Graduation Speeches are Going to Get Ugly, and Jews Need to Be Prepared

In op-eds and news reports worldwide, Jewish and pro-Israel students at USC are being represented as aggressive censors.
April 24, 2024
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Last week, a normally calm colleague who serves as a faculty member at USC, my graduate school alma mater, sent me a cryptic text message about the current mood on campus. “All hell has broken loose,” she wrote. 

In recent years, USC has been at the center of a massive controversy, from 2019’s “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal involving parents who bribed administrators and coaches to secure admission for their children, to the over 700 women who were sexually abused by former campus gynecologist George Tyndall (in 2021, USC agreed to pay the victims a $852 million settlement). 

Thankfully, Trojans were seldom known for over-the-top anti-Israel activity, especially in comparison with neighboring universities UCLA and UC Irvine, where rabidly antisemitic students and faculty have garnered international attention. The political climate of USC was often apathetic at best. But now, the six-month war between Israel and Hamas has spilled over into Trojan territory, and in some ways, all hell has actually broken loose.  

The six-month war between Israel and Hamas has spilled over into Trojan territory, and in some ways, all hell has actually broken loose.

In a nutshell, the university canceled a commencement address by valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a first-generation American Muslim student of south Asian descent, after discovering that a link on her Instagram bio is filled with anti-Israel tropes, including one that states, “One Palestinian state would mean complete Palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel. This is the only way for justice.” 

On April 10, We Are Tov, a student and alumni organization that combats antisemitism, posted screenshots of the page and wrote, “Being selected valedictorian is an honor, and we are positive she is academically qualified for the position, but it’s unacceptable that she promotes antisemitic views. What will she say at the podium?”

So far, this incident could have occurred at any campus (and it has occurred at various graduation speeches filled with anti-Israel rhetoric throughout the past few years). But then, everything changed. In an April 15 campus-wide email, USC Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew Guzman not only announced that Tabassum will not speak, but also wrote, “This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.” To be clear, Tabassum will remain valedictorian, but will not speak at commencement. And since the announcement, USC has canceled all commencement speakers for this year.

According to USC, the school had received emails warning of plans to disrupt the program. Suddenly, Tabassum’s revoked speaking slot was presented as a matter of security, rather than as a morally appropriate consequence to shocking antisemitism and hate. Tabassum and her advocates, including sympathetic faculty and students, as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), are dismayed and claim that the university’s decision has nothing to do with safety concerns, but with shutting down her voice. 

In a statement published by CAIR, Tabassum wrote, “As your class Valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box — to work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred. I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship. And I urge us to see past our deepest fears and recognize the need to support justice for all people, including the Palestinian people.”

There it is, in that last sentence. There’s a hint of what was to come had Tabassum been allowed to deliver her commencement remarks. The Palestinians deserve justice and Israelis are not even mentioned. And that word, “justice,” is viscerally triggering to Jews worldwide precisely due to wording such as the link on Tabassum’s Instagram bio, which claims that justice will only arrive in the form of abolishing Israel. 

The irony is truly saddening. A valedictorian who condemns hate may very well hate Israel. And at campuses nationwide, Jewish students have pleaded with Muslim students to, in Tabassum’s words, “respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning.” Have anti-Israel students attempted to expose themselves to “ideological discomfort” by reaching out to their pro-Israel peers? 

The answer is a resounding “no.” I know this because I have spoken to numerous Jewish student leaders, as well as faculty advisors and staff of organizations who informed me that after Oct. 7, many Jewish students invited their Muslim peers to events promoting dialogue (not divisive debate, but good, old-fashioned breaking bread), and were bluntly rejected. Do the fanatic students who have more or less caused mob rule at Columbia University seem particularly interested in “ideological discomfort” through listening to the concerns of their Jewish peers?

