ED launches Title VI investigation into USC

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into alleged Title VI violations by the University of Southern California. The investigation comes two years after a complaint was filed on behalf of a student government leader who resigned following a campaign by USC students to impeach her over her support of Israel.

The investigation could shed light on a heated debate over the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and its results could have wide-ranging implications for antidiscrimination and freedom of speech on college campuses.

In the summer of 2020, USC students launched a campaign to impeach the president and vice president of the university student government (USG), whom they accused of racism. The president, Truman Fritz, resigned on the day of his impeachment hearing. Vice president Rose Ritch, who is Jewish, was next in line for the top position—but she quickly faced calls for her own impeachment from students who claimed her support of Israel was racist and disqualified her from representing the student body.

After unsuccessfully lobbying university administrators to prevent the impeachment hearing and condemn the efforts as discriminatory, Ritch resigned from student government in August 2020. She told Inside Higher Ed that the pressure she faced to step down—as well as a barrage of harassment on social media—constituted antisemitic discrimination and exclusion.

“It was a very frustrating experience because the university did not acknowledge what was happening and the clear issue with trying to remove a student from office because they’re Zionist,” Ritch said. “If it was any other group that this was happening to, it would have been shut down immediately.”

In November 2020, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a Title VI complaint on Ritch’s behalf, which eventually prompted this week’s OCR investigation. In its complaint, the Brandeis Center described the impeach campaign as “persistent, severe, and ongoing anti-Semitic harassment” that targeted Ritch “on the basis of her Jewish identity.” The center also alleged that USC “allowed a hostile environment of anti-Semitism to proliferate on its campus” and ignored discrimination by declining to intervene on Ritch’s behalf and publicly condemn those who sought her impeachment.

“The baseless and discriminatory impeachment complaint could have been stopped by the University before it ever reached the USG Student Senate, as provided for by the Student Government bylaws, but USC administrators abrogated their responsibility,” the complaint reads.

“USC is proud of its culture of inclusivity for all students, including members of our Jewish community,” the university responded in a statement. “We look forward to addressing any concerns or questions by the US Department of Education on this matter.”

The case highlights the challenge colleges face in drawing a line between religious identity and political expression.

“Rose articulated what so many Jewish students have been feeling, which is a pressure to shed or renounce Zionism as part of their Jewish identity,” said Denise Katz-Prober, director of legal initiatives for the Brandeis Center. “University administrators seem to have such a difficult time understanding and recognizing this kind of antisemitism, which marginalizes and excludes Jewish students on the basis of their Jewish ethnic identity, which is connected to Israel.”

Kenneth Stern, director of the Center for Hate Studies at Bard College, said it’s important not to conflate anti-Zionism with identity-based discrimination, especially when it comes to state-enforced policy decisions.

“Not all objects to Zionism are because they see Jews as inherently conspiring to harm humanity … it’s a different political viewpoint, which does not have its basis in hatred,” he said. “I think that to label that as antisemitic cheapens the term.”

‘It Was Very Scary’

After students kicked off the impeachment campaign, the vitriol against Ritch quickly escalated on Instagram and other social media platforms.

“Tell your Zionist ass VP to resign too,” read one student’s post about Ritch after Fritz’s resignation.

“Warms my heart to see all the Zionists from USC and USG getting relatlessly cyberbullied,” another read.

“It was very scary,” Ritch said. “It got to the point where multiple Jewish friends called me and said, do you think it’s going to be safe for us to come back to campus?”

Most of the backlash against Ritch, who had been elected in February, came through the internet. USC had gone fully remote just a few months earlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ritch said the remove created by the digital environment emboldened her harassers.

“It’s easy for people to hide behind a screen,” she said. “When you’re an anonymous account or don’t have to see someone face-to-face, it’s easier to say something not so nice.”

Ritch said she received hundreds of messages from other Jewish college students who said they felt similarly persecuted. Indeed, Jewish students on many campuses have reported a growing wave of antisemitism.

Stern, who is also the author of The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate (University of Toronto Press, 2020), said it “certainly seemed” like Ritch was the target of harassment and intimidation from her classmates at USC. But he said that looking at it as a Title VI case—which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin—is a dangerous way of addressing the issue.

“Forget about Title VI,” he said. “But nobody should be harassed, intimidated or bullied.”

