USC’s Jewish leaders discuss Department of Education investigation into antisemitism

Two years after the Louis Brandeis Center filed a complaint on behalf of former USC student Rose Ritch, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced a probe into the University’s response to antisemitic harassment. (Daily Trojan file photo)

The United States Department of Education announced an investigation into the University Tuesday in response to a complaint criticizing the University’s response to antisemitic harassment that pressured a Jewish student to resign from the Undergraduate Student Government in 2020.

The DOE Office for Civil Rights announced the probe nearly two years after a complaint was filed in November 2020 by Jewish advocacy organization Louis Brandeis Center on behalf of former USC student Rose Ritch. Ritch, a rising senior at the time, resigned from her position as USG Vice President after experiencing months of harassment from peers because of her Jewish identity and pro-Israel views. 

In not responding to this harassment promptly and effectively, the University failed to uphold its legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Louis Brandeis complaint argued. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color or national origin” at federally funded institutions.

Harassment targeting Ritch began in February 2020, when during the student government election campaigns, posters of Jewish students were pulled down “on the basis of their Jewish identity” — according to the Louis Brandeis complaint — and Ritch’s campaign posters were repeatedly vandalized. Ritch reported these incidents to the University, but investigations did not identify any perpetrators or suspects, and Jewish students continued to experience a hostile climate, the Louis Brandeis complaint stated. 

Ritch was elected USG Vice President later that month. According to the Louis Brandeis complaint, the following June a student announced plans to file formal complaints to impeach her, citing Ritch’s support for Israel as a reason. The Louis Brandeis complaint stated that Ritch experienced ongoing harassment on social media, with several students calling for her impeachment or resignation due to “her perceived ethnic Jewish identity as a ‘Zionist.’” “tell your Zionist a** VP to resign too,” one student directed then-USG president Truman Fritz.

The Louis Brandeis complaint did not mention additional motivations for the impeachment, including allegations of Ritch’s complicity in racial misconduct — a letter penned by 2021 graduate Abeer Tijani alleged Ritch did not act on or respond to claims of Fritz’s microagressive behaviour and racial misconduct. 

Then-Vice President of Student Affairs Winston Crisp and Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni recognized online bullying in a letter dated June 30, 2020 to the student body, but did not speak specifically about Ritch or the antisemitic harassment she faced. 

In July, the same student who announced plans to impeach Ritch earlier filed formal complaints against Ritch and Fritz. The University administration permitted the complaint against Ritch to be sent to the Speaker of the Senate electronically, without sufficiently reviewing its validity. This was in violation of USG bylaws, according to the Louis Brandeis complaint. 

Impeachment proceedings for Ritch were scheduled for July 14 until the University suspended the trial without announcing the suspension publicly, the Louis Brandeis complaint stated. Despite letters from Jewish campus organization USC Hillel and the Louis Brandeis Center in early July calling for the University to take steps to protect Ritch, the Louis Brandeis complaint said the University did not issue a public statement directly condemning antisemitic harassment until shortly after Ritch resigned on Aug. 5, 2020. 

2022 graduate Jacob Miller, who served as the 2021-2022 co-president of USC Hillel, said the majority of the harassment occurred online and primarily targeted Ritch, but that he also saw an increase in hostility directed toward the campus Jewish community. A Jewish student himself, he said he saw posts on social media excluding “certain groups” from participation in activities on campus. 

“Just conversations with friends showed an overall lack of understanding of the situation and willingness to engage in conversation,” Miller said. “People were treated, including [Ritch], in ways that people should never be treated. Everybody should be treated with respect.”

Executive Director of USC Hillel Dave Cohn said that, during the summer of 2020, the organization’s primary concern was to offer support, guidance and, “where appropriate, advocacy” for Jewish students. Of the approximately 4,000 Jewish students at USC, there are 2,000 undergraduates, accounting for 10% of the undergraduate population — and 2,000 graduate students, accounting for 7% of the graduate population, according to Hillel.

“We spent hours and hours, at all hours, working closely with students who were either impacted directly or who were dismayed or distressed by the type of rhetoric and language that they were seeing used, which made many students at the time feel vulnerable and really painfully impacted, really hurt by what they were seeing,” Cohn said. “The prevailing sensation at the time was this sense of pain, vulnerability and instability, and that was what we were supporting students through.”

As leaders in the USC Jewish community, Miller and Cohn view the importance of the DOE investigation in different ways. Miller said he believes it’s “incredibly meaningful and impactful” for the investigation to be launched. 

“Far too long, there’s been real claims of antisemitism occurring that hasn’t been given the weight that it deserves,” Miller said. “By having an actual investigation by the U.S. government into the situation, people will start to really see the seriousness and the reality of the situation that USC students are facing. By this situation being given the weight it deserves, people will start to be more mindful.”

Cohn said he believes that the probe’s impact will be less drastic. He said that although antisemitism is a problem that requires constant effort to address, in the two years since the Louis Brandeis complaint was filed, much progress has been made to address the issue in partnership with the University. 

“We’ve come a long way in the period since these events took place,” Cohn said. “I have a great deal of confidence that we’ll continue on that path. And I don’t know that the complaint does more than provide some additional motivation for us to continue on the path that we’re already on.”

Miller and Cohn both said they believe the University has taken many strides in supporting an inclusive environment and combatting antisemitism on campus since the escalation of antisemitic harassment on campus in 2020.

“When everything was happening with [Ritch], I personally believe that the University should have stepped in a lot sooner than it did, and that it never should have escalated to the point where [Ritch] needed to resign from the position. But I do want to point out now the progress that the University has made in response to addressing antisemitism,” Miller said. 

Miller is currently involved in the President’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life at USC, which was created at the start of the Spring 2022 semester as part of University efforts to systematically fight antisemitism. The committee has convened multiple times throughout the semester and is currently presenting its proposals to the University, according to Miller.

In addition to convening the Advisory Committee on Jewish Life, the University has developed partnerships with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee, expanded the Stronger Than Hate initiative at the USC Shoah Foundation and sent senior leaders to attend the President’s Summit on Campus Antisemitism at NYU.

“USC is proud of its culture of inclusivity for all students, including members of our Jewish community,” the University wrote in a statement about the investigation to the Daily Trojan. “USC over the last two years has made a number of commitments to combat antisemitism and anti-Jewish hatred. We are continuing to take these steps to further build on the welcoming environment we have created for our Jewish community. We look forward to addressing any concerns or questions by the U.S. Department of Education regarding this matter.”

Dov Wagner, director of the Chabad Jewish Center at USC, is part of the Advisory Committee on Jewish Life. He said one issue the committee has focused on is ensuring there is a functioning system to appropriately address threatening statements and harassment online and “determine when things cross the line from political disagreements to exclusionary and essentially antisemitic rhetoric.”

“While it is important to address these questions of darkness, of hatred, our main focus should always be on spreading light, on positivity,” Wagner said. “I prefer to use this type of circumstance as a chance to really dig deeper into what we can do to create the type of interactions with those around us of all backgrounds, to make sure they live up to standards of what we’d like to see, of what our highest ideals are.”