In case readers believe the canceled speech is a victory for Jewish and pro-Israel students and faculty, unfortunately, Jews at USC are now targets of hate and are being blamed for shutting down Tabassum’s speech in ways that are being depicted as close-minded and practically medieval. Again, it is deeply ironic, given how anti-Israel students worldwide not only shut down pro-Israel speakers, but have also left Jewish students feeling physically unsafe on campus.

“Sadly, our students are being painted by the university’s actions and the world press in a way that is completely unfair and untrue,” Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad@USC told me. In an open letter to USC administration, Wagner, who, with his wife, Runya, founded Chabad@USC 24 years ago, praised administrators as longtime “friends and allies,” but also wrote, “My students are hurt and feel like they have been thrown under the bus — and I feel the same way.”

Wagner rightly observed that the April 15 statement about revoking Tabassum’s speech made no mention of the antisemitic nature of her social media posts. “I have nothing against the valedictorian as a person, and I am impressed by her academic achievements,” he wrote. “But being chosen as valedictorian is an honor that expresses the university’s pride in the chosen student as exemplary for the entire student body. This selection has caused great distress to students in our Jewish community and beyond.”

The effects of this chaos are rampant. Last week on campus, hundreds protested at USC, signs called for “From the river to the sea …” and maps depicted a region without Israel in it. “This antisemitic rhetoric was fanned by the university’s choice of valedictorian, and further refusal to condemn hate speech openly and clearly,” Wagner wrote in a second email to the USC@Chabad listserv. “It is why I wrote what I did despite the costs I know it will have, and despite the way — inevitably — my family, my community, and I are now being portrayed in so many places.”

In op-eds and news reports worldwide, Jewish and pro-Israel students at USC are being represented as aggressive censors. An April 17 op-ed in The New York Times was titled, “When a Mob Gets to Veto a Valedictorian’s Speech.” But one should ask whether the word “mob” has ever applied to Jewish responses to hate in America. When was the last time we heard the words “Jewish mob” in this country? That word certainly has applied to shockingly anti-American and anti-Israel street and campus protests after Oct. 7. 

The op-ed asserted that “canceling a speech because of future safety concerns is a more egregious form of censorship than the classic ‘heckler’s veto,’ when protesters silence speakers by disrupting their speeches. USC’s decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech was a form of anticipatory heckler’s veto. USC canceled the speech before the heckling could even start.”

That’s an interesting take. Was the Jewish community at USC expected to sit through Tabassum’s remarks and simply hope for the best? Would USC’s Muslim community have been expected to sit through an address by a student who had publicly supported wiping the Palestinians off the map?

Was the Jewish community at USC expected to sit through Tabassum’s remarks and simply hope for the best? Would USC’s Muslim community have been expected to sit through an address by a student who had publicly supported wiping the Palestinians off the map?

To be fair, the writer also stated, “I disagree strongly with condemnations of Zionism as racist, and I think it would be a serious mistake if Tabassum chose to commandeer her commencement platform to express such views.”

For its part, USC’s Jewish community is presently reeling from pain and a sense of gaslighting. As Rabbi Wagner wrote in an April 18 email, “Our students are not the ones who created this mess and these tensions on campus, and they should not be the ones paying the price to absolve those who did from taking responsibility and doing what they can to correct it.”

Being represented as intolerant censors is dangerous for Jews, because it implies that rather than being maligned by a student and her supporters who actively call for an end to the world’s only Jewish state, Jews are the ones who pose an apparent threat.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it all begins with the selection of Tabassum as valedictorian. If my alma mater had done its due diligence, it would have been very easy to find an antisemitic link calling to wipe out Israel on her Instagram bio. In fact, any 11-year-old with a smartphone could have made that discovery in under five minutes. 

There’s also the mistake of claiming this is, in fact, a security issue, rather than having the clarity to admit that a student who supports the destruction of Israel is not USC valedictorian material. It should be noted that a student who supported wiping out Palestinians would also not deserve a speaking slot at commencement, and any off-campus organizations that supported that student would reveal their hateful bigotry. 

