In the summer of 2020, while people were hunkered down and dealing with Covid, Rose Ritch was dealing with hundreds of antisemitic slurs online, she said, after she won the race to become vice president of the University of Southern California’s student government.
“It was anything and everything,” Ritch said of the negative comments in an interview with The Jewish Press.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating a Title VI complaint on behalf of Ritch, who resigned from student government in August 2000 due to intense pressure.
Ritch said that first, her running-mate, who was not Jewish and was elected president, first resigned after it was stated by students that he had made a racist micro-aggression and that then the pressure fell on her as she was hit with a bevy of attacks online.
Due to her position, she was granted an opportunity to speak with USC President Carol Folt. Ritch wanted a firm message that such behavior was not to be tolerated. She said she explained how antisemitism and anti-Zionism fit together. She added that her campaign posters were torn down and she was told camera footage couldn’t clearly show who was responsible.
She said that some in the administration were apologetic behind closed doors, but overall, “the message I got was that this is an autonomous student body.”
She said she evaluated her predicament for a month and then made her decision.
“The decision to resign wasn’t something I decided as a snap decision,” Ritch said. “From the time this started to when I resigned, it was a month. I wanted to see how things played out. I wanted to see if online comments calmed down. I wanted to see how the university responded. It definitely affected my physical and mental wellbeing.”
With no public statement defending Ritch or specifically addressing the campaign against her, Ritch wrote her letter of resignation in August 2020, which included: “I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist. Students launched an aggressive social media campaign to “impeach [my] Zionist a**.” This is antisemitism. . .. At this point, resignation is the only sustainable choice I can make to protect my physical safety on campus and my mental health.”
Ritch, 24, who lives in Washington D.C., was assisted in filing by The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. Founded by Kenneth Marcus, the nonprofit seeks to protect the civil rights of Jews and promote justice for everyone. Ritch isn’t seeking any financial compensation and the complaint states that she was a victim of antisemitic harassment “that targeted her on the basis of her shared ancestral and ethnic characteristics and sought to exclude her from the Undergraduate Student Government justice on account of her Jewish identity.” In addition, it states she was pressured to step down from her position “because she demonstrated pride in her Jewish ancestry and ethnicity by expressing support for a Jewish homeland.” The university “failed to take prompt or effective steps to end the harassment or eliminate the hostile environment” the complaint states.
Denise Katz-Prober, director of Legal Initiatives for Brandeis Center praised Ritch for coming forward, as some in the past have been afraid to make their cases public.
“We hope that universities will take note of this case and we think that they are starting to get the message,” she said.
That message is that it is not a political issue but an issue of rights. Katz-Prober said that while Title VI, which forbids discrimination on race, origin and similar characteristics but didn’t originally cover religion, can now be included under the umbrella of shared ancestry and ethic characteristics. Ritch’s civil rights were violated, Katz-Prober says, by being hindered from participating in her position due to harassment.
Ritch said in the debate that a student asked how she could be a fair student leader with her Jewish/Israel life, and she responded that her focus would be on campus affairs, not the complex international issues. She also said that the university violated its own bylaws. She said in cases of impeachment, paid faculty members are to determine if the case should go forward to the Senate. She said this step was skipped.
Ritch said that eventually the impeachment proceedings were suspended by the administration, but this wasn’t publicized, and a statement about attacks on her wasn’t issued until after her resignation.
According to a statement from the Brandeis Center, the response was “not designed to protect Ms. Ritch from discrimination, but rather, to protect the University from the public outrage that ensued when it became apparent that Ritch had been forced to resign due to the hostile environment created by discriminatory harassment at USC.”
Ritch said she was president of Trojans for Israel, was very active in Hillel, and attended Chabad events. She said up to that point, she hadn’t experienced antisemitism on campus and was part of the student government senate and nobody had any problem with her.
She said the time when she got attacked online was chaotic and extremely difficult to deal with.
“The Hillel director was my rock during this period,” Ritch said. “He was an incredible resource and support system and a great guy.”
The executive director of USC Hillel, is Dave Cohn. “I know Rose very well and have had the honor of providing intensive personal support to her throughout this challenging experience,” Cohn wrote to The Jewish Press in an email. “Rose was a cherished student leader at USC Hillel and we have continued to share a wonderful relationship with her as an alum. Hillel is here to support Jewish students comprehensively, including if and when they confront the reality of antisemitism and anti-Zionism in today’s world.”
He also sent an earlier statement in which Hillel says it will be working with the administration and that the university is not immune to a problem that has affected other Jewish students on American campuses.
Rabbi Dov Wagner, director of Chabad at USC, also had praise for the student.
“Rose is a wonderful young woman and a very special person we supported from the start,” Wagner told The Jewish Press. “She is a dynamic young woman who got involved in student leadership. In general, Jewish life is thriving and it’s a welcome environment here. Generally speaking, the administration is acting in good faith and is trying to learn the lessons that are being learned nationwide, including issues of de-legitimization and antisemitism and these are important conversations to have.”
He added that he hopes soon the press would print positive stories about Jewish life at USC. There are 250-300 Jewish students every Friday night [at Chabad], he said.
Ritch said nobody should think the school is full of antisemites. She said one student started the harassment campaign. She believes that anger over racism resulting from the killing of George Floyd spilled over to somehow call Zionists and Jews racists. She added that with people bored during the pandemic and on their computers, it likely fed people’s desire to continue to pile on insults against her.
“There was a reckoning for social justice,” she said. “But any idea that Palestinian students or any student would not feel safe because of me, clearly didn’t make any sense.”
Ritch, a ballet dancer, said she had picked USC because of its dance program but switched after freshman year. She graduated with a minor in Dance, a degree in Sociology, Law-History and Culture.
She said due to the deluge of online insults part of her “wanted to crawl into a corner and hope everything would go away,” referring to the hateful comments. She said even after she resigned, several students messaged her that she was a “k-ke.”
She said she went off social media from June 2020 to February 2022, though she had friends check for her once in a while in case there was an important message.
She said she was sad when Jewish friends asked if it would be safe to return to campus when in-class sessions resumed.
Ritch’s complaint requests that several measures be taken, including adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, setting up a task force and publicly denouncing antisemitism, and stating that Zionism is a “key component of identity for many Jewish students at USC.”
The office of President Holt did not answer questions but referred to a university statement:
“USC is proud of its culture of inclusivity for all students, including members of our Jewish community. USC over the last two years has made a number of commitments to combat antisemitism and anti-Jewish hatred. These significant steps have included developing strong partnerships with national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee (AJC); expanding the Stronger Than Hate initiative at the USC Shoah Foundation; sending senior leaders to attend the President’s Summit on Campus Antisemitism at NYU (hosted by Hillel International, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), and the AJC); convening the President’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life at USC; and participating in AEN’s Signature Seminar Series. 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.”
Ritch said it was her dream to visit Israel and she went to the Holy Land for a dance program when she was 18.
“I grew up in a household where being Jewish and believing in the state of Israel were greatly intertwined,” she said. “I never used the label of a Zionist to describe myself not because I wasn’t one, but because it was intertwined in my Jewish identity. They were one in the same. I didn’t feel the need to separate them.”
According to the complaint, one student exclaimed: “The IDF trains the LAPD, so it’s all connected.”
Originally from San Francisco and a fan of former catcher Buster Posey, she said it is crucial not to let false accusations slide.
“Of course, nothing has been concluded yet,” she said of the federal investigation. “But this is saying it’s not okay and I think something should have been done. It shouldn’t happen at USC or anywhere.”