Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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USF Suspends Fraternity after Swastika Drawn on Pledge

After a Jewish pledge at a Pi Kappa Phi fraternity initiation ceremony had a swastika drawn on his head, University of South Florida officials issued an interim suspension of the fraternity, on Thursday, Feb. 24.

Nevertheless, the victim does not think his frat brothers are antisemitic and feels too much is being made of the incident, according to a campus rabbi who talked with the student. (See story, page 10)

USF’s Student Conduct and Ethical Development (SCED) panel conducted the investigation and issued the suspension, banning virtually all of the fraternity’s activities, It will last at least until March 1, when fraternity leaders will come before a hearing master who can continue, modify or lift the suspension before matters proceed to a formal hearing.

SCED’s letter announcing the suspension contends that on Feb. 11, the fraternity “hosted an off-campus Bid Party in which associate members [pledges] … were required to wear white shirts. Guests were given sharpies and told to engage with the associate members and then write on their shirts. Associate members had inappropriate objects (penises and a swastika) drawn on their shirts and/or body parts. Alcohol was present at the event and consumed by associate members.”

SCED has charged Pi Kappa Phi with violating USF’s Student Code of Conduct by “hosting or sponsoring a gathering at which the underage consumption of alcohol may or has occurred” and for a hazing violation.

The same day the suspension came down, Pi Kappa Phi’s national headquarters sent the Jewish Press a statement, saying their own investigation revealed that a “nonmember guest” was responsible for the swastika incident. However, USF has not announced such a conclusion.

The fraternity added it “values the human dignity of each person and condemns the reprehensible antisemitic action that has happened at the University of South Florida…We support our member who has suffered and the entire Jewish community.”

Liora Rez, executive director of New-York based StopAntisemitism that monitors incidents throughout the country, said her organization received a photo of the swastika drawn on the pledge’s head and learned it has been circulated on Snapchat.

She said not only was the incident antisemitic, but it exposed the student to more humiliation when it was posted on social media.

From her vantage point, Rez said the university seemed slow to react until “a stink is made on social media.”

On Tuesday evening, Feb. 22, USF Dean of Students Danielle McDonald sent an e-mail to the USF community about “several concerning allegations.” She specifically referenced the swastika incident, a social media post minimizing the Holocaust, a post accusing a sorority membe of racist behavior (later found to be false), and retaliatory behavior of the fraternity and sorority involved.

“Such actions as these are reprehensible and deserve our condemnation.” McDonald wrote. “I implore the community to allow the student conduct process to progress before making judgments on individuals or organizations. Acts of retaliation will not be tolerated. ”

Two days before the suspension was announced, Rez called on USF to do more regarding the Feb. 11 incident.

“While StopAntisemitism appreciates USF’s condemnation, it is imperative to follow up with immediate action to put an end to the hostile antisemitic environment that is emerging on its campus. Jewish students must no longer be subjected to such threats,” the organization said.

Many agree that this cannot be sloughed off as a harmless prank and that education is key.

“Essentially at this point the mud-slinging does not matter. We know it happened. We need to educate our population,” said Sylvie Feinsmith of Hillels of the Florida Suncoast, which has a facility at the USF campus.

She said the idea of what was done to the pledge, especially because he is Jewish, is appalling. That and the hateful social media post about the Holocaust, regardless of who posted it, is harmful, she said.

“Using the genocide of our people” in a petty or demeaning way “impacts not only Jewish students but the broader culture at USF.”

Feinsmith said Hillel has no interest in punishment or blame, but in education and healing.

“I am angry, but at end of day we have an opportunity to address this in a meaningful, productive manner.

USF Hillel and staff are open to welcome those involved to come, sit down and have a conversation on Jewish history and the Holocaust and generational trauma, and let us explain how harmful these actions have been.”

Erin Blankenship, interim executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, agreed, “These allegations are deeply disturbing. Six million Jews, and millions of others, died as a result of the Holocaust, and to minimize that is an insult to all the victims and survivors.” She said the museum “is working with the Jewish organizations on campus to educate students on the realities of the Holocaust … We are inviting the fraternity to tour the Museum and speak with a [Holocaust] survivor, and we hope they will take us up on this opportunity.”

Also voicing concern over the USF incidents is Lonny Wilk, interim director of the Florida region for the Anti-Defamation League. He called the behavior reported at USF “obscene” He added, “Mockery of the Holocaust, the use of hate symbols and the trivialization of genocide is unacceptable” and said he reached out to USF administrators to offer the educational resources of the ADL.

Before the interim suspension of Pi Kappa Phi had been announced, Wilk had already credited USF for its “quick and strong denunciation” of what took place.

“This incident is not living in a vacuum. We are seeing heightened antisemitism incidents over the last few years,” he said, and in an audit of such incidents, even as cases were slightly declining nationwide, there was a 40 percent rise in Florida.

Rez from StopAntisemitism said she believes criminal prosecution is warranted. “Once the administration is made aware of a hate incident like this hazing, it could be classified as a misdemeanor,” she said.

Responding to a query from the Jewish Press, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said, “These are disturbing allegations. I’ve spoken with USF Police and the University of South Florida is investigating. In Florida, hazing is a crime only if there is actual injury or a risk of physical injury. Even if this doesn’t meet that legal definition, USF can discipline the students involved.”

As for USF Police, the department issued this statement: “The USF Police Department is not currently investigating any hate crimes to the Jewish community because we do not have a victim. We have reached out to USF Dean of Students to offer our assistance.”