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March 11, 2015 2:35 pm

Response to Oklahoma SAE’s Racist Chant Highlights Lack of Response to Campus Antisemitism

avatar by Alina Dain Sharon / JNS.org

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Last week a video of SAE fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma chanting a racist song went viral, prompting a swift and harsh reaction from the university and the public. Photo: YouTube screenshot from controversial video via an ABC News report.

JNS.org – The controversy surrounding the video of the racist chant made by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity chapter at the University of Oklahoma received swift condemnation across the board. In addition to national outrage, University President David Boren closed down the fraternity at the school, kicked out the house’s residents, and expelled two students.

Subsequently, one of the students identified in the video, 19-year-old Parker Rice, offered his “deepest apologies” in a statement, and the parents of Levi Pettit, another student from the video, said their son made a horrible mistake and will need to live with the consequences of that error forever.

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The response by the university has been widely lauded, especially given past incidents of racism involving SAE. In 2013, the SAE chapter of Washington University in St. Louis was suspended after several pledges were asked to make racial slurs toward a group of black students.

Last year, in another notable incident, 15 SAE members at the University of Arizona broke into an off-campus house of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and yelled “discriminatory comments at the UA students and physically assaulting them,” according to a letter to the fraternity from the school’s dean of students, reported the Arizona Daily Star. Four SAE brothers were suspended as a result.

In response to the latest incident, AEPi told JNS.org in a statement that the Jewish fraternity “does not tolerate any offensive or demeaning language or behaviors targeted at any groups on campus including women, minorities or other Greek or non-Greek organizations. Actions such as those at Oklahoma detract from the many positive experiences and outcomes that fraternities foster.”

But the University of Oklahoma SAE outrage also brings to mind another incident involving racism directed at a Jewish student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Rachel Beyda, a Jewish student in her sophomore year, applied to join the school’s student council judicial board. At her nomination hearing, she was asked by another member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC), “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Subsequently, a debate ensued in the room regarding the ability of Beyda to separate herself from her Jewish identity during sensitive votes by the council. It’s noteworthy that UCLA is a university whose student government recently passed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement-inspired resolution against Israel. At first, Beyda’s application for the judicial board was rejected, but after a faculty member intervened to say that her religion should have no bearing on whether or not she should be confirmed, Beyda was confirmed in a unanimous vote. The entire debate was recorded on video.

While this incident eventually garnered the attention of the national media, It’s particularly jarring to compare UCLA’s response to the episode with the response by the University of Oklahoma to the SAE video.

Following the incident at UCLA, Chancellor Gene D. Block issued a letter stating that “no student should feel threatened that they would be unable to participate in a university activity because of their religion.” Four students who opposed Beyda’s candidacy, including Roth, also made a public apology. But none of students who questioned Beyda were disciplined.

Admittedly, the UCLA incident’s racism toward a Jewish student was less “in your face,” given that no racial slurs were used and that the students did eventually approve Beyda’s candidacy. But the fact that UCLA did not suspend the students who questioned Beyda on her religion, or at least remove them from the student council, is very illuminating with regard to current attitudes on prejudice against Jews vs. prejudice against blacks.

As MSNBC‘s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough said on his show last week, “What if these students did this to a black student . . . and if they said, ‘Because you’re black, do you think you can handle your position fairly?’ Every student that asked that question would be suspended immediately and kicked off campus. I would like to know why UCLA hasn’t done the same to these students that asked these questions. Everybody involved up and down the line should be brought before the Chancellor, and if the Chancellor doesn’t step forward and do this, he should be fired immediately. This is not Nazi Germany 1935. This is America 2015.”

One positive development did occur at UCLA this week. On March 10, the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) at UCLA voted unanimously, 12-0, in favor of a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hate speech within the 10-campus University of California system and at other universities. The resolution was written by members of the Jewish community at UCLA and Hillel International.

The resolution recognizes “that the Jewish people, like all peoples, have a collective right to self-determination” and condemns “attempts to undermine these rights.”

Yet according to the recent National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students survey, which was jointly conducted by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, more than half of American Jewish college students surveyed in a new national study said they have been subjected to or have witnessed antisemitism on their campuses. Among 1,157 self-identified Jewish students at 55 campuses nationwide, 54 percent reported instances of anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.

