and evicting him from the chapter house.”

Within three days of a racist incident affecting its then student body president, the USC administration and its Interfraternity Council made it clear that there would be no tolerance and severe consequences for expressions of racism at USC.

All of this — sadly — stands in sharp contrast to how USC has responded to Jew-hatred on its campus.

A Different Standard

In February, Rose Ritch won the race for vice president of USC’s student government. Another Jewish student, Isabel Washington, scored the most votes in the senate race. Their respective happiness, however, was short-lived. Within six months, they, together with another Jewish student named Nathaniel Manor, became the subjects of a relentless and open cyberbullying campaign calling for their resignations. The expressed reason? In Ritch’s case, it was solely because she identified as a Zionist (meaning that she believes Jews have a right to self-determination and sovereignty in part of their indigenous, historical and religious homeland).

Ritch and her peers were lambasted by a few dozen extremists at USC. Both Washington, an African-American Jew, and Ritch were attacked for their affiliation with Hillel, the most mainstream and unmistakably Jewish organization on most college campuses. One social media post by Shaden Awad, directed at Washington (who wrote that she joined Hillel solely because she is Jewish), implied that in order to be members of student government, Jews must not join any campus Jewish organizations because doing so “smears blood on ur hands.”

Ritch also was attacked online for her affiliation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)  — the most visible, mainstream and bi-partisan American lobbying group that supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. One post referred to Ritch as “working with an evil lobbying group,” evoking a centuries-old trope about “evil Jews” who seek to nefariously control governments. Another post accused Ritch, without any evidence, of making “Palestinian students feel unsafe” simply because of her association with Jewish organizations on campus and her identification as a Zionist.

This anti-Semitic cyberbullying campaign — which was openly and publicly celebrated by a number of students at USC — worked. After Washington resigned (due, in part, because she was accused of making inappropriate comments), Ritch did, too. When she submitted her letter of resignation, Ritch eloquently made it quite clear why: “I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist.” She added, “Students launched an aggressive social media campaign to ‘impeach [my] Zionist a–.’ This is anti-Semitism, and cannot be tolerated at a University that proclaims to ‘nurture an environment of mutual respect and tolerance.’”

Ritch also made it clear that her identity as a Jew and  a Zionist are inexorably connected. Most American Jews, she said, “support Israel as the Jewish state, inherently connected to our religious history and communal peoplehood. An attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity.”

But USC’s reaction to the harassment of its Jewish students has been — to put it lightly —not nearly as strong as its response to the racist statement made to the student government president in 2015. Nor has USC’s response been anywhere as strong as OU or UCSD’s responses to the SAE or Compton Cookout incidents.

One thing every victim of bigotry does know, however, is that a different standard for one form of discrimination is itself discriminatory.

To date, at USC, no investigation has been announced. No one has been expelled or even sanctioned. And no concrete programs have been even suggested to prevent further bullying and harassment of Jews for simply identifying as Zionists. Instead, all that current and prospective Jewish USC students have received are statements by the USC administration that it stands against anti-Semitism. But nowhere in the letter does USC list any concrete actions to prevent or create consequences for anti-Semitism.

As a result of this plainly inadequate response to the Jew-hatred on open display at USC, on Aug. 16, the #EndJewHatred movement (which I am a part of) issued four very simple demands that the USC Board of Trustees should adopt to demonstrate USC’s commitment to ending Jew-hatred:

  1. Public recognition that there is a problem of Jew hatred on campus at USC.
  2. A public commitment to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism at USC.
  3. A disciplinary system inquiry into the harassment of Rose Ritch and other Jewish students by Jew haters on campus.
  4. A commitment to bringing in appropriate experts to ensure staff are properly trained to oppose Jew hatred on campus and that students are educated about the specific forms it takes (as well as the adverse consequences for engaging in Jew hatred).

After these basic demands went unmet by USC and its board of trustees, the #EndJewHatred movement held a Labor Day rally at the Grove in Los Angeles to call on USC — specifically, the chair of its board of trustees (who owns The Grove) — to enact these four demands.

The response to date? Sadly, nothing tangible.

All of this begs the question: why the different standard? Why does one racist statement directed at the student government president back in 2015 result in clear, appropriate and immediate consequences, while we are now four months into the virulent anti-Semitic campaign against three Jewish students and no one at USC has been investigated, let alone punished? How is it that OU and UCSD responded quickly and unequivocally to off-campus racism by some of its students, while USC can’t seem to do anything other than issue vague statements of opposition to anti-Semitism?

No one, outside the USC administration or the USC board of trustees, can truly know the answers to these questions. One thing every victim of bigotry does know, however, is that a different standard for one form of discrimination is itself discriminatory. And if you treat Jew hatred differently (and less seriously) than you treat other forms of bigotry, then you are effectively engaging in Jew hatred, too.

As those demanding an end to racism against African Americans have often noted, silence is complicity.

USC, your silence here is deafening.

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