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What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Doing Leading a Fraternity Like This?

The national leader of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was preparing a celebratory message for the fraternity’s 159th anniversary when news broke about the now notorious video showing chapter members from the University of Oklahoma loudly chanting a racist mantra calling for blacks to be lynched.

In his message, Bradley Cohen had planned to hail the achievement of one of his own long-sought goals: the end of hazing at the fraternity, where 10 students nationwide have died in recent years during brutal initiation rituals. But as he monitored the social media response provoked by the surfacing of the video on March 8, Cohen quickly realized that this would be no celebration day.

“I knew this was just going to be bad,” the 52-year-old eminent supreme archon of SAE said.

Cohen is the first Jew ever to lead SAE, a fraternity whose history is rooted in the Antebellum South. He has been involved with it for more than three decades, since he himself was a student. He was always aware of its problems, including the harsh initiation process that had tarnished the group’s reputation. Indeed the fraternity’s record of brutal and sometimes deadly hazing and reports of sexual assault at its parties have led at least 15 schools to ban the fraternity since 2011, and 100 schools to discipline it since 2007, according to Bloomberg Business News.

But the torrent of racism charges now enveloping SAE, Cohen claims, is a problem that applies to only “a few bad apples” in the group. Cohen believes he knows this firsthand. In fact, he believes he embodies the rebuttal. He is, after all, a Jewish president of a fraternity that until 1952 would not let Jews like him in at all.

“What infuriates me is when they start talking about — that we’re like the [Ku Klux] Klan,” Cohen told the Forward. “Really? The Klan has Jewish national presidents?” The Oklahoma SAE video raised a firestorm of rage and brought media and public attention to an underlying racism that, some claim, still pervades the Greek system in American higher education. The 10-second clip depicts SAE members on a bus together, singing, “There will never be a n— at SAE; you can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me; there will never be a n— at SAE.”

As national reaction to the video escalated, both the University of Oklahoma and SAE moved into action quickly. The university expelled the students seen in the video, and SAE shut down its chapter immediately. Cohen convened the fraternity’s board the same day to pass the resolution closing University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter for four to five years, taking action against those involved, and launching an investigation into the chapter’s conduct.

Still, in a March 15 phone interview, conducted while he was on a business trip to China, Cohen sought to exculpate the fraternity as a whole from the incident. Chapters in “some of our Southern states — not a lot — might not have the diversity that you see across the country,” he said. Cohen also took issue with attempts to pin the racist rant solely on the fraternity rather than on the broader environment surrounding the students involved. In a harshly worded email to the university’s president, Cohen rejected what he viewed as attempts to pin the blame squarely and solely on SAE. “These were Sooners first and foremost, who happened to be in Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” Cohen wrote, using the University of Oklahoma’s nickname.

But documented incidents make clear that the Oklahoma bus ride was not the only event in which SAE members engaged in racist activity. In 1982 SAE members were suspended from the University of Cincinnati after hosting a racially offensive party on Martin Luther King day. More recently, in 2013, SAE members at Washington University in St. Louis were suspended after singing racial slurs, and in 2014, SAE’s chapter at the University of Arizona, Cohen’s own alma matter, was temporarily suspended after 15 members attacked students from the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, shouting what a report by the school’s dean of students described as “discriminatory comments.”

Cohen disputes the accuracy of many of these and other media reports about racial incidents involving SAE. He added: “We have an average of 10,000 students every year, so maybe over 30 years there were a handful of guys who did something offensive. I don’t think this is different than any other organization.”

There is no denying that racism and anti-Semitism were part of SAE’s history. Until changing its laws in the early 1950s, the fraternity had a clear policy of denying membership from those who are not “members of the Caucasian race” or who have a “full-blooded Jew” for a parent.

Speaking last year to a gathering of SAE leaders in California, Cohen held up the fraternity’s old rulebook and read aloud the restrictive clause. Then he asked participants, made up of students and alumni, to stand up if they’d fail this eligibility standard. He estimates that more than half stood up. “I raised my hand, too, and I said, ‘Guys, we’re all in the same boat.’”

The exercise was intended to convince SAE members that the reforms on hazing that Cohen had installed were a welcome transformation. Those reforms eliminated hazing by doing away with the