A Post-Trump Frontier in Title VI Claims

The complaint that led to the OCR’s USC investigation is not the first the Brandeis Center has filed alleging Title VI violations by colleges they saw as enabling antisemitism. The center has filed complaints against UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, Rutgers University and Barnard College, to name just a few. The OCR dismissed the vast majority, but that hasn’t deterred the Brandeis Center from continuing to pursue them.

In a 2013 op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, the Brandeis Center’s founder and former president, Kenneth Marcus, described his decades-long mission to get colleges and universities to view anti-Zionist speech and political activity—like participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel—as inherently discriminatory against Jewish students. The best strategy, he wrote, is to file civil rights claims with the Department of Education.

“These cases—even when rejected—expose administrators to bad publicity,” Marcus wrote. “At many campuses the prospect of litigation has made a difference.”

Before 2018, none of the center’s complaints led to an investigation. But in 2019, shortly after Marcus was appointed to be the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for rights, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order to fight alleged civil antisemitism on college campuses. The order cites a definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which says that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” should constitute discriminatory speech.

Since then, the center’s complaints have started seeing results. In 2020, the OCR began investigating alleged antisemitic harassment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and in February, the OCR launched an investigation into Brooklyn College after the center filed a complaint on behalf of two Jewish students who alleged that professors unfairly characterized them as “white and privileged.”

Katz-Prober of the Brandeis Center said she has hope the investigations will lead to “real change” at college campuses across the country.

“I think that universities should be paying attention to the fact that OCR is now recognizing this form of antisemitism and opening investigations,” she said.

Stern, who drafted a “working definition of antisemitism” during the 25 years he spent as the American Jewish Committee’s director on antisemitism, said the Trump administration’s new definition—and the grounds on which some recent Title VI investigations are being launched—was a purely political move.

“Why do we need a definition for antisemitism under Title VI when this is clearly just related to political differences about Israel?” he said.

Tallie Ben-Daniel, managing director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist organization that is active on many college campuses, said the Brandeis Center’s campaign to make anti-Zionism an official concern of university antidiscrimination policies is primarily motivated by a cynical” desire to protect Israel from criticism, not students from harassment.

“There’s a number of organizations that are acting on behalf of the Israeli government that really try to redefine what antisemitism is and muddy the waters, making it appear as if criticism of the Israeli state is in fact guided by antisemitism,” she said. “The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is one of those organizations.”

The Dangers of Conflation

Ritch said that her upbringing instilled in her a sense of pride in Israel as an intrinsic part of her Jewish cultural and ethnic identity.

“Before the impeachment and people calling me a Zionist, I never use that label to identify myself,” she said. “I was just Jewish, and believing in Israel was part of being Jewish.”

“Unfortunately, sometimes people misunderstand what is actually harassment and discrimination on the basis of Jewish identity as simply a political debate,” said Katz-Prober.

Ben-Daniel said the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is “both factually and morally incorrect.”

“Judaism is a religion and cultural identity; Israel is a state,” she said. “Zionism, which is a movement that supports the establishment and protection of that state, is a political definition, one which has had a pretty brutal impact on Palestinian life and history.”

For Stern, the primary issue at stake in the USC investigation is freedom of expression, not protection from discrimination.

“I’m a Zionist; Israel is part of my Jewish identity. But there is an internal debate in the Jewish community around whether anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same,” Stern said. “You don’t want to leave that decision up to the government … when you start including political speech in definitions of identity-based discrimination, it chills that speech.”

Ritch said she hopes the OCR investigation leads her alma mater, and other universities, to reconsider how they view the plights of students who are singled out for their support of Israel.

“I think there’s just such a lack of understanding about what both anti-Zionism and antisemitism mean and how they’re connected,” she said. “I hope this can offer an opportunity to help people understand why this is such a significant issue, and why what myself and so many other students experience is not OK.”

Stern said he favors more discussion, too, but that placing fewer—not more—restrictions on speech is the best way to facilitate it. That, and a willingness from universities to help students dive into a hot-button issue like the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“It is certainly a third-rail issue, but these issues don’t go away. Colleges should be proactive about that rather than just figure ‘we’re going to try to weather a storm,’” he said. “The irony is, this is a really great way to teach students how to have discussions about difficult issues.”

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