The Alliance for Academic Freedom condemns the treatment of Rose Ritch, a Jewish undergraduate at University of Southern California who resigned under pressure as vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government following a campaign that featured denunciations of her support for Israel, including some with antisemitic overtones. Not only was it clearly reprehensible for fellow students to attack her in this fashion, but the USC faculty and administration also erred by failing to condemn her mistreatment and close down the impeachment process altogether. We hope that Ritch’s resignation will prompt university leaders to begin to reverse the disturbing trend of rising hostility on some campuses toward those who identify as Zionists or simply express support for Israel.
Attacks against Ritch began when she was running for vice president. She was called a “pro-Israel white supremacist” and her campaign signs were reportedly taken down. During a student debate, one undergraduate questioned how Ritch’s previous leadership of a campus pro-Israel group would affect her ability to govern when it came to questions of boycotting Israel. The question could be taken as innocent and fair, but it also could be construed as imputing a dual loyalty, especially because other Jewish students seeking office at other universities have been similarly questioned. Nonetheless, Ritch won the election.
On June 1, following the killing of George Floyd, Ritch and other student government leaders emailed the USC student body expressing solidarity with the Black community. At the same time, a social media campaign, @black_at_usc began, in which Black students and other students of color voiced discontent about their treatment at USC. Anonymous posts included accusations that Truman Fritz, the newly elected student government president, made an oral remark that appeared to “put all students of color into one category” and reportedly made insensitive jokes about the “pains of being white.” One of his alleged “microaggressions” was his comment that having a Jewish student on his slate had made it diverse. On June 26, Abeer Tijani, a rising senior, created a petition asking for Fritz to step down as a result of “recent uncoverings of racial misconduct,” based on the postings on the @black_at_usc account.
Tijani’s petition did not mention Ritch. Nevertheless, various comments posted in support of the petition, as well as on other social media platforms, attacked Ritch for supporting Israel. Some also made reference to her sexuality in a derogatory way. Messages included the following: “him and the zionist need to be IMPEACHED”; “Tell your Zionist ass VP to resign too”; “The president is trash and so is the VP who is a proud Zionist”; “Would you like to share that not only is Rose a Zionist who indoctrinated the rest of USG to be Zionists, she is also an above-the-waist-only bisexual”; “warms my heart to see all the zionists from usc and usg getting relentlessly cyberbullied.”
Just prior to his impeachment hearing, Fritz resigned. Ritch was next in line for the presidency, but because she hadn’t endorsed the attacks on Fritz, several campus organizations, including the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, endorsed a petition for her removal as well. “Her silence aids and abets the already taxing oppression and microaggressions that Black students face at USC daily,” said Tijani. Ritch was also faulted for not agreeing to a recorded interrogation by her critics.
In response to a letter from the Louis D. Brandeis Center detailing the harassment Ritch faced, university administrators postponed her July impeachment hearing, citing a need to review the “fairness of bylaws and other rules.” But the attacks continued. On August 5, Ritch finally resigned. “I am grateful that the University administration suspended my impeachment proceedings, but am disappointed that the university has not recognized the need to publicly protect Jewish students from the type of antisemitic harassment I endured,” she wrote. Her letter decried a campus culture in which direct, in-person conversations have given way to online denunciations and “a disturbing lack of nuance or willingness to grapple with the messy complexities of an issue.”
Academic freedom protects the right of qualified faculty and students to run for or be appointed to campus offices. Campaigns to discredit those candidates or officers based in attacks on their race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or national origin undermine that right and must be rejected unequivocally. So, too, should attacks on an individual based on political litmus tests—including one’s views about Israel or Zionism.
When such behavior occurs, faculty and administrators have a duty to intervene. USC’s administration was right to suspend Ritch’s impeachment trial. It was regrettably not until after her resignation that USC President Carol Folt issued an admirable statement calling the treatment of Ritch “unacceptable,” acknowledging antisemitism at USC, and supporting a university-wide initiative by the USC Shoah Foundation to counter hate.
Nonetheless, the outcome by its very nature shows that the administration and faculty failed to speak out forcefully and early enough to ensure that Ritch could assume the vacated presidency. When political speech crosses over into the harassment of an individual, whether in person or online, universities need to act swiftly. They should have procedures in place for reporting incidents of harassment and intimidation and should immediately take steps to end such behavior. We do not wish campus leadership to monitor routine political speech or to label mere slights as “hateful,” but administrators should heed the signs when, on inflammatory topics such as the Middle East, heated speech crosses over into harassment or bullying.
Ritch is far from the only college student who has been harassed in recent years for their pro-Israel politics. Her story is an important reminder that educational institutions should actively promote discussion about contentious issues like the Middle East. They should encourage students to become informed about the history and nature of Zionism, which, according to standard definitions, is the movement of the Jewish people for self-determination in a land or state of their own. Rather than hurling the term as an epithet, or falsely equating Zionism with a parade of horribles, students should be able to appreciate its origins, meaning, and complexity.
Some argue that, given that the state of Israel has been a reality for 72 years, contemporary opposition to “Zionism”—in effect, to the existence of Israel—is intrinsically antisemitic. Ritch herself noted that most American Jews identify with or support Israel and that “an attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity.” Others argue, to the contrary, that one can oppose Zionism without being antisemitic. Whatever one’s view, students who would invoke issues such as Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in arguing with one another ought to learn much more about it, so as to avoid falling into the kinds of uninformed caricatures or oversimplified assertions that, in Ritch’s case and others, have led to the demonization of others. Students, indeed, should wrestle with the competing historical and political claims of the many different parties in the conflict to understand why hatred frequently manifests itself around these issues.
The convergence of hostility to the state of Israel, rising campus intolerance, and social media harassment campaigns has created a toxic environment on some campuses—leading, as they did here, to violations of academic freedom and fair treatment. It is important that university administrators and faculty nationwide develop policies and the nerve to speak forcefully against the bullying, online or in person, based on political ideologies.
AAF Executive Committee: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebeca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern