The University of Chicago was thrust into the media spotlight this month when leaked internal emails between members of its Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity revealed a series of lurid messages denigrating Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, black people, and women.
Exposed by an anonymous whistleblower and published by Buzzfeed, the emails were sent on a listserv of the AEPi fraternity between 2011 and 2015. The communications contained racist rants trashing Martin Luther King Jr., referred to an abandoned lot as “Palestine,” and maligned a Muslim student activist as a “terrorist.”
As the country’s most aggressively pro-Israel fraternity, AEPi “works in concert with a highly organized cadre of anti-Palestinian groups to combat divestment resolutions on college campuses across the country,” according to journalists Rania Khalek and Nora Barrows Friedman. In 2011, a UC-Davis graduate named Ryan Clifford filed suit against the fraternity, alleging a culture of hazing that targeted non-Jewish pledges like himself with particularly abusive rituals. Members of other AEPi chapters have coordinated with right-wing pro-Israel groups to levy false charges of anti-Semitism, implicated supporters of Palestine on campus as terror sympathizers and worse.
In response to the racism scandal at U of Chicago, university administrators Karen Warren Coleman and Michele Rasmussen distributed an open letter to the student body last week stating that the attitudes and views the emails express “are unacceptable, violate the University’s core values, and conflict with our strong commitment to ensuring that people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives can thrive on our campus.”
Yet nearly 50 campus groups, the student government, and a legal advocacy organization charged that the administration has not gone far enough to confront a longstanding culture of racism and harassment on campus. This failure, they say, is due in part to the administration’s seeming inability to name-let alone confront-a key component of the problem: The pattern of anti-Palestinian attacks that extend far beyond any single fraternity.
“We are trying to get the university to uphold their own values,” Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) member Hoda Katebi told AlterNet. “It’s emotionally taxing.”
A Wave of Homophobic and Racist Harassment by Pro-Israel Forces
It has been three months since attorney Rahul Saksena of the legal advocacy group Palestine Legal delivered a letter to the University of Chicago administration expressing concern over a “documented pattern of suppression to silence Palestinian human rights advocacy” at the premiere school.
Addressing President Robert Zimmer, the letter from Saksena highlights a number of troubling incidents. A fake Facebook account under the name “Rachel Corrie” – an American solidarity activist killed by the Israeli military in Gaza in 2003 – harassed and threatened students who spoke out in support of Palestinian human rights. The anonymously maintained profile threatened to publish nude photographs of one SJP member, as well as harassment in the form of transphobic messages to a queer and transgender member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
A separate false account was reportedly created around the same time using the profile image of a Palestinian student and member of SJP. The person or people behind that account then left “a series of harassing, threatening, sexual, and misogynistic comments on SJP’s Facebook page,” wrote Saksena.
In another example, public materials memorializing Palestinians killed by Israeli forces were torn down and vandalized with epithets, including the word “terrorist.”
In each case, students reported the violation to the administration. And in a press statement dated last November, SJP called on the university to protect their right to organize and condemn “the campaign of harassment.”
Administrators say they responded by launching an investigation, in which they were unable to determine who was responsible.
According to Saksena, university officials “have not, however, taken any meaningful steps to ensure that Palestinian and Arab students and Palestine solidarity activists on campus enjoy the right to speak out without fear of harassment and intimidation, despite our reminder of their legal obligations, and despite students’ repeated demands.”
It was during that period of inaction that the far more public AEPi scandal broke.
“Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes”
According to a large swath of the University of Chicago’s organized student body, the school’s racist culture runs deeper than last fall’s string of attack on Palestinian rights activists.
In a joint statement released last week in response to the AEPi revelations, the Muslim Students Association, Organization of Black Students and SJP condemned the university’s failure to “respond adequately to anti-Palestinian and anti-black racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny in AEPi and fraternity culture on campus.”
Endorsed by nearly 50 student organizations, including the student government, the statement highlights a number of disturbing incidents. In one example, the Delta Upsilon (DU) fraternity reportedly “placed a Confederate flag near what was then the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.” Just days later, that same fraternity hosted a party titled “DU Presents: Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes.” The invitation, which called on those attending to bring “an unlimited need to conquer, spread disease, and enslave natives,” attracted some negative press at the time.
“Evidence of a toxic campus climate is highly prevalent,” the students argued. In the spring of 2014, a “Palestinian was repeatedly attacked with false allegations of anti-Semitism in an attempt to prevent her from being elected to a seat in Student Government due to her political activism,” the statement notes. And in May 2015, a Palestinian organizer with SJP received “a threatening message addressed to her personal Facebook account warning her against her continued activism.”
The university’s response to the AEPi scandal, students charge, has failed to fully account for this history. In their letter sent last week to the student body, Rasmussen and Coleman called the AEPi emails disrespectful and harmful to “members of our Muslim and African-American communities and to women.” But the word “Palestinian” appears nowhere in their statement. Katebi said the omission comes despite the fact that “we’ve been meeting with the administration since the huge stream of harassment toward members of SJP last quarter, trying to get them to release statement condemning what happened.”
“We have noticed the administration will only act if there is press,” Katebi continued. “All they care about is their ranking and how they look in the press.”
Hundreds of Incidents of Pro-Israel Suppression
A report released by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal in September of 2015 found that U.S. campuses are ground-zero for the suppression of advocacy for Palestinian human rights. Between January 2014 and June 2015 alone, Palestine Legal says it “responded to nearly 300 incidents of suppression; 85% of those incidents targeted students and professors, on a total of more than 65 US college campuses.”
According to the investigation, the most commonly used tactics include: “false and inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism,” official denunciations, bureaucratic barriers, legislation, threats to academic freedom, and criminal investigations.
In a separate report also released in September 2015, Jewish Voice for Peace corroborated the findings.
“Far-right political organizations, like StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America, as well as many prominent Jewish organizations with much broader communal mandates, such as Hillel International, Jewish Federations (specifically their Israel on Campus Coalition), and the Anti-Defamation League, intervene on campuses in efforts to muzzle political criticisms of Israeli policies,” the report stated.
AEPi is a central catalyst of the larger trend of pro-Israel intimidation on campus. With over 180 chapters, the fraternity partners with the Jewish National Fund, a powerful Israeli organization actively involved in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and Bedouin citizens of Israel.
In 2014, AEPi became the first student organization to fully join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with the explicit goal of advancing pro-Israel advocacy. That same year, the fraternity condemned pro-Israel group J-Street for criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. AEPi’s rebuke played a role in preventing J-Street from joining the Conference of Presidents, thereby aligning the fraternity with Israel’s far right.
Palestine Legal noted in its report that AEPi “frequently signs on to Israel advocacy coalition letters calling for restricting criticism of Israel.” This includes a letter in March 2015 urging the University of California at Irvine to label criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
Within this climate, students across the country “are demanding that their Universities take a stand against institutional racism and discrimination, as well as specific incidents like the AEPi emails,” said Saksena. “This includes anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim targeting.”
Meanwhile, University of Chicago student groups say they will continue to demand accountability and redress. “When students cannot simply exist in a space without continuous harassment, hate speech, and threats of violence,” the groups declared in their joint statement, “it is apparent that the University of Chicago-our university-is failing us.”