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USF fraternity accused of antisemitic initiation practice

The dean of students and the Jewish student center are investigating.
A student walks near the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where officials are investigating allegations of an antisemitic act by a fraternity.
A student walks near the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where officials are investigating allegations of an antisemitic act by a fraternity. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Feb. 24|Updated Feb. 25

The University of South Florida is investigating allegations of antisemitic acts at a fraternity on its Tampa campus.

In a recent incident first reported by USF’s student newspaper, The Oracle, a Jewish student pledging for the fraternity Pi Kappa Phi had a swastika drawn on his forehead. The student allegedly then went to another fraternity’s event, where he was seen by many other students.

In addition, posts surfaced on a website, greekrank.com, that included statements such as “Hitler did nothing wrong lol” and “rush Pi Kappa Phi if you’re antisemitic too.” The statements, later deleted, were made by a person claiming to be from that fraternity.

The incidents are believed to be the result of a feud between the fraternity and sorority Sigma Kappa Lambda Zeta, which had a member falsely accused in a social media post of racist behavior.

The sorority issued an apology on Instagram last week, stating it did not tolerate racism and that disciplinary actions would be taken against the member. Pi Kappa Phi issued an Instagram apology this week “to the woman involved,” her sorority and the USF community and stated that “Pi Kappa values the human dignity of each person and actively stands against racism, misogyny and harassment.”

Two days after this story published online, the fraternity’s national office issued a statement via email saying their investigation found that the person who drew the swastika was not a Pi Kappa Phi member and was not responsible for the website posts.

The statement condemned what happened at USF, adding: “We support our member who has suffered and the entire Jewish community. Pi Kappa Phi is continuing to partner with USF in the ongoing investigation.”

The USF Pi Kappa Phi chapter, which started in 2012, had previously been suspended after allegations of sexual assault in 2017.

In an email to the USF community, dean of students Danielle McDonald said the university’s Student Conduct and Ethical Development office will investigate and “address any behaviors that do not reflect USF’s values.” She asked the community to allow the process to progress “before making judgements on individuals or organizations.”

Still, she said, the allegations were “reprehensible and deserve our condemnation,” and asked anyone with firsthand information about the incidents to contact her office.

“USF embraces and celebrates diversity in all its forms,” McDonald wrote. “Anti-Semitism, racism, hate, and prejudice have no place here.”

Sylvie Feinsmith, program director for USF Hillel, a Jewish student center, said she initially didn’t believe it when she received a call about the incident. Then she began receiving several calls from students and parents who had heard about it.

“Mockery of the Holocaust? Putting a swastika on a Jew? Are you kidding me?” she said. “I do believe that our community has an opportunity to learn from this and better our campus culture…. Administration has been working in good faith with us, but there are many people who don’t understand how harmful these actions are.”

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Feinsmith said she invites anyone who was involved with the incidents to come to Hillel. The group is not in the business of punishment, she said, but rather education. She said she hopes people can learn what those symbols mean.

“It’s terrifying for Jewish students and professionals,” she said. “Intergenerational trauma in the Jewish community is very real.… To think that what my grandparents had to witness and fight and what they fought so hard to overcome and to prevent my parents and me from experiencing is coming back, and my students have to experience it, is gut wrenching.”

While instances of antisemitism have occurred in different forms during her time at USF, Feinsmith said she’s heard of more instances of neo-Nazism over the last four years. She said she hopes the latest instance is a wake-up call.

“We can grow from this,” Feinsmith said. “People just have to be willing to do so.”

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