ED launches Title VI investigation into USC – Inside Higher Ed

Posted By on August 1, 2022

The Education Departments Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into alleged TitleVI violations by the University of Southern California. The investigation comes two years after acomplaint was filed on behalf of a student government leader who resigned following a campaign by USC studentsto impeach her over her support ofIsrael.

The investigation could shed light on aheated debate overthe relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and its results could have wide-ranging implications for antidiscrimination practices 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 positionbut 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 downas well as a barrage of harassment on social mediaconstituted 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 theyre 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 TitleVI complaint on Ritchs behalf, which eventually prompted this weeks OCR investigation. In its complaint, the Brandeis Center described the campaign to impeach Ritch 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 Ritchs behalf andpublicly 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 respondedin a statement. "We look forward to addressing any concerns or questions by the U.S. 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 its important not to conflate anti-Zionism with identity-based discrimination, especially when it comes to state-enforced policy decisions.

Not all objections to Zionism are because they see Jews as inherently conspiring to harm humanity its 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.

After students kicked offthe impeachment campaign, the vitriol against Ritchquickly escalated on Instagram and other social media platforms.

Tell your Zionist ass VP to resign too, read one students post about Ritch after Fritzs resignation.

Warms my heart to see all the Zionists from USC and USG getting relentlessly 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 its 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 emboldenedher harassers.

Its easy for people to hide behind a screen, she said. When youre an anonymous account or dont have to see someone face-to-face, its 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 TitleVI casewhich prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national originis adangerous way of addressing theissue.

Forget about TitleVI, he said. But nobody should be harassed, intimidated or bullied.

The complaint that led to the OCRs USC investigation is not the first the Brandeis Center has filed alleging TitleVI 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 hasnt deterred the Brandeis Center from continuing to pursue them.

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

These caseseven when rejectedexpose administrators to bad publicity, Marcus wrote. At many campuses the prospect of litigation has made a difference.

Before 2018, none of the centers complaints led to an investigation. But in 2019, shortly after Marcus was appointed to be the Department of Educations assistant secretary for civil rights, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order to fight alleged 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 centers complaints have started seeing results. In 2020, the OCR began investigatingalleged antisemitic harassment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and in February, the OCR launched an investigationinto 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 Committees director on antisemitism, said the Trump administrations new definitionand the grounds on which some recent TitleVI investigations are being launchedwas a purely political move.

Why do we need a definition for antisemitism under TitleVI 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 Centers 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.

Theres 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.

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 used 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 unlawful harassment and discrimination on the basis of Jewish identity as merely 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 ideology, 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.

Im 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 dont 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 theres just such a lack of understanding about what both anti-Zionism and antisemitism mean and how theyre 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 fewernot morerestrictions 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 dont go away. Colleges should be proactive about that rather than just figure were 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.

Excerpt from:
ED launches Title VI investigation into USC - Inside Higher Ed

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