The Education Department formally launched an investigation on Tuesday into allegations the University of Southern California (USC) fomented "a hostile environment of anti-Semitism" on its campus that forced a Jewish student government official to resign from her position.
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights will conduct an independent investigation into allegations made by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law alleging that USC ignored instances of anti-Semitic harassment targeting a student leader named Rose Ritch—including harassment on social media which labeled her "trash" and a "Zionist a**."
The formal probe into USC indicates the Education Department had found evidence the allegations are warranted and deserve further investigation by the federal government, according to the Brandeis Center, a legal advocacy group that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses.
The investigation comes amid multiple anti-Semitic scandals at USC and other American colleges, where attacks on Jewish students are rising at a historic rate. In addition to the campaign against Ritch, USC found itself in hot water earlier this year when it was accused of ignoring a series of threatening and anti-Semitic tweets from a graduate student, which included, "I want to kill every mother fucking Zionist" and "Zionists are going to fucking pay." The Education Department also is investigating similar issues at the University of Illinois and Brooklyn College.
"It is significant that OCR is opening an investigation into Rose Ritch's case because it concerns the form of anti-Semitism that is prevalent on campuses today across the country," Denise Katz-Prober, a lead attorney at the Brandeis Center, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"This form of anti-Semitism targets and seeks to marginalize and exclude Jewish students on the basis of their Jewish ethnic identity which is connected to Israel," Katz-Prober said. "Unfortunately, since filing this complaint, this problem has become increasingly common on other campuses. But universities too often fail to recognize and properly and promptly respond to this form of anti-Semitic discrimination. And that is what happened in Rose Ritch’s case."
The Education Department’s civil rights office announced the investigation following a 2020 complaint by the Brandeis Center alleging that USC ignored instances of anti-Semitic harassment targeting Ritch, who then served as the vice president of the school’s undergraduate student council. This includes a probe into claims Ritch was subjected to harassment and a hostile campus environment purely because of her Jewish identity. The investigation will also cover allegations that USC failed to respond to the harassment in a prompt and reasonable manner.
Ritch’s complaint dates back to her election as vice president of the USC student government in February 2020. Ritch, who is Jewish, said she faced a harassment campaign from students who called for her to be impeached because she was a "Zionist." The case garnered national media headlines after Ritch penned an article for Newsweek detailing how she was "harassed and pressured" into resigning her post "because I also openly identify as a Jew who supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state—i.e., a Zionist."
Campus activists filed impeachment proceedings against Ritch and slammed her on social media as "trash" and a "Zionist a**" who "openly expressed pro-Israeli sentiment and alienated Palestinian students," according to social media posts flagged by Ritch’s lawyers. One student denounced Ritch as a "Zionist who indoctrinated the rest of USG [Undergraduate Student Government] to be Zionists, she is also an above-the waist-only bisexual." Other students equated Israel supporters with Nazis, claimed that "all the orgs on campus that r Jewish r also Zionist," and said it "warms my heart to see al [sic] the zionists from usc and usg getting relentlessly cyberbullied."
Ritch said she reported the harassment to administrators, but her attorneys say the school took no serious steps to combat the anti-Semitic climate on campus. While USC issued a campus letter in June 2020 condemning online bullying, the statement did not address specific instances of anti-Semitism or harassment against Ritch.
Jewish organizations pressured USC to intervene at the time and protect Ritch, but the school "repeatedly failed to pursue readily available opportunities that would have prevented" the harassment from continuing, according to the Brandies Center, which penned several letters imploring USC's leadership to get involved.
"USC failed to intervene; failed to speak out publicly in support of Ms. Ritch; failed to condemn or ever acknowledge the harassment that targeted her; and failed to void the baseless impeachment complaint filed against her. Through its silence and inaction, the University tolerated the discriminatory harassment directed at Ms. Ritch, thus emboldening it and leaving Ms. Ritch vulnerable to the negative effects of the hostile environment that the harassment created at USC," the Brandeis Center wrote in its initial complaint to the Education Department, which alleges the school violated federal laws barring discrimination of this nature.