Jewish Student Press Service
BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Dec. 29 (JTA) — This has not been a good year for fraternities. They were already suffering from a poor reputation as seedbeds for underage drinking and date rape. In the past year, several incidents of hazing — rituals or tests that pledges are required to perform in order to get into a fraternity or sorority — have taken the lives of students, including one at the usually tame Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One year shy of its 50th anniversary at Indiana University and its 100th anniversary nationally, the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau has been hit with a scandal that threatens to linger for years to come. On Oct. 15 police caught a group of Indiana University students with a street sign stolen during a ZBT-sponsored scavenger hunt. The actions of ZBT — which has been expelled from the university as a result of the incident — have forced the university community to reflect on the nature of multiculturalism and tolerance while spurring debate among students about speech codes and the First Amendment. Given the current climate surrounding fraternities, Indiana University’s indefinite expulsion of its ZBT chapter should have come as no surprise. Although hazing was the official focus of the investigation, many students claimed that race, not hazing, was the real issue. The fact that it took place in a Jewish fraternity merely added to the controversy. I.U.’s chapter of ZBT was expelled for hazing, though the scavenger hunt paled in comparison to other fraternities that were suspended following incidents of pledge-beating and near-lethal levels of alcohol intake. ZBT’s expulsion came after two weeks of debate that divided the campus, often along racial lines. The controversial scavenger hunt list contained racially and culturally insensitive material, including items such as “any funny- looking Mexican”; “any midget (black midget super extra credit)”; “pictures of two chicks making out (less clothes, more credit).” The incident prompted an investigation into what Richard McKaig, dean of students, classified as “classic a case of hazing as you can get.” The day of the incident, the national office of ZBT launched an internal investigation. Two days later, it expelled guilty members, suspended the I.U. chapter and announced mandatory community service and diversity training workshops for all members regardless of their culpability. ZBT’s national president, Irving Chase, was unequivocal in his statement after the incident: “ZBT is deeply disgraced by the reprehensible actions of a few, and feels the heavy burden of shame.” On campus, the fraternity sent e-mail apologies, flowers, and held several meetings with offended groups. It also agreed to accept the expulsion without appeal. Members spent an entire weekend drafting “Operation Prove ZBT,” a document that details ZBT’s regret and acknowledges full responsibility for the incident. It also lists actions taken by the fraternity to punish the offending members. ZBT chapter president Jason Nierman, a junior, said he wanted to go beyond the campaign “to prove we can give back and help minority groups.” While Nierman approved of much of the reporting on the incident, he said he is frustrated with the failure of the media to give equal time to proactive steps taken by the fraternity. He also said many members of the fraternity were appalled by the scavenger hunt, which was conducted, he said, without the knowledge or approval of most ZBT members. For many of the offended organizations, however, Nierman’s words and the fraternity’s campaign to apologize were insufficient. “We need to make you an example,” Keith Bradley, a reverend with Hold Up the Light Campus Ministry, said in response to Nierman’s apology. “I want to see your charter revoked.” In an open letter to Dean McKaig, a student coalition — a group of student activists whose goal is to “promote cross-cultural awareness,” — called on the dean to immediately expel the fraternity and to “publicly apologize for allowing such bigotry.” Some students agreed that the actions of ZBT were sufficiently offensive for the fraternity to be expelled. But while most condemned the content of the scavenger hunt list, there was mixed reaction to the punishment. Many students, primarily students of color and opponents of the Greek system, wanted an unequivocal expulsion. “Along with blatantly degrading the African-American, Latino and female communities,” said student Lisa Levin, “it also hurt the entire Greek system [and] the entire Jewish community.” The fraternity’s harshest critics dismissed accusations that ZBT was being held to higher standards than other fraternities in the past. “If there is a noise in a house, you go to the source of the noise,” declared Lawrence Hanks, dean of Afro-American affairs at the university. Other students felt that while they disagreed with the contents of the list, it should be protected as free speech. While ZBT should be punished for hazing, they asserted, the fraternity should not be punished for espousing unpopular viewpoints. Others said the whole fraternity should not be held responsible for the actions of a few. “Stereotyping is wrong,” said sophomores Leslie Tyler and Cheryl Trepina. “But by the same token, it is wrong to classify all the members of ZBT as having the same prejudices the authors of the list had.” Some members of the Jewish community, meanwhile, fear a backlash. A number of articles on the incident emphasized the fact that ZBT is a predominantly Jewish fraternity.
Since Jews were persecuted for thousands of years, some critics asserted, shouldn’t Jews be particularly sensitive to issues of racism? “I would hope that one Jewish organization would not reflect badly on all Jewish organizations,” said I.U.’s Hillel Center Rabbi Sue Shifron. “If it was a predominantly Christian organization, it wouldn’t reflect badly on the entire Christian community.” As the debate continues to swirl, at least one student hopes some good can come of it. “The university is sending a message that is loud and clear,” said senior Herman Diaz. “We need to be able to live with each other as a community.” (Brian Bunn is an undergraduate at Indiana University.)
Jewish Student Press Service