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USC Prof Barred from Campus After Saying Every Hamas Terrorist “Should Be Killed”

Professor’s remarks go viral; USC accused of a double standard.
[additional-authors]
November 28, 2023
A statue of the school mascot, Tommy Trojan, stands on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC) (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

USC Economics and Gerontology Professor John Strauss is currently barred from campus after telling pro-Palestinian protesters that every Hamas terrorist “should be killed” and will be teaching remotely for the rest of the semester. The university is claiming that the move was “precautionary” and denied that they are punishing Strauss.

The controversy, as explained in The Daily Trojan, involves a viral video of Strauss, 72, saying to the protesters, “Every one should be killed, and I hope they are all are.” The full clip of the exchange, however, shows Strauss saying: “Hamas are murderers, that’s all they are. Every one should be killed, and I hope they all are.” Strauss has clarified that he was saying that all Hamas members should be killed, not all Palestinians.

In a phone interview with the Journal, Strauss, who is Jewish and a staunch supporter of Israel, said that he was walking from his office building to one of his classes on Nov. 9 when he heard anti-Israel slogans like, “Down with Israel!” and “Cut United States money from Israel,” and “from the river to the sea” from a pro-Palestinian rally. The rally, “Shut It Down for Palestine,” was taking place at the Tommy Trojan statue. Strauss believes that many of the protesters came from off-campus. In response to hearing these slogans, Strauss says he shouted, “Israel forever! Hamas are murderers!” a couple of times before continuing to walk to class.

After his class ended, Strauss walked by the location of the protest again as part of his route back to his office; by this point, the rally had mostly dissipated. He talked to some Jewish students, who were there to observe and document the rhetoric at the protest, as well as USC Chabad Rabbi Dov Wagner, who was there to support the Jewish students and wrap tefillin. As Strauss began heading back to his office, a female pro-Palestinian protester shouted at him, “Shame on you, Professor Strauss!” Strauss fired back at the protester with the now-viral comments: “You are ignorant. Hamas are murderers, that’s all they are. Every one should be killed, and I hope they all are.”

Strauss first learned that his comments had gone viral when he got home and received messages from Jewish students warning him that a pro-Palestinian group had posted a video that just showed his “every one should be killed” comments and that the pro-Palestinian group claimed that Strauss wanted all Palestinians to be killed. “One, I never said that. Two, I don’t even think that,” Strauss told the Journal. “I was referring explicitly to Hamas, which they knew or should have known.” He claimed that the video was “doctored.”

The Los Angeles Times spoke with a student who only wanted to be identified by her first name, Daphne, who is responsible for one of the videos of Strauss’ now-viral remarks. “I do not possess the ability to doctor a video like that,” she told the Times. “And also we have a second video that matches so, like, there’s no way on God’s green Earth that I would have been able to doctor that video.” The Times reported that while they could not find any evidence that the videos of Strauss were doctored, “as the clip circulated online, it was at times trimmed to a few seconds of Strauss uttering, ‘Everyone should be killed.’ The captions and superimposed text in social media posts could be minimal, misleading or wrong.” Both the Times and The Daily Trojan pointed to one such social media post that has received millions of views showing only Strauss’ edited remarks with a caption stating that Strauss “threatened these students ‘hope you get killed and I hope they all are (*Gaza)” during a campus rally for Gaza.”

A USC Jewish student who asked that her name not be used witnessed the incident. “He was walking by, minding his own business when a female on the Palestinian side yelled at him from the display, ‘Shame on you Professor Strauss!’ And then a bunch of people chimed in after, ‘Shame on you Professor Strauss!’ at him,” the student said. “And that’s when I started getting concerned about his safety because they just started yelling at him out of nowhere and they looked very aggressive. One student looked like he was going to lunge at him and attack him.” It was at that point that Strauss made his now-viral remarks, and then he walked away. The Jewish student had talked to Strauss a bit before the incident happened and called him “a sweet guy.”

Rabbi Wagner, whose back was turned when the Strauss interaction with the protesters occurred, told the Journal that it is “really abhorrent” that Strauss’ comments were misrepresented on social media. “Clearly he only referenced Hamas, and that wasn’t at all the way it was being presented in the first few days of when this was going around,” he said. “Even now, there’s plenty of places on the Internet where the false representation is still on there.”