Ultimately, this boils down to two issues: Why was Tabassum selected as valedictorian despite her intolerant social media activity, and what would she have said at that lectern if no one had uncovered her feelings and attitudes toward Israel beforehand and informed the university? 

The second question is more difficult to answer than the first, but the fact that so many Jewish Trojans were triggered with enough worry to flood USC with pleas to cancel her speech speaks volumes about the painfully hostile environment that Jewish and pro-Israel students face on campus. 

Simply put, USC’s Jewish community wasn’t sure what Tabassum would have said, but the fact that she joined the chorus of voices calling for “justice” through Israel’s elimination was enough to elicit visceral fear and pain. To all the activists and journalists who are demanding that Tabassum be allowed to deliver her remarks, isn’t that Jewish fear and pain also worth something?

As an Iranian American Jew, I believe that had a Jewish student been selected valedictorian, he or she would not have made any reference to Israel or Gaza. I also believe that if the valedictorian had been Iranian, there would have been no mention of Iran in a commencement address. 

This is not because Jewish students have abandoned Israel or that Iranian students do not care about Iran and the suffering of millions of Iranians at the hands of the regime; it is, I believe, because these students would know that politics does not have a place at a graduation podium.

Today, most people disagree on Israel, and most average Americans do not give a fig about Iran. Jewish or Iranian valedictorians know that. The mistake on the part of anti-Israel commencement speakers worldwide is to falsely believe that they can tear down Israel in their speeches with impunity because everyone will agree with them. 

Student commencement speeches are supposed to create cohesion by uniting thousands of graduates across various majors, passions and dreams. Remarks that instead create division are inarguably short-sighted and self-serving. 

Had I been valedictorian, my own family, who escaped the brutality of post-revolutionary Iran, would have been mortified if I had hurled accusations against the country, even if its regime certainly deserved it. This is due to the fact that my family would have understood that in being selected valedictorian, I would be tasked with representing something much bigger than myself. To have stood and shouted anti-Iran messages would have meant I had utterly failed as a voice of unity, cohesion and inspiration to my fellow peers. 

Commencement is not a time to solve the painful realities of the Middle East, especially at USC, where my own graduation reception in 2010 included black-tie-clad servers and free-flowing champagne. 

As a former child refugee, I understand that immigrant families in particular are indescribably proud when their children are selected as valedictorians. But I am also shocked over the spectacular lack of self-reflection on behalf of many academically brilliant anti-Israel students nationwide in perhaps not being able to contemplate two questions: Should I accept certain consequences for supporting an end to a country (Israel and its 10 million people)? And would my words hurt my Jewish peers who were looking forward to this graduation ceremony as much as I was, and who have worked as hard as I have?  

In her statement, Tabassum wrote, “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.” Again, some self-reflection would be wonderful. Can pro-Palestinian students be completely exonerated from having spread hate?

In democracies, it is so much easier to allege that voices are being shut down and silenced, and much harder to actually engage in the soul-searching work of wondering why our words may be inappropriate at best, and deeply bigoted at worst. 

Jewish students and their families worldwide must be prepared for what is to come at commencement not only this year, but for years to come. And they should also be prepared to be portrayed as insecure, medieval censors if their pleas to campuses to remove antisemitic speakers actually work. Personally, I find that one of the best antidotes to Israel hatred is Jewish pride.

During my own undergraduate commencement ceremony, I spelled “Baruch Hashem” with small star stickers on top of my mortarboard. Back then, I was not an observant Jew, but as an Iranian refugee and one of the first female college graduates in my family, I understood the miracles that had brought me to that moment, and I felt compelled to thank G-d for the utter privilege of reaching that momentous day as an American.

As for graduates who cannot even stomach the existence of a Jewish state, there will be plenty more opportunities for rage and for shutting down speech in particular. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago is only four months away, and major disruptions by fanaticized young leftists are already in the works. Perhaps many from the Class of 2024 will join these disruptions. If that happens, I anticipate the kind of self-righteous behavior that will give new meaning to the words, “pomp and circumstance.”

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael

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