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USC Board of Trustees Chair: “The Antisemitic Behavior We Are Witnessing Is Deeply Troubling”

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December 16, 2021
A statue of the school mascot, the Trojan, stands on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC) on March 6, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

USC Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso issued a statement on December 14 saying that “the antisemitic behavior we are witnessing is deeply troubling” in an apparent reference to tweets from a Palestinian student senator on campus.

The statement in full read: “The antisemitic behavior we are witnessing is deeply troubling and runs contrary to the values and safe environment the President and Board of Trustees are sworn to uphold. The Board of Trustees, together with President [Carol] Folt, unequivocally rejects antisemitism or religious discrimination in any form. We are committed to working with university leadership to address these challenges in our society. While we will always support free speech and expression, we must be steadfast in our commitment to ensure a campus that is safe for every individual, regardless of race, color, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, age, religion or religious creed, disability, sex or gender identity.”

Caruso’s statement amidst growing outrage of the university’s handling of Yasmeen Mashayekh, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Student Senator at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Viterbi Graduate Student Association (VGSA) who tweeted, “I want to kill every motherf—ing Zionist,” “LONG LIVE THE INTIFADA” and “Curse the Jews [in Arabic],” among other things. In response to a letter from more than 60 faculty members demanding that USC condemn her tweets “immediately given the continuing instances of anti-Semitism and Zionophobia on our campus,” Folt and Provost Charles Zukoski wrote that they are “disturbed” by the “hurtful impact” of the tweets and that Mashayekh was removed from a “paid mentorship” position over the summer. However, they said they could not remove her from her position as DEI senator because it’s a student-elected position and her tweets are protected speech under the First Amendment.

Social Medie Lite CEO Emily Schrader, a USC alumnus, criticized Caruso’s statement in a tweet. “Don’t ‘all lives matter’ the serious problem you have with #antisemitism on campus,” she wrote. “This isn’t the first time such an incident has occurred on campus which means you [aren’t] dealing with it. As an alum, I expect better.”

Folt also tweeted on December 13, “I understand the hurtful impact of recent anti-Jewish social media statements to those who are Jewish and to those of us who know how harmful antisemitism is when left unchecked. I have stated publicly and repeatedly that USC emphatically denounces all forms of antisemitism and anti-Jewish hatred.” In a December 15 letter, she wrote that she plans “to delve into how we can better address hateful and vile speech that wounds our community” when winter break is over in January.

Judea Pearl, Chancellor Professor of Computer Science at UCLA, National Academy of Sciences member and Daniel Pearl Foundation President, tweeted that Folt’s tweets were “an avoidance statement” because she was “speaking ‘Jewish’ and ‘antisemitism’ to 60 top faculty [members] who scream ‘Zionophobia.’ And the circus continues.”

The Los Angeles Times published an article on December 14 about Mashayekh quoting faculty members who are upset at the university’s handling of the matter. Chemistry Professor Curt Wittig told the Times that Folt and Zukoski’s response was essentially “a deflection memo” and that the response needed to be “a little more forceful.” Biological Sciences Professor Judith Hirsch also told the Times: “If a Jewish student had written the same tweets about Palestinians, we would be equally distressed.”

Mashayekh told the Times she doesn’t “feel safe on campus,” claiming that she is being subjected to “targeted harassment” and that the university has not adequately responded to her concerns. She also said she was removed from Virterbi’s website and is concerned about future employment opportunities and her loan payments. “I just really wish I didn’t have to think about what I would change. I wish people didn’t expect Palestinians to be the perfect victims.”

In an email to USC leadership, Mashayekh accused the university of “being complicit in apartheid” and that “the right-wing Zionist lobby” is subjecting her to a smear campaign and thus putting “me and my family in grave danger.” She also wrote that her tweets should be viewed in the context that under international law, “Palestinians have a right to resist occupation of their land.”

“These smear campaigns have subjected me to FBI visits, unlawful punishment by the university by stripping me of my position as a freshman academy coach, unwarranted media attention, and mental and emotional abuse,” she wrote. “This is not normal. By accepting this behavior and choosing to speak to the media rather than strategizing how to protect your Palestinian student subject to harassment by her oppressor you are complicit in supporting and profiting from apartheid and ethnic cleansing from the Palestinian people.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted out a link to the Times article and wrote, “.@USC faculty are ringing the alarm because University leadership has failed to deal adequately with blatant #antisemitism on campus. Make no mistake: wishing harm against all ‘Zionists’ is a threat to *all* Jewish people and is unacceptable in any context.”

 

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