Strauss has also been criticized by pro-Palestinian groups on social media for stepping on a list of names of Palestinians that have been killed in the Gaza Strip during the ongoing war with Israel. “I didn’t even pay attention, I guess I must have stepped on one by accident but it was by accident,” Strauss told the Journal, “because I was trying to move closer to the woman shouting, ‘Shame on you, Professor Strauss.’” The student who witnessed the incident told the Journal that while she did not see whether or not Strauss stepped on the list, she pointed out that the list “was on the floor in a highly trafficked area” and that “you can see footprints on the display.”

The next morning, Strauss said he became inundated with “very nasty emails saying things like, ‘Fire Professor Strauss,’ ‘Die Professor Strauss.’” That afternoon, Strauss received a phone call from the provost’s office that he’s been placed on administrative leave for the rest of the semester and could only teach his graduate classes via Zoom (Strauss teaches both undergraduate and graduate students); the administration later softened their stance somewhat on November 13, allowing him to teach his undergraduate class virtually, Strauss claimed. Strauss also alleged that he is being subjected to multiple Title IX complaints, presumably for his now-viral remarks. He says has been in contact with the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) on the matter and that the AFA sent a letter to the university arguing that they had no standing to take action against Strauss. The AFA did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment; The College Fix claims to have obtained the letter and that the AFA told them that the university has not responded to it.

The university is disputing that Strauss was placed on administrative leave. “Online video clips of Professor Strauss – some of which appear to have been edited in misleading ways – have been widely shared on social media, generating millions of online global engagements and comments, many of them quite alarming,” the university said in a statement to the Journal. “There also have been reports in the media and in social media that he has been placed on administrative leave. That is not the case. After reviewing the overwhelming volume and types of comments, the university directed him to teach his two remaining classes online and to remain off campus as a precautionary measure until classes are finished this term. These measures were designed to minimize disruption in the classroom and to ensure a safe environment for both him and students. He has in no way been disciplined or punished for engaging in protected speech.”

Strauss’ attorney Samantha Harris told the Journal that while it is “technically true” that Strauss has yet to be disciplined, “on November 17, he received a notice of investigation based on complaints that students had filed against him based on the rally, notifying him that he is being investigated for hostile environment [and] harassment, which obviously could lead to discipline if he’s found responsible.” She added that it is “outrageous” that Strauss is being subjected to this investigation.  Regarding the university’s claims that the move was a “precautionary measure,” Harris replied: “That’s not to say that students might not give him a hard time, it seems clear that the university’s primary concern here is not Professor Strauss’s safety.” She argued that the university’s claim that they’re simply trying to “minimize disruption” suggests that “the university has a large number of loud and angry students that it is appeasing.”

Additionally, Harris contended that there is a double standard with how the university has treated Strauss compared to pro-Palestinian protesters. “We have videos from … days following Oct. 7, when Palestinian supporters were chanting things on campus like, ‘There is only one solution, intifada revolution.’ And as far as I know, those people are not being investigated for creating a hostile environment despite very clearly referencing the extermination of Jews. So I think this is yet another example of the double standard where speech is permitted about Jews that is then not permitted by Jews.” She confirmed to the Journal that Strauss wants to be back on campus.

The student who witnessed the incident argued that the university is engaging in a double standard for quickly taking action regarding Strauss, while nothing has been done regarding a few antisemitic incidents that have occurred on campus.

“There was that student who tore down the hostage poster in a building on campus,” the student said, adding that during a pro-Palestinian rally, protesters shouted “f— you” at a pro-Israel communications student and called him out by name. Various professors have also “been reposting antisemitic, pro-Hamas posts on Twitter,” the student alleged. “… And nothing ever happens to any of them.”

Anna Krylov, who holds the USC Associates Chair of Natural Sciences and is a chemistry professor at USC, had similar comments. “This is an example of the double standard practiced by the universities,” she told the Journal in an email. “At USC, since Oct. 7 we had several pro-Palestinian rallies at which the participants shouted genocidal slogans such as ‘the only solution – intifada revolution’ and ‘from the river to the sea’ (recall that for the latter, Rashida Tlaib [D-Mich.] was appropriately censured) and valorizing the Hamas terrorists who were killed in Gaza by Israeli forces. Pro-Palestinian students have been tearing down posters of the hostages and posting antisemitic  messages on social media. The participants of these rallies as well as students tearing down posters and posting antisemitic messages on social media faced no consequences, even though their actions are intimidating and hurtful to Jewish and Israeli students and faculty, and their views are at odds with the official position of the US government … And this is how things should be  — because even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and we should allow it on our campuses, even if it is morally reprehensible, insulting to many people, and is at odds with the official position of our government.”

