Spielberg-Funded Holocaust Research Center Downplays Role at USC

Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File

A Holocaust research center founded by Steven Spielberg finds itself mixed up in a controversy on the University of Southern California campus. The USC Shoah Foundation is downplaying it educational offerings. 


The problem with the foundation's role at the university surfaced because USC made an unprecedented move for this year's commencement ceremony. A Muslim American, Asna Tabassum, was selected as this year's valedictorian. She was selected out of a field of 100 applicants. The university decided to disinvite her to speak when social media posts that allegedly promoted antisemitism surfaced. School officals said the decision was made due to safety concerns. 

Tabassum is a biomedical engineering major and has a minor in resistance to genocide. It's the genocide resistance course of study that brings in the USC Shoah Foundation. The foundation is separating itself from Tabassum's claim of ties to the center. 

When the announcement was made last week that Tabassum would be the valedictorian, pro-Israel groups spoke out against the selection. They pointed to her Instagram page which heavily criticized Israel and Zionism. By Monday, Tabassum was barred from making her speech. The head of campus security said there were specific threats that people would attempt to disrupt the event if she spoke.

The statement issued by Tabassum and the statement by the foundation show a difference in opinion.

“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.”


As I read the statements, it seems to me that an interpretation of Tabassum's "message of hope" may be mixed. Did she want to inspire the anti-Israel and anti-Jew sentiments of the antisemitism seen on college campuses since October 7, 2023? That isn't acceptable. Her freedoms don't overrule those of Jewish students. 

The USC Shoah Foundation did not directly issue an opinion on the controversy but it did say that any attempt to use the Holocaust to dehumanize Jews and Israelis is unacceptable. 

The foundation primarily contributes survivor testimonies to the resistance to genocide course. 

“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.”

The Shoah Foundation was initiated in 1994 by Spielberg. It was in connection with his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List." USC absorbed it in 2006. Last month Spielberg delivered a speech at USC. He spoke out against “the machinery of extremism… on college campuses.” 


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