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: Don’t blame Jews for canceling your valedictorian

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This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Imagine for a moment that the University of Southern California let Asna Tabassum speak.

Imagine that instead of rescinding its invitation to have Tabassum deliver the valedictorian address, which the university did on Monday citing security threats, USC stood by its initial decision and said Tabassum would be allowed to speak as planned, albeit with heightened security measures to ensure her safety and the safety of all students and attendees.

What would have happened? The pro-Israel groups that opposed her appearance would have continued to criticize the invitation. Students and alumni on different sides of the issues would have challenged or supported the decision. Then, on graduation day, Tabassum would have spoken. Some students would cheer, others might have gotten up and walked out, or chosen a different way to protest whatever she might have said.

In other words: Life would have gone on.

Once USC decided to offer Tabassum the top student speaking spot, the university needed to stand by its decision.

Instead, it did something that compounded the shortsightedness and stoked even more anger: It blamed Jews.

University administrators did not explicitly name Jews as the reason behind retracting Tabassum’s speech, but stated that the intense reaction to Tabassum’s selection created insurmountable safety concerns.

“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,” wrote Andrew T. Guzman, USC’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

There are two problems with this. The first is that USC knows very well how to maintain campus security. I taught at USC for three semesters and the school, smack in the middle of Los Angeles, excelled at ensuring a safe campus. I also attended the 2023 graduation festivities, as did Barack and Michelle Obama, who were there to watch their daughter Sasha receive her diploma. It is very hard to believe Tabassum would need more security than the former president of the United States. I don’t buy the “safety” excuse.

The other problem is that by citing “many voices outside USC” who oppose giving a platform to Tabassum, Guzman was blaming largely Jewish and pro-Israel critics, accusing them of threatening violence.

Where, exactly, is the evidence for that?

One of the few groups that openly called for Tabassum’s removal as speaker was Trojans for Israel, a pro-Israel student group which accused her of using antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Trojans for Israel has no history of using or threatening violence.

USC said it received threats in other ways, including via social media. It didn’t make any of those threats public, so it’s impossible to assess who made them or how seriously to take them.

But by blaming the cancellations on these amorphous threats, USC insinuated that violence-prone Israel-supporting Jews and Jewish groups were behind the decision.

So, not surprisingly, came headlines like this one in Yahoo News: “US university pulls student speech after Jewish groups object.”

Jews and at least one Jewish group did object, as they have a right to. But did they threaten violence? Or are they taking the blame for USC’s decision to cave to controversy and criticism?

The result is university administrators, who failed miserably in their due diligence, and failed again by refusing to stand by their decision, sloughed responsibility onto Tabassum’s Jewish critics.

Imagine, instead, that USC just told the truth. If it was outside pressure from alumni that led to the cancellation, say so. If there really were credible threats of violence, then provide more detail. If the threats were serious enough that USC feared for attendees’ safety, they should be serious enough to lead to arrests.

What existential harm would come from letting Tabassum speak? Israel, which just survived 300 drones and missiles launched by Iran, would have survived Tabassum. American Jews, who have thrived in a society that allows for the expression of unpopular opinions and open criticism, would have survived Tabassum. No doubt Jewish groups would have engaged in a healthy post-graduation public debate around any parts of the speech they found objectionable, as groups did following last year’s incendiary valedictory address at CUNY Law School.

“Anti-Muslim & anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred,” Tabassum wrote in a statement released by CAIR-LA after her cancellation. “I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates w/a message of hope. By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear & rewarding hatred.”

She’s only half right. By canceling Asna Tabassum’s speech in the way it did, the university is ducking responsibility for its own choices, and stoking more hatred at a time when there’s already plenty to go around.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is a senior columnist for the Forward. Follow him on Instagram @foodaism and Twitter @foodaism or email [email protected].