The frat boys who slander Palestine solidarity

Fraternity AEPi has dedicated itself to opposing the growing campus movement to boycott Israel. (Ariel Hayat/Flickr)

Last month the student court at the University of California at Davis overturned a recently approved resolution to divest from companies that profit from Israeli violations of Palestinians’ rights.

Determining that the resolution was “unconstitutional,” the student court’s ruling was based on a complaint made by Jonathan Mitchell, a former student body senator and former board member of the campus chapter of a right-wing Jewish fraternity.

The fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), has close ties to Israel lobby groups intent on crushing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The overturning of the Davis divestment resolution comes just weeks after the fraternity accused Palestine solidarity activists of a hate crime after swastikas were found spray painted on a fraternity house’s walls. The graffiti was found two days after the student government initially approved the divestment resolution.

No evidence connects Palestine solidarity activists to the vandalism, and Students for Justice in Palestine swiftly condemned the graffiti. Yet corporate media outlets regurgitated the fraternity’s claims that divestment activists were to blame.

“I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that this happened right after divestment,” said Nathaniel Bernhard, vice-president of AEPi at UC Davis, immediately after the swastikas were discovered.

Andrew Borans, AEPi executive director, insisted that the fraternity was targeted because of its support for Israel and characterized the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as “the chief face of campus anti-Semitism” at colleges across the country.

Corporate media outlets parroted the fraternity’s narrative as fact. Fox News and local CBS and ABC television affiliate stations in the Davis area ran strikingly similar reports implying that Palestine solidarity activists were responsible for the swastika graffiti. The reports also interpreted celebratory chanting of “Allahu akbar” by Arab students after the divestment victory as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

And in a bizarre turn, celebrity Roseanne Barr tweeted a call to “nuke” non-Jews on the campus.

While mainstream outlets uncritically reproduced AEPi’s baseless accusations that the swastikas were a BDS-inspired hate crime, they conveniently ignored the fraternity’s ties to Israel lobbying groups and its documented record of fabricating anti-Semitism to defame the BDS movement.

Devoted to crushing BDS

Having positioned itself as a Zionist fraternity devoted to stifling BDS, AEPi works in concert with a highly organized cadre of anti-Palestinian groups to combat divestment resolutions on college campuses across the country.

The college fraternity was recently admitted into the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group for the Israel lobby.

In turn, AEPi was instrumental in blocking the liberal Zionist pressure group J Street from being admitted into the Conference of Presidents on behalf of right-wing elements of the Israel lobby, which see J Street’s tepid criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as a major threat to Israel’s expansionist agenda.

The fraternity has cultivated close ties with the Republican party, including honorary AEPi alum Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and single greatest donor to the Republican party.

AEPi has active partnerships with Friends of the IDF, an organization which raises money for Israeli soldiers, and the Jewish National Fund, the quasi-governmental organization instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands.

History of abuse

As a Greek letter organization, AEPi enjoys the immunity from discipline commonly afforded to fraternities by university administrations across North America. And UC Davis, which has a history of ignoring abuse by AEPi members, is no exception.

In 2011, Ryan Clifford, a UC Davis graduate, filed a lawsuit against the university in which he accused the administration of ignoring his repeated complaints of abuse at the hands of AEPi brothers.

Clifford alleged that while pledging for membership in 2008, he was subjected to physically and sexually abusive hazing. He alleged that he was drugged, forced to strip naked, sexually assaulted, punched, choked and had the bones in his foot crushed, leading to multiple surgeries and a permanent limp.

Clifford contended that he was singled out for the cruelest hazing practice, known as “ratfucking,” because he was the only non-Jewish student pledging the fraternity that semester.

After Clifford reported the abuse to the university, according to his lawsuit filing, AEPi was placed on “conditional registration” for seven months. But the university failed to monitor or follow-up with AEPi, he alleged, instead pledging its support for the fraternity.

