Response to Oklahoma SAE’s racist chant highlights lack of response to campus anti-Semitism

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. Credit: YouTube screenshot from controversial video via an ABC News report.

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.

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 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.”

The UCLA student government board debated the candidacy of a Jewish student and questioned whether her religion could be a "conflict of interest." Credit: Screenshot from YouTube video of the debate.

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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitic even while little action or effort is being taken to address specific incidents of prejudice against Jews.

Posted on March 11, 2015 .