GWU frat expels student who posted swastika on campus

George Washington University student Sydney Levin-Epstein discusses her pro-Israel activism at a screening of Crossing the Line 2 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on March 23 in Rockville. Photo by Josh Marks
George Washington University student Sydney Levin-Epstein discusses her pro-Israel activism at a screening of Crossing the Line 2 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on March 23 in Rockville.
Photo by Josh Marks

The swastika is an ancient good luck symbol in some Eastern religions. It was also associated with the genocidal anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany during World War II. The latter association led to a Jewish George Washington University student being expelled from his fraternity and becoming a target of a hate crime investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department and University Police Department.

According to university officials, who declined to release his name, the student — a member of the historically Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau — took a spring break trip to India earlier this month and brought back a swastika. He then decided to post that swastika on his fraternity’s bulletin board at International House on March 16.

“His motivation was to reclaim the swastika. He spent some time in India, where the swastika has a totally separate and different connotation and his goal, although misguided — and he would say that — was to go back to its original intent and purpose as more of a peaceful symbol,” said GW Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, who is also an advisor to ZBT. “That’s what he saw in India.”

Tensions were already high for GW’s Jewish community following the discovery on Feb. 21 of three swastikas drawn on the walls of International House, which includes fraternity and sorority members of nine Greek chapters.

The university’s initial response to those swastikas was criticized by members of the local Jewish community, who expressed concern that the incident was not being investigated as a hate crime. According to The GW Hatchet, 19 Jewish and civil rights organizations wrote a letter to University President Steven Knapp calling for a more forceful response. The university subsequently referred the incident to the MPD’s Hate Crimes Unit.

In contrast, the university’s response to the latest swastika incident drew praise from area Jews.

“I was very impressed with President Knapp’s response to the issue,” said GW sophomore Sydney Levin-Epstein, 19. “I was very impressed with how GWPD handled it. They had a meeting with everyone who lives in International House to discuss what had happened. Parents were able to openly express their concerns. So I think that the university’s immediate response to the situation was impressive. And that’s something that I take a lot of pride in when saying I go to GW.”

According to the letter, more than 10 college and university campuses around the country have been defaced with swastikas in the last year. Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi has been a frequent target. Last July, swastikas were scrawled on mailboxes in front of the AEPi house at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and an AEPi house at Emory University in Atlanta was spray-painted with swastikas in October. In late January, swastikas were painted on the AEPi house at the University of California, Davis. Earlier this month, two swastikas were spray-painted on an AEPi house at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“I think that the recent trend of seeing swastikas on college campuses is very disturbing,” said film director Shoshana Palatnik, who spoke Monday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington during a screening of her new documentary, Crossing the Line 2, about the increase in anti-Israel activity on college campuses. “Regardless of who is putting up this sort of imagery and these swastikas, it definitely needs to be investigated and taken very seriously and I’m glad to hear that George Washington University is taking it very seriously.”

Added Palatnik: “All these incidents really do need to be investigated.”

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  1. GWU Makes Racist Mistake, But Blames and Bans Student
    Student Barred from Passover Observances on Campus, Could Sue University

    George Washington University officials made a racist or religious mistake but, instead of promptly correcting it, they have blamed a Jewish student for “bigotry,” banishing him from the campus, threatening him with arrest, keeping him from Passover services, and also threatening to expel him at a hearing next Monday, says John Banzhaf, a senior law professor at the University.

    Campus officials, mistaking an ancient Indian symbol representing peace, prosperity, and other virtuous qualities for a Nazi swastika symbolizing racism and hate, blamed the Jewish student who posted it on the bulletin board of his own largely-Jewish fraternity, claiming incorrectly that it was in fact a swastika which expressed “bigotry and hatred,” and strongly suggesting that his act might constitute a “hate crime.”

    But even ten minutes of investigation on the Internet would have revealed that the Indian religious symbol posted by the student was as different in appearance, as it is in its symbolism, from the Nazi swastika. The Indian symbol, if imagined as a pinwheel, would rotate clockwise, whereas the swastika, if similarly imagined as a pinwheel, would rotate counterclockwise.

    Moreover, the swastika symbol used by the Nazis, and especially by Hitler and his storm troopers, had the major arms of the symbol at 45 degrees to the horizontal, whereas the arms of the Indian symbol are shown parallel (or perpendicular) to the ground.

    The Nazi symbol is virtually always shown as solid black on a white background, whereas the Indian symbol is often depicted in bright and cheerful colors, and sometimes even as an arrangement of flowers symbolizing peace and tranquility.

