A University of Southern California senior from San Francisco resigned from her student government position last week after intense backlash for her pro-Israel and Zionist views.
Rose Ritch, who was elected vice president of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government in April, said she was sent a wave of harassing messages over social media starting in late June, accusing her of being “complicit in racism” and unfit for the role in part because of her support for Israel.
In her resignation letter posted on Facebook on Aug. 5, Ritch said the “aggressive social media campaign” waged against her crossed the line into antisemitism.
“An attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity,” she wrote. “There is a disturbing lack of nuance or willingness to grapple with the messy complexities of an issue, and there is no longer any room for change or growth. Students made presumptions about my Zionist identity and leapt to unfair conclusions.”
USC President Carol Folt responded in an Aug. 6 statement, condemning the “anti-Semitic attacks on [Ritch’s] character” and calling the behavior “unacceptable.” Folt also used the occasion to announce a new on-campus initiative sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation aimed at fighting bias and hate.
With about 20,000 undergrads, the school’s Jewish student population is around 9 percent, according to a Hillel study.
In an interview with J., Ritch described what happened to her as “frustrating” but not surprising.
“This is not an uncommon story for Jewish students,” she said. “This is a very normal thing.”
Born and raised in the city’s Castro District, Ritch and her family are longtime members of the Conservative synagogue Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where her parents were married and where she celebrated her bat mitzvah.
Ritch, a double major in sociology and law, history and culture, is involved with a number of Jewish campus organizations, including Hillel, Trojans for Israel and Nice Jewish Queers.
My Zionism should not and cannot disqualify me from being a leader on campus, nor should others presume what that means about my position on social justice issues.
She began her run for student government in January, campaigning on a ticket with fellow student Truman Fritz, who was running for president. They were elected in April; in June, senior Abeer Tijani accused Fritz of having made racially insensitive comments during his campaign and started a petition on Change.org calling for his resignation.
Tijani also filed an impeachment complaint with the student government, seeking to have Fritz removed as president, and another seeking Ritch’s removal as vice president for her “complicity” around her running mate’s alleged comments.
In calling for Ritch’s ouster, Tijani also charged that she “has been outspoken on issues that alienate Palestinian [students].” She later apologized on Instagram, clarifying that the complaint was about Ritch’s “failure to take action” against Fritz, not about her views on Israel.
Fritz resigned on July 7. Shortly after, the university administration and student government suspended the impeachment proceedings against Ritch and announced they would be reviewing the rules surrounding the process.
Ritch said she decided to resign a month later when the ongoing harassment became too much. One message called for the student government to “impeach [Ritch’s] Zionist a–.”
“The suggestion that my support for a Jewish homeland would make me unfit for office… plays into the oldest stereotypes of Jews, including accusations of dual loyalty and holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “My Zionism should not and cannot disqualify me from being a leader on campus, nor should others presume what that means about my position on social justice issues.”
“It was just a buildup,” she told J. about her decision. “And a realization that I could not stay safe mentally or physically if I stayed in this role.”
Ritch’s letter got over 1,000 likes and nearly 100 comments on Facebook. Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion writer, urged her 235,000 Twitter followers to read Ritch’s “powerful” letter. Weiss resigned from the Times in July after claiming she was “bullied” by her colleagues and accusing the paper of intolerance against her “intellectual curiosity.”
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) August 7, 2020
The incident at USC comes as American universities continue to grapple with antisemitism on their campuses.
A recent report from the Amcha Initiative, a California-based nonprofit that combats antisemitism at institutions of higher learning, found that harassment incidents related to Israel increased by 59 percent from 2018 to 2019. Amcha has reported 26 incidents of antisemitism at USC since 2015.
In July, a new Instagram page surfaced called “Jewish on Campus,” which features anonymous stories by Jewish college students about antisemitic incidents. The page has nearly 14,000 followers, and its founders say they’ve received about 800 stories, including a handful from USC students.
Ritch believes what happened to her is part of a larger phenomenon of students on college campuses being unfairly “canceled” for their views. She said she wishes her critics would be willing to sit and have a conversation with her about Israel.
“It’s easier to ‘cancel’ than to have those conversations,” Ritch told J., “and to have real, honest conversations that create that vulnerable space.” She believes the increase in online communication during the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the chances of words or views being misinterpreted.
USC students will start remote classes on Aug. 17. While Ritch said she wants to “move past” the harassment that led to her resignation, she also is willing to continue to be involved on-campus and engage in conversations about antisemitism, albeit from her laptop.
“It still needs to be talked about,” she said.