Thus, the USAC resolution condemning antisemitism, while admirable, still feels a bit like the apology by the parents of Levi Pettit on the University of Oklahoma SAE incident. Yes, an apology was the right thing to do. But Petit’s parents still chose to insist that their son was “a good boy.”

The parents called their son’s actions “disgusting,” but also said that “he is not a racist. We raised him to be loving and inclusive and we all remain surrounded by a diverse, close-knit group of friends,” the Dallas Morning News reported.

In essence, the focus of the apology was on trying to mitigate public perception that their son is a racist, instead of just admitting that his actions were very wrong. In the same way, the USAC resolution serves as a basis for the claim that the campus is not antisemitic even while little action or effort is being taken to address specific incidents of prejudice against Jews.

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  • Milhouse

    The expulsions in Oklahoma were blatantly illegal, and if the students choose to sue they will undoubtedly be overturned. The UCLA chancellor is surely familiar with the law, and thus Scarborough is wrong when he claims that had a black student been treated as Ms Beyda was her challengers would have been disciplined. The first amendment applies to racists just as much as to anyone else, and the UCLA chancellor knows that.

  • Florence

    We need to yell and complain louder.

  • Ivan Gur-Arie

    It is amazing that no statement from the Presient of University of California, Janet Napolitano was made. She is supposedly a liberal Democrat, who is supposedly a freedom, equal rights, nondiscriminatory paragon of virtue. We had her as Governor of Arizona. All I can say is phui. Never mind what the student councils do, where are the administrators, the professors, the deans? Why are they not saying anything? Because they are sniveling cowards, afraid of their shadows and intellectually dishonest. They set no example for our students and pave the road to nowhere.

  • Micki Goldberg

    How come nothing has been said on TV or internet when Jews were not accepted in 1945 in fraternizes or sorrities they STARTED THERE OWN>>When are the Blacks going to stop calling Racism and if they are not wanted start your own..Why do U want to be with people that don”t want U.

  • Barbara

    The hate filled anti Semitic student body members of UCLA led by Fabienne Roth, Manjot Singh, Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed and Sofia Moreno Haq questioned a nominee about her Jewish identity should be expelled, The University of OK got this right – NO TOLERANCE FOR RACISM!
    UCLA-Take note!

  • steven L

    The congress should suspend funding of any university/college tolerating antisemitism.

  • Robert B Geller

    Actually, I think that one could make the argument tate what happened at UCLA was worse than what happened at the University of Oklahoma. What happened at UCLA was an university-sponsored meeting where faculty members were present as opposed to a fraternity-sponsored bus trip with a bunch of drunken fraternity members. Why did the faculty member allow the anti-Semitic questioning to go on for 45 minutes when it should have been stopped after the first question? It may not have been as rude or as “in your face” except if you were Ms. Beyda who had to sit there for the 45 minute attack on her Jewish character. In addition, UCLA’s chancellor called this a “learning” experience while the OU President was honest enough to call the Oklahoma incident for what it was. In addition, I guess that it is easier to discipline a bunch of fraternity brothers than it is members of an elite student council even though they both were guilty of bigotry and pure ignorance. It is also probably easier for some to accept racism at a state school in the Midwest/Southwest than it is to accept anti-semitism at an elite California school. The other elephant in the room is that anti-Semitism is much more acceptable today in American than blatant racism. If the President of OU did not take swift and dramatic action, there is no question that the DOJ would have been on his campus in a “New York minute” while the Chancellor at UCLA would have little concern that the DOJ would involve themselves in a “bit” of anti-semitism.

  • We have been discussing this, exactly, the last few days. Anti-Judaism seems to be tolerated on college campuses for the last many years. I remember comments made to me, at UCSD, thirty odd years ago. Being Jewish was not considered to be good enough with liberals. I was teased while working there, that my son was having his bar mitzvah, and it wasn’t nice or pleasant.

    Horrible anti-semites, hiding behind their radical beliefs.

  • Anti-Semitism at UCLA was a “teachable moment,” therefore other kinds of discrimination must not be???

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