    “The one Jewish student who saw the symbol could, of course, be excused for temporarily mistaking it for a Nazi symbol signifying racial hatred for Jews – although, once the facts were pointed out to him, he and the Jewish brothers in his fraternity no longer feel that the student who posted the symbol had any malicious, much less racist, intent.

    But there is no excuse for a major university, with vast resources including professors who teach Eastern religions, not only to make the same initial mistake, but then to not only refuse to correct it as the truth undoubtedly became known to them, but also to keep punishing the student, says Banzhaf. To this day they are still referred to the symbol as a swastika, which it clearly it is not.

    It’s as if a Black student was going to be expelled for using the word “niggardly” which another Black student mistook for a racial slur, or a Jewish student was facing expulsion because he posted the traditional Jewish 6-pointed star, but another student misinterpreted it as a pentagram symbolizing the devil as well as animosity, mocking, and hatred for his Christian religion. It’s just crazy, suggests Banzhaf.

    Moreover, the University issued a written statement strongly suggesting that the student may have committed a “hate crime.” But for reasons spelled out in greater detail by GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley, there could be no “hate crime” because there was no underlying crime which was committed, with or without hate. A “hate crime” is simply an ordinary crime like assault or arson which is committed because of hatred based on race or similar factors, notes Banzhaf.

    Moreover, a fraternity brother who posts a symbol on his fraternity’s bulletin board, whether it was a swastika or an Indian religious symbol, commits no crime, so it cannot possibly be a crime of hate, explains Banzhaf. Generally, posting symbols which are hateful in nature is not a crime, he says, noting numerous court decisions involving burning crosses, vile signs directed at the families of U.S. solders killed in battle, or even swastikas worn by men marching in Nazi uniforms.

    Suggesting that someone committed a crime can make a university, and even its officials, liable for defamation, false light, intentional interference with existing contractual advantage, and other serious civil torts, says Banzhaf, who teaches Torts among his other courses at the law school.

    If the university knew or should have known that what it was saying was false – i.e., that the student had posted a “swastika,” that he may have committed a “hate crime,” etc. – then it can be found liable and the student awarded major damages, even if he cannot prove direct injury.

    Indeed, says Banzhaf, accusing a Jewish student of committing a crime motivated by hatred against Jews – including his family, the members of his overwhelmingly Jewish fraternity, the large Jewish community on campus etc. – would obviously cause him very serious harm. This is on top of banning him from campus, threatening him with arrest, forcing him to fall behind in his course work by prohibiting him from attending his scheduled classes, and even barring him from the many Passover observances on campus.

    The reasons for this unusual behavior by GWU – not only making a mistake about the symbol but then refusing to correct it, suggesting that a Jewish student at a largely-Jewish fraternity acted out of a hatred of Jews and expressed bigotry and hatred, arguing that he should be expelled at a hearing next Monday for “violation of law,” interference with university functions,” and even “discrimination,” etc. – may have been uncovered by the university newspaper, The Hatchet.

    In its most recent edition, it noted that President Steven Knapp’s response to the earlier posting of real swastikas on campus had been strongly condemned by a Jewish group for being insufficient – indeed some 20 organizations demanded an apology – and that he was now taking a stronger approach which it called “crisis communications.” It also pointed out that “crisis communication experts criticized Knapp’s response to a sexual assault reported in a Greek townhouse.”

    In what obviously wasn’t simply a coincidence, the article reported that the new head of “GW’s communications team, Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles, came to the University with two decades of crisis communications experience . . . Voles has transformed the messaging strategy during her seven years at GW . . . The office has led the response to eight student deaths since January 2014 and helped the University weather two different admissions scandals.”

    Perhaps in seeking to appear tougher on hate symbols, and to appease Jewish critics of its earlier handling of swastikas on campus, the University has made a mistake and overreacted to this most recent incident, suggests Banzhaf. Ironically, it involves a Jewish student who was taking a course in Eastern religions who had just returned from India and brought an ancient symbol of peace with him.

    Even if both the student and the University made mistakes, it seems that now – rather than waiting for a formal hearing which could even increase the University’s potential legal liability – would be a good time for corrections to be made and apologies offered where appropriate. What better way to honor the spirit of celebration and joy represented by Passover as it is celebrated on our campus, suggests Banzhaf.

    NOTE – This document contains and reflects only the view of John Banzhaf, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the George Washington University, or any other institution, organization, or individual. It was prepared solely by John Banzhaf.

    JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
    Professor of Law
    George Washington University Law School,
    Fellow, World Technology Network,
    Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
    2000 H Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20052, USA @profbanzhaf


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