This past Thursday, I saw a disturbing email in my inbox from the President of USC, Carol Folt. In her message to the USC community, Ms. Folt addressed the resignation of Vice President of Undergraduate Student Government, Rose Ritch, from her position in student government. Ms. Ritch, who is Jewish, was subjected to months of antisemitic attacks and cyber-bullying due to her support for Israel’s existence and her identification as a Zionist. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against Ms. Ritch by students who felt “unsafe” on campus by the idea that a Zionist Jew would head their student government. Never mind that Ms. Ritch is a strong advocate for social justice.
In a July 7, 2020 letter to the USC administration, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law gave heart wrenching examples of the abuse, harassment and pure hatred Ms. Ritch had been subjected to. In asking the administration to stop the impeachment proceedings because they clearly violate Ms. Ritch’s Civil Rights, the Brandeis Center pointed out that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism provides “guidance for understanding when anti-Israel and anti-Zionist expression becomes targeted, intentional, discriminatory harassment and intimidation of Jewish students.”
In other words, the USC administration was reminded that it is not enough to pay lip service to the evils of of Antisemitism so long as you are not killing Jews and taking their property, while giving tacit and sometimes overt support to Jew hatred in the form of anti-Zionism.
In her resignation letter, Ms. Ritch called out USC for not doing enough to protect her from scathing attacks for identifying as a Zionist. “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.”
I am proud of Ms. Ritch for her courage in publicly outing anti-Semites who hide behind the cloak of anti-Zionism. Ms. Ritch is highlighting an issue that unfortunately is not unique. “The sad reality is that my story is not uncommon on college campuses. Across the country, Zionist students are being asked to disavow their identities or beliefs to enter many spaces on their campuses.”
Many organizations swung into action and condemned this latest public incidence of Antisemitism on college campuses. But I believe American Jews- and all people who love freedom and liberty, and understand that Antisemitism is a cancer that will devour any system that allows it to exist- need to take this battle one step further. Condemnation is reactionary. We need to go on the offensive.
We must wear our Zionism as a badge of honor. We must remind our detractors that it was President Obama, and not President Trump, who laid a wreath at the tomb of Herzl-the father of Zionism- on his visit to Israel. Just as we educate our children about “Tikun Olam”, Kashrut, and Shabbat, we must teach them that to be Jewish means to understand that we have a covenant with G-d, and in that covenant, G-d promised the land of Israel to our forefathers. In fact, as the Brandeis Center pointed out to the USC Administration, “over half of the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch are connected to the Land of Israel and can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. For centuries, Jews have not only prayed facing Jerusalem. They have prayed to return to Jerusalem.”
Unfortunately, many American Jews unknowingly contribute to the divide between Israel and the diaspora by feeding into the narrative that Israel is engaged in some sort of evil “mistreatment of Palestinians.” Israel has been at war since its existence. War is messy. Israel is the only country in the world that is constantly facing calls for its destruction from another country, with whom Israel’s European critics have no problem doing business. Yes, checkpoints are not ideal, but those who incessantly criticize Israel over checkpoints gloss over the thousands of Jews killed and maimed in suicide bombings, shootings, knife attacks and car ramming attacks that emanate from the Palestinian Territories.
The most effective measure to counter the double standard Israel is exposed to is to enable our children- and ourselves- to be proud of our support for Israel. If we, the Jewish People, do not wholeheartedly believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish State in the land of Israel, how can we expect others to hold that belief?
To me, Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is as fundamental as any other aspect of my Judaism. Whether we are teaching our children “Tikkum Olam” or the Talmud- or both- we should also be teaching them the persecution Jews have suffered in exile, the sacrifices Jews have made to establish and maintain the State of Israel, and the persecution we are certain to suffer if G-d forbid the State of Israel is weakened.
Ms. Ritch was accused of racism for her support of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. This is nothing less than an attempt by those opposed to Israel’s existence to hijack the social movement for equality as a tool to silence and dehumanize Jewish students on campus.
I am proud of my affiliation with USC, but I am disappointed that President Folt’s message failed to rise to the moment. It is (still) easy and obvious (for now) for academia to condemn anti-Semitism, and to encourage students to engage in a “new university-wide initiative launched by the USC Shoah Foundation, Stronger than Hate.” This initiative misses the mark. What Ms. Ritch valiantly asked President Folt to do was to specifically call out anti-Zionism as a form of Antisemitism.
Perhaps President Folt did not want to make the portions of her student body that hold anti-Semitic beliefs feel “unsafe” on campus. Rather than continuing to enable the drivel of intersectionality used to bash Israel and silence her supporters, President Folt should have said that you can both stand against racism and inequality, and be proud of your Jewish history and heritage.
We must follow the personal example set by Ms. Ritch, and be willing to stand up for and articulate our identity as Zionists, even if it means we must pay a personal or professional price. If we face backlash for doing so, then we really need to ask ourselves, does America still believe in free speech, and are we still wanted here?