They were born in different countries, with disparate cultures and faiths. But the two students shared a common dream to attend USC.
Rose Ritch, a San Francisco native, came to USC to study dance but soon widened her academic interests to sociology, law, history and culture. Socially, too, she thrived: winning election as student body vice president in February, nurturing her strong Jewish identity through the Hillel organization and Trojans for Israel.
Abeer Tijani left Nigeria as a toddler and grew up in a diverse Dallas suburb. With an interest in science, she ranked in the top tier of her class, played soccer and flute and served in student government. The achievements helped her land a full-ride merit scholarship to USC to study global health and social entrepreneurship.
The two women, both seniors, have never met. But their worlds collided this summer when Tijani launched an effort to impeach the then-student body president, Truman Fritz, and Ritch amid the national fury over George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tijani says she questioned Ritch’s commitment to fight racism. Ritch feels she was targeted because she supports Zionism — which she defines as belief in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland, but opponents see as an oppressive political movement that has displaced and discriminated against Palestinians on the land they also claim as home.
Both inside USC and beyond, their conflict grew into a fierce debate between free speech and hate speech, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Jewish, Mideastern and Muslim organizations, along with scholars throughout California and the nation, weighed in, confronting USC with a flurry of dueling demands to acknowledge their stance.
Both women became targets of relentless, supercharged social media attacks they had unwittingly touched off. Ritch was shocked by the online vitriol. Tijani appealed for calm. But it was too late.
Ritch eventually resigned and in a Facebook post said she was hit with anti-Zionist attacks. Tijani said she felt endangered and scapegoated by the university in her stand for racial justice.
Their wrenching experiences reflect the personal toll caused by the complex and combustible conflicts over race, religion and politics sweeping college campuses throughout the country — and the difficulty that university administrators face in trying to manage them. When USC President Carol L. Folt expressed empathy for Ritch and condemned anti-Semitism this summer, she ignited another furor over the line between religious bias, political criticism and free