As virulent antisemitism roils the nation's college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, USC is making a rare gesture to recognize the crippling effect of anti-Jewish hatred on society and the human spirit.

The university on Monday will give its highest honor — one that it has awarded only three times in its history — to Holocaust survivors. President Carol Folt will present the gold University Medallion to victims of the Nazi regime who have taken part in preservation programs under the Shoah Foundation, a USC center that movie director Steven Spielberg founded three decades ago to document audio-visual oral histories of the dwindling global survivor community.

The award comes at a sensitive time for USC, which — like University of California campuses and colleges across the nation — has grappled with protests, infighting and strife among faculty and students over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that intensified after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took scores more hostage. Israel's retaliatory war has killed 32,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and the United Nations warns that 2 million Gazans are nearing famine.

Research has shown a sharp increase in antisemitic incidents and sentiment across the U.S., in particular on college campuses. In survey results released last month, the American Jewish Committee found a quarter of college students and recent graduates said they hid the fact that they were Jewish or avoided speaking about Israel while on campus. The poll found that two-thirds of American Jews overall said they felt "less secure" over a year-to-year period.

Folt said that universities are going through "a painful time" in dealing with hatred and discrimination against Jews as well as Arabs and Muslims.

"People are suffering," said Folt, who cited the Shoah Foundation's work in creating "important teaching tools" to combat hatred and foster inclusion. Over its lifetime, the foundation has amassed a digital archive of interviews with 56,0000 Holocaust survivors, including many of the 2,500 in Southern California out of the roughly 245,000 who are alive globally.

The recognition, Folt said, honors the foundation's "major contribution to society" and the survivors "whose lives, whose pain, whose suffering, whose optimism" told through their stories "could better the world."

Folt said the medal may be the only one she gives out during her presidency. The prize, last awarded in 2017, has previously gone to major donors, trustees and philanthropists whose names — Walter Annenberg, his daughter Wallis Annenberg, and Dana and David Dornsife — are synonymous with Los Angeles society and emblazoned on USC buildings. The USC website said the award pays tribute to those who have made "major contributions to the university." Giving the medallion to Holocaust survivors with fewer ties to USC is a shift.

One survivor to be honored is 92-year-old Celina Biniaz of Thousand Oaks, who will speak at the Monday ceremony. Biniaz left the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp when she was 13. She survived the Holocaust because her mother and father worked for Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who employed Jews to keep them safe from Nazis. The story of those Jews led to a 1982 book that inspired Spielberg's 1993 film, "Schindler's List."

" Oskar Schindler gave me life and Steven Spielberg gave me a voice," said Biniaz, who, after liberation, made her way to New York and Iowa before settling in California. Seeing her life reflected in the film spurred her to start sharing her story that she had until then kept from her son. Spielberg launched Shoah Foundation in 1994, and in 1996, Biniaz recorded her nearly 90-minute testimony for the group. A decade later, the growing organization relocated to USC, which houses its archive.

Thousands more survivor recordings have followed. The group has also enlarged its collection with documentation of other atrocities, such as the Armenian genocide, Nanjing massacre, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the killing and expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, and violence against Kurds in Northern Syria. Most recently, foundation researchers have recorded testimonies of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Oct. 7 attacks.

"Education about the Holocaust is not enough," said Shoah Foundation executive director Robert J. Williams, speaking to the importance of seeing and hearing survivors. Although the foundation has expanded the kinds of atrocities it documents, he said capturing the experiences of Palestinians in Gaza is not in his "current mandate."

"We have a responsibility to draw attention to the persistence of antisemitism ... and to understand antisemitism and the link to terror," he said.

To those ends, Williams said, the group has emphasized educational programs for middle and high school students as well as those enrolled at USC. Last summer, the foundation took USC athletes to Poland to visit Holocaust sites and meet with Jewish communities.

In recent years — and especially since October — combating antisemitism and Islamophobia has become a major focus at college campuses, including USC, which has been rocked by several high-profile episodes involving accusations of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and hate speech.

USC maintains a page on its website on "addressing antisemitism" to explain efforts to make Jewish students feel more comfortable, such as an advisory committee of staff, students and local Jewish leaders launched in 2022 to address discrimination concerns.

Folt has also renamed campus sites tainted by their association with former leaders who were anti-Jewish and anti-Black. Last year, a track and field stadium was renamed for Black Olympian Allyson Felix after the name of a former USC track coach, Dean Cromwell, was removed. Cromwell was known for his racist views and preventing Jewish runners from qualifying for the Olympics. Folt also removed the name of former USC President Rufus von Kleinsmid, who had antisemitic views and supported eugenics, from a prominent campus building. It was renamed for Joseph Medicine Crow, a Native American alumnus who was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian recognition.

Her actions were widely hailed. But the university has faced criticism for not responding as forcefully to anti-Muslim hatred, which has also hit the campus in recent months. Hundreds of alumni sent a letter to Folt last fall calling her out for not doing enough to combat "growing racist, Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiment." Unlike its efforts against antisemitism, USC does not dedicate a part of its website to countering Islamophobia.

Recent research suggests there is also still work to be done on antisemitism. A December report from Brandeis University that looked at antisemitism and anti- Israel hostility at 51 U.S. colleges and universities with large Jewish populations ranked USC as having "above average hostility." The university fared better than UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego. It was ranked equal to UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and worse than San Diego State.

Local Jewish leaders said those findings and other research showing an alarming persistence of Holocaust denial and antisemitism on college campuses make USC's award to survivors even more significant.

"When it comes to campus antisemitism, it's almost like somebody dumped kerosene on a fire after Oct. 7," said Jewish Federation Los Angeles President Rabbi Noah Farkas. He said centering the stories of Holocaust survivors can give students "a vision of the world we don't want to see — where they understand that all hell on Earth is possible — and help citizens create a vision of a world they do want to see."

David Wolpe, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, said he viewed the Shoah Foundation's work as a way to warn students and society at large about the "consequences of ideas."

"The ability to manipulate ideas is a characteristic of intellectuals, which makes them valuable and dangerous," said Wolpe. "Dangerous because we know that in Nazi Germany the intellectuals were the most fervent Nazis."

Folt recalled that one her first acts after being appointed university president in 2019 was to visit the foundation to see its digital collection.

"I was deeply, deeply touched," she said of the experience watching testimonies. "I took what I think is a solemn promise to do everything I could to ensure they were protected and saved."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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