USC Shoah Foundation distances itself from pro-Palestinian valedictorian whose speech was canceled


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – A Holocaust research center founded by Steven Spielberg has gotten embroiled in a drama over campus Israel speech that is dividing the University of Southern California, where it is housed.

The USC Shoah Foundation is downplaying its role in the school’s academics after the university’s valedictorian, a pro-Palestinian student who earned a minor in “resistance to genocide,” touted her ties to the center.

After USC announced last week that Asna Tabassum would be the valedictorian, pro-Israel groups mounted a campaign against her, citing content on her Instagram page harshly criticizing Israel and Zionism. On Monday, USC’s provost barred Tabassum from delivering a commencement address, a move the campus head of security said was related to specific threats that people would attempt to disrupt the event if she spoke.

In a statement decrying the decision, Tabassum, who majored in biomedical engineering, highlighted one specific aspect of her academic career.

“I am a student of history who chose to minor in resistance to genocide, anchored by the Shoah Foundation, and have learned that ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear,” she wrote. “And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope. By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

The foundation says that it wasn’t involved in her minor.

“Despite suggestions to the contrary, our Institute is not an academic unit within the university and we do not play a formal role in the degree path of any student,” a representative for the USC Shoah Foundation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement Tuesday. “Recent claims of association with the USC Shoah Foundation are inaccurate and have led to confusion about our role, values, and mission.”

The uproar at USC is the latest in a series of lightning-rod campus controversies related to the Israel-Hamas war that broke out Oct. 7. North America’s biggest and most prominent universities have struggled to respond to inflamed tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students and faculty. Critics have claimed that campus administrations have frequently buckled to pressure to silence speech on the topic. The president of Columbia University, whose responses to pro-Palestinian protests have frequently made headlines, will testify before Congress on Wednesday.

Now, with graduation season nearing and student honors events already serving as venues for disruptive pro-Palestinian protests, commencements are promising to be one final frontier for Israel debates as this contentious school year draws to a close.

USC seemingly hoped to blunt this confrontation when announcing it would not allow Tabassum to speak during the May 10 ceremony, owing to what its provost said were safety concerns. The unprecedented move came after Jewish pro-Israel groups on campus and beyond, including the campus Chabad, the USC student club Trojans for Israel and national pro-Israel activist groups, including the tens of thousands of members of the Mothers Against College Antisemitism Facebook group, put pressure on the school to disinvite Tabassum.

Some cited links to posts Tabassum shared — but did not compose — on her Instagram profile that called Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology,” advocated for a single, binational Israeli-Palestinian state and said that “antisemitism is weaponized against Palestinians and allies … by Zionists as a way to shut down criticism of Israel.”

Responding to the posts, We Are Tov, an activist group that promotes Zionist social media content for college students, declared on Instagram that Tabassum “promotes antisemitic views” and mused, “What will she say at the podium?”

Some of these groups celebrated USC’s decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech. “Jew-hatred has consequences,” End Jew Hatred, a pro-Israel activist group, declared. The student’s speech, the group claimed without evidence, “was anticipated to be harmful to Jewish students and even potentially agitate anti-Jewish activists.”

Trojans for Israel had petitioned for USC to “reconsider” their selection of valedictorian, claiming the student “openly traffics in antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric” that would turn commencement into an “unwelcoming and intolerant environment for Jewish graduates and their families.”

But there was also a fierce, growing national backlash to the decision, which according to its critics amounted to silencing of pro-Palestinian speech and Muslim voices (Tabassum is a South Asian Muslim). The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, called USC’s move “cowardly”; Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar called it “shameful”; and Pulitzer Prize- and MacArthur-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is on the faculty at USC, also eviscerated the decision.

“I am disgusted and angered by this failure of courage and commitment on the part of the administration,” Nguyen, whose own Israel speech-related controversy led to tumult last fall at the historically Jewish cultural center 92NY, wrote on Facebook. Citing the pro-Israel groups that had targeted Tabassum, Nguyen added, “I have a hard time believing that if a Jewish student was receiving similar threats, that the university would back down.”

He concluded by questioning why any USC faculty would attend the commencement.

The USC Shoah Foundation did not directly weigh in on the controversy in its statement, which also didn’t name Tabassum directly. But it used the opportunity to decry any attempt to use the Holocaust to “dehumanize” Jews and Israelis.

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg speaks at a ceremony at the University of Southern California, March 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. (USC/Sean Dube)

“When used responsibly, survivor testimony can be a cornerstone of civil dialogue, learning, and understanding,” the statement said. “We have a sacred obligation to safeguard the memory and importance of the Holocaust. We must ensure this history is not distorted or used to dehumanize anyone, including the Jewish people and those living in the state of Israel. This requires we continue to foster and sustain informed discussion on this history, today and in the future.”

A review of the requirements for the resistance to genocide minor on USC’s website shows that it would be possible though difficult to obtain the minor without taking any courses focused at least in part on the Holocaust. The Shoah Foundation says its participation is largely limited to providing survivor testimonies, the core of its activities.

Spielberg initiated the Shoah Foundation in 1994 in connection with his Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” Holocaust drama, and USC absorbed it in 2006. During a speech at USC last month, Spielberg decried “the machinery of extremism… on college campuses.”

For campus administrators, the pushback against Tabassum’s selection — from among more than 200 students with nearly perfect GPA’s — represented a striking form of activism.

“No one could ever remember these kinds of grievances coming to us,” Errol Southers, the school’s senior vice president who oversees security, told the New York Times about Tabassum’s critics. “They had identified our valedictorian. They were significant in terms of the specificity of the person, the event, meaning our commencement, and their intent to disrupt our commencement.”

In a statement to the campus community announcing the move, USC provost Andrew Guzman said that “discussion” about the valedictorian “has taken on an alarming tenor,” and that “tradition must give way to safety.” He added, “This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Guzman also denied that the university’s decision was based on Tabassum’s speech or social media presence.

The comments angered Rabbi Dov Wagner, who runs USC’s Chabad. He wrote on Instagram that the school’s citing of unspecified “security concerns,” instead of explicitly denouncing Tabassum’s social media activity, was a problem.

“This statement conveys the idea that the university supports the hate speech, and in fact creates the impression that it is our community that poses a security threat, rather than the ones being maligned,” Wagner wrote.

He added, “USC’s Jewish students are now being portrayed as threatening the safety of the valedictorian, and as silencing Muslim voices — when nothing could be farther from the truth.”