When Clifford stopped attending meetings and events, AEPi brothers threatened and harassed him in classes they shared and around campus, the lawsuit states. Despite repeatedly reporting the abuse to the university, the administration was unresponsive, according to the filing.

The following semester, Clifford complained to college authorities of “emotional and physical distress” from attending the same classes as his abusers. Clifford also filed a state lawsuit against the fraternity. The university responded by advising Clifford to drop his classes indefinitely and leave UC Davis. Clifford withdrew and as a result graduated a semester late.

Clifford’s lawsuit was dismissed by a US district court on procedural grounds in April 2012. The judge ruled that the statute of limitations for Clifford’s complaint — two years — had passed.

Clifford appealed the decision but it was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in August of last year.

Fabricating anti-Semitism

AEPi chapters at other campuses have fabricated anti-Semitism to malign Palestine solidarity activists.

When Palestine solidarity activists brought a divestment resolution to the student government at the University of Michigan last year, AEPi member Bobby Dishell, then vice-president of the student government, led a smear campaign against Students Allied For Equality (SAFE), accusing its members of calling him a “dirty Jew” and a “kike.”

The administration was unable to validate Dishell’s allegations according to an investigative report by journalist Max Blumenthal, who determined many of the claims of anti-Semitism leveled at SAFE to be fabricated.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal reported that the university did little to protect or support SAFE students who were being stalked and threatened online and publicly slandered by pro-Israel operatives as violent Jew haters.

Months later, questionable accusations of anti-Semitism by an AEPi member at yet another university was referred to the state prosecutor’s office.

Last September, Temple University student Daniel Vessal, a member of AEPi and a fellow at CAMERA on Campus (a project of the right-wing, anti-Palestinian media watchdog group CAMERA), claimed that he was called a “kike” and physically assaulted by students affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine. The university immediately opened an investigation and referred the incident to the district attorney’s office.

SJP students and eyewitnesses told a different story. They said it was Vessal who initiated the confrontation by hurling racist tropes at the SJP students. Vessal was slapped across the cheek, they said, but by a student unaffiliated with SJP.

The accusations of anti-Semitism, they insisted, were completely fabricated.

Thanked by Netanyahu

Following Israel’s merciless destruction of Gaza last summer, AEPi members from across the country gathered in Las Vegas for the fraternity’s annual Israel Leadership Summit.

For three days, conference goers received Israel advocacy training from propaganda experts, including Republican pollster and rightwing propaganda consultant Frank Luntz and Israeli government promoter Neil Lazarus. They also heard from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who personally thanked AEPi for battling BDS on college campuses on Israel’s behalf.

AEPi members wasted no time putting their propaganda training to good use.

During the conference, dozens of attendees participated in the making of a highly circulated YouTube video called “The Jewish Voices on Campus”. In it, they complained of the threat posed to Jewish students by Black and brown-skinned social justice activists on campus.

One after another, the well-dressed and mostly white fraternity members advanced tales of episodes of anti-Semitism they suffered at the hands of BDS activists on their respective campuses. One even claimed he felt unsafe walking around campus alone, the implication being that violent brown and Black supporters of Palestine are out to hurt Jews.

As an investigation by David Green at Mondoweiss demonstrated, many of the outlandish claims made throughout the video are highly questionable if not fabricated. Others rely entirely on innuendo and a false conflation of the BDS movement with real acts of anti-Semitism.

AEPi recently teamed up with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an Israel advocacy group, to launch CombatHateU, a smartphone app billed as a resource for fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses.

In reality, the app is devoted almost exclusively to attacking BDS campaigns. Its launch follows a pattern, in which pro-Israel groups have sought to conflate opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism.

In a peculiar twist, Nathaniel Bernhard of AEPi characterized the recent swastika vandalism as positive, saying, “People are now able to see on a national stage that anti-Semitism on college campuses is still a serious issue. It’s not an abstract fantasy or something that only happens in Europe or the Middle East. It’s something that’s happening right here.”

Rania Khalek is a contributor to The Electronic Intifada and Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.