A view of the University of Southern California campus (Photo/Dhrupad Bezboruah via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
A view of the University of Southern California campus (Photo/Dhrupad Bezboruah via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

USC cancels commencement speech from Muslim valedictorian after she shared link to anti-Israel website

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As a University of Southern California undergraduate, Asna Tabassum co-founded a student group that distributed supplies from USC’s medical school to areas of need around the world — Ukraine when war broke out, Turkey and Syria when they were ravaged by earthquakes. Her community service, along with her GPA, won Tabassum recognition as the school’s class of 2024 valedictorian — and thus, the opportunity to speak at commencement.

But the school informed Tabassum on Monday it was canceling her commencement address, following pressure from pro-Israel groups who sought her removal for linking on her Instagram page to a website that called for the “complete abolishment” of Israel.

Andrew T. Guzman, USC’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs — who had announced Tabassum’s selection only 10 days earlier — said in a campus-wide email Monday that the school made the decision out of safety concerns amid “an alarming tenor” of discussions related to her speech.

“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,” Guzman wrote.

“To be clear: This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” he added. “There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

Tabassum expressed skepticism of the university’s rationale in a statement Monday and said she had been shut down by a “campaign of racist hatred.”

“I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred,” she said. “I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.”

The website Tabassum linked to in her Instagram bio — her actual posts are private — is an explainer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that calls Zionism “a racist settler-colonial ideology.” It defines Palestine as a country in the Middle East that “is being occupied by the state of Israel, a Jewish ethnostate established by Zionists in 1948.”

And it rejects the notion of a two-state solution (“it is merely another form of Zionism”) in favor of a one-state solution — “the complete abolishment of the state of Israel” — in which Jews and Palestinians could live together in peace.

It is unclear who created the site, which is written in the first person and appears to be a work in progress with several pages blank.

Jewish campus groups including Chabad and Trojans for Israel had called on USC to reconsider its choice for valedictorian in light of the link. And Muslim and pro-Palestinian campus organizations denounced Guzman’s decision Monday, accusing the school of deliberately silencing pro-Palestinian perspectives.

But the decision rippled far beyond the quad, throwing USC back into a national spotlight from which it has rarely strayed since Oct. 7.

In the days following the Hamas attack, Palestinian solidarity protesters on campus were recorded chanting, “There is only one solution, Intifada revolution,” which some said evoked Hitler’s final solution. A Jewish USC student who had written an article for the school newspaper defending Israel was singled out for criticism in a subsequent pro-Palestinian protest. And over the weekend, a Jewish USC student said the mezuzah on the door to her dorm was ripped off.

The school is also facing a Title IV investigation over what a past student president said was its failure to protect her from antisemitic bullying due to her affiliation with pro-Israel student groups.

The Council of American Islamic Relations’ Hussam Ayloush called the school’s decision “cowardly” in a statement Monday; the pro-Israel group #EndJewHatred commended it.

“#EndJewHatred is grateful that USC recognized the danger posed by Jew-hatred and will not allow Ms. Tabassum to abuse her platform to spread it,” the organization said in a statement.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Louis Keene
Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.