The Problem with Zero Tolerance

Parker Rice and Levi Pettit were expelled on March 10 from the University of Oklahoma, two days after the two were filmed leading their Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity members in a racist chant on a bus. Many on the bus, including Rice and Pettit, repeatedly sang, “There will never be a nigger at SAE, you can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me.”

The expulsion of these students is problematic. Whether we agree with the expulsion or not — and despite first amendment issues that exist — expelling these students for a racist chant creates a zero tolerance standard that will be too complex and almost impossible to uphold across the board.

I want to present two examples to juxtapose the Oklahoma fraternity chant. On May 10, 2010, writer and editor David Horowitz lectured at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  During his interaction in the Q&A section with Jumanah Imad Albahri, a student at UCSD and a member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Horowitz presented her with this question: “I’m a Jew. The head of Hizbollah has said that he hopes that we will gather in Israel so he doesn’t have to hunt us down globally. For it or against it?”

Albahri leaned forward into the mic and answered: “For it.”

On February 10 of this year, Rachel Beyda, a second-year economics major at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and an active member of the Jewish organization Hillel,  was a nominee to join the Student Council’s Judicial Board. At her confirmation hearing, Fabienne Roth, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, asked her: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

The line of questioning continued and the council debated for 40 minutes after Beyda left the room before voting to reject her nomination to the council — the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court. It was only after a faculty advisor urged them to reconsider — pointing out that being Jewish and affiliated with Jewish organizations shouldn’t present a conflict of interest — that the council changed its position and unanimously accepted her.

The Oklahoma fraternity represents straight out ignorance and racism. The incident at UCLA is an example of institutionalized anti-Semitism. And Albahri’s two-word comment is straightforward and unequivocal anti-Semitism.

Does Albahri deserve to be expelled? Here’s a student who openly (and knowingly being filmed) said she supported the death of Jews (despite her later excuse that she didn’t hear the question). A petition with 600 signatures urged the administration to condemn her statement; instead, the university issued a vague statement and seemed content by Albahri’s public written apology.

I don’t think Albahri should have been expelled or punished in any way. She has a right to want to see all Jews dead. As an Israeli Jew, I don’t care if she wants me dead. I don’t even care that she’s part of an organization that organizes “Israeli Apartheid Week” on campus. But what’s the difference between her and Rice and Pettit? Between her two words and their three-sentence song?

By expelling Rice and Pettit, we’re saying we’ll have zero tolerance for zero tolerance. If you say the word “nigger” on a bus, there’s no room for you at our school. That philosophy isn’t necessarily wrong. But if you expel them, then you have to expel Albahri. And if you expel Albahri, then what about Fabienne Roth who asked Beyda about her Jewish bias? Does our zero tolerance approach tolerate her?

University of Oklahoma President David Boren said the two students “created a hostile learning environment,” and that the chant was “exclusionary.” But what does “hostile learning environment” mean? A school environment where Jews are asked about their faith when applying to school student boards could (and should) be considered hostile. So does a student saying she’s for the death of all Jews. And any school that allows organizations like the MSA or Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to host “Israel Apartheid Week” — a week full of anti-Israel protests that include students dressed as Israeli soldiers pointing toy M-16 rifles in the middle of campus at other students lying face down on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs, heads covered — can’t say they’re against a hostile learning environment.

The seriousness of these three examples of biased and racist behaviors can’t be measured by degrees and shouldn’t be categorized as such in hierarchy. But if the Oklahoma fraternity members are expelled, then so should Albahri and Roth. Otherwise we’re allowing our own biases by stating which forms of racism, biases, and anti-Semitism are acceptable. More-so, we’re sending a message saying who we are and aren’t allowed to discriminate against.

Why wasn’t the MSA shut down after Albahri’s comment? What’s the difference between Sigma Alpha Epsilon and the MSA? I imagine not every member of the MSA agrees with her opinions and I doubt they all want to see Jews worldwide dead. So is it right to punish the entire group for her comments? The same can be said about shutting down the fraternity. The double standard should be acknowledged.

Roth shouldn’t be expelled, but questioning Beyda’s bias only shows her own bias against Jews, which she was unable to keep out of a decision-making process. And so her own position on the board should be examined and a more fitting punishment than expulsion would be to remove her from the council. And not because her remarks were anti-Semitic, but because she proved in that moment unfit to serve.

In the same way, the fraternity proved in that moment of racist chanting to be an exclusive club that accepts and rejects members based on race, and so it should be shut down for that reason.

And if the MSA organizes Israel Apartheid Week, which other students and even faculty refer to as “Hitler Youth Week” — a week full of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity — then yes, that organization should also be shut down.

United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described his threshold test for obscenity as, “I’ll know it when I see it.” The problem with racism and anti-Semitism is that it’s not always as obvious as white kids singing about lynching “niggers.” And just because it’s not as obvious doesn’t mean it’s better or worse. If anything, the less obvious it is, the more dangerous it might be. If we decide on a zero tolerance approach, then we need to mean it. And a zero tolerance approach across the board is dangerous, both ethically and legally. When we decide to punish people for racism and anti-Semitism, we ourselves can’t afford to discriminate among the discriminators. But that’s exactly the door that was opened with the expulsion of Rice and Pettit from the University of Oklahoma.

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