There’s that moment when you spot the word Jewish in an article, and your heart sinks. Sometimes it’s sadness — the passing of a Jewish luminary — or frustration — why mention the religion of a dodgy dealer? — but sometimes it’s out of shame.
Reading about the allegations against Jewish fraternity members at St Andrews University, I felt the latter. Tales of unacceptable student behaviour are distressingly common — but among nice Jewish boys? What a stain on our community.
To recap: claims have been made on an Instagram page titled “St Andrews Survivors” of rape and sexual assault, some linked to members Alpha Epsilon Pi, a branch of a US Jewish fraternity.
Social media can be a quagmire and these claims are anonymous “he said, she said” ones at this stage. Innocent until proven guilty must hold and it’s crucial they are investigated. But they follow an achingly predictable arc: drunk, vulnerable women taken advantage of, frightened into staying silent. Alleged perpetrators with no fear of repercussion.
In one, the poster reports telling “a frat boy” acquaintance about being sexually assaulted. Inebriated, she later found herself in his room, where he was to sleep on the floor. “I woke up… and he was in the bed with me, feeling me up,” she recalls. Others are more disturbing.
Most do not directly mention the fraternity, although posts have been removed on advice about identifying alleged perpetrators. However the fraternity issued a statement saying it was aware of “allegations of sexual assault, harassment and rape against multiple members of our fraternity, including incidents at chapter events”.
Like their peers, Jewish students drink too much, take drugs and behave poorly. Booze4Jews was a high-point when I was at university. Clearly, not every or even many Jewish “frat bros” will have crossed the line.
But neither should we be surprised if some did. Like every community, we have bad eggs; last week Jewish Women’s Aid reported a “massive increase” in domestic violence victims seeking help. Instead, we should be asking how this happened (if true) and how we prevent it happening again.
Jewish fraternities arrived here a decade ago with little fanfare and have had limited sunlight since. Their reach remains unclear. When discussed initially, it tended to be as a novelty, with fraternities heralded for their philanthropy (a cornerstone of how the Greek system markets itself).
Yet behind the scenes, there were whispers. In 2011 I reported on friction with UJS, following a conference vote condemning fraternities as “exclusive” and “sexist”. “Even if it is not their initial intention, they still encourage binge-drinking and an elitist culture, which is divisive,” the then-president said. I’m told concerns have been repeatedly raised at UJS conferences and elections since.
Why didn’t the wider community take notice? It’s not as though we lack leadership organisations that could have done so.
Perhaps it was that fraternities were part of a broader campus landgrab, with JLE, Aish and Chabad all also developing greater presences. Perhaps some dismissed UJS’s concerns as student politics. And perhaps parents were so keen to see their offspring mix with Jews that they took it all at face value. But you don’t need to be a student of American culture to know this is a tradition steeped in privilege and elitism. In contrast to JSocs or youth movements, they are male-only spaces. Their essence is superiority and exclusivity; them and us.
Nor is it news that fraternities have been dogged by scandals involving hazing and sexual assault for decades. They may have illustrious alumni, but many have chequered histories.
I’m told these allegations have come as no surprise to those familiar with the Jewish student world. One ex-UJS worker claimed on Twitter that “people knew for ages”, adding that behaviour at AEPi was an issue when she worked on campus.
What is painfully apparent is that stronger oversight and complaints processes are needed. JSocs are linked to their student unions and to UJS and subject to scrutiny. They may be peer-led, but they are answerable to a higher authority if things go awry. In contrast, fraternities are American organisations, operating here without the formal UK management structures we should expect from any bodies working with our youth.
We can’t assume this stuff doesn’t happen or that our “nice Jewish boys” are always so. Safeguarding must be a top priority. JWA is aiming to expand its Safer Dating programme at universities in response, but parents also need to talk to teenagers about consent. And we must make sure all our spaces are safe, inclusive and operate with robust oversight, with formal procedures to support people coming forward when things go wrong.
Like every community, we have the good, the bad and the ugly. That might make our hearts sink, but it’s the reality.