She added: “However, when Prof. Strauss voiced his opinion about Hamas, he was barred from campus and put under involuntary administrative leave. Prof. Strauss made his remarks not in the classroom, but at the rally, in response to pro-Hamas statements and exhibits. And yet the students complained and the university reacted not by educating the students about free speech (or disciplining them for making frivolous complaints and false accusations — they falsified the video), but by punishing the professor. This is unacceptable.”

Asked by the Journal to respond to accusations of a double standard USC used in handling Strauss, the university pointed the Journal to the “Where We Are Today at USC” section of a page on USC’s website titled, “USC’s Network of Informational Support Resources in Times of Conflict.” The section states in part that “we reject hate speech and antisemitism in any form at USC” and “that USC takes threats of violence and harassment extremely seriously. We work closely with law enforcement, as well as our threat office and other university offices to address them to the fullest extent possible under the law. As of now, we have received very few such reports since Oct. 7, but please know we investigate all of them. Many extremely offensive and disturbing statements are protected by the U.S. Constitution, which private universities like USC are required to uphold under the California Leonard Law.”

The section further states, “Federal and state privacy laws also prohibit us from releasing personal facts (for example, individual names and other identifying details) of any case. That doesn’t mean we can’t take any actions, and we do, but the privacy laws also stop us from sharing details. We also don’t have legal rights to enforce our campus-wide poster policies (which generally prohibit posters), or policies about marches taking place off our campuses, even when they are directly adjacent to our campus.”

“The university, I think, could have saved themselves a lot of grief by being a little clearer about what did or didn’t happen to him,” Wagner told the Journal. “They took four days to say anything. He had heard that he was put on administrative leave and there was no official denial of that until The Daily Trojan article [on November 15]. It’s actually a pity that they weren’t a little clearer in sharing information… that unnecessarily raises the temperature when we all should be trying to lower it.”

There are currently dueling petitions against and in favor of Strauss. One petition is calling for Strauss’ ouster, stating in part: “His racist, xenophobic behavior, including stepping on names during a memorial service at USC for over 10k innocent civilians that lost their lives in Palestine, is unacceptable. His remarks – ‘everyone should be killed, and I hope they all are’ – are not only offensive but also promote and incite violence. This behavior is unbecoming of an educator and a professor of this stature.” This petition has garnered more than 7,100 signatures as of publication time.

A different petition, on the other hand, is urging the university to “promptly reinstate Professor Strauss with adequate protection and conduct a comprehensive review of university policies.” “Even if [the university] cited safety reasons, that is no reason for not allowing him on campus,” the petition stated. “We should not revert to the days of the Holocaust. Jewish people should not have to hide for our safety. Violent people who make threats and spread false accusations are the ones who should be expelled, not the victims of their abuse. USC should offer Professor Strauss proper protection in the coming months.” The petition currently has more than 17,000 signatures. An Instagram account, “Stand With Strauss” has been launched with the intention of clearing Strauss’ name. Both the petition in support of Strauss and the “Stand With Strauss” He has received support from both students and faculty.

Daisy Kahn, a recent USC alumna who now resides in New York, is one of the alumni who has been involved in supporting Strauss. She told the Journal that she first learned about the Strauss incident from a pro-Israel group chat, and people were discussing the negative comments on his RateMyProfessor page. Additionally, she saw that his email address was circulating around on social media. “Someone in the group chat said, ‘I think we should warn him about what they are doing and send him the full video so he has it … and can defend himself against the doctored video,” Kahn said. She defines “doctored” in reference to the shortened video that omits his mention of Hamas. Kahn later personally emailed Strauss to show her support for him. “I’ve never met Strauss, but given the double standard of what’s accepted on college campuses, I had to use my voice to stand up against injustice and unify against hate.”

The student who witnessed the incident told the Journal that “I usually don’t take interviews.” “I’m not one to put my name out there, but I thought that this issue was incredibly important because there are so few witnesses that were actually there and are saying what actually happened,” the student said, “and the other side is just continuing to perpetuate a narrative, a wrong narrative, that Jews want Palestinian deaths — and that’s not true — and are continuing to perpetuate doctored evidence.”

Strauss told the Journal that he has “been so happy” to see the Jewish community on campus — students and faculty alike — overwhelmingly support him. He added that he is “so much indebted to all of them. It’s really helped me keep my head together.”

For Rabbi Wagner, he is proud that “the community in general is coming together more than it’s ever come before to try to stand up for what’s right, to try and stand strong on campus.” He called this “just one of many incidents that have been ongoing over the last few weeks, and I think the silver lining in all of it is really the incredible leadership and unity that our students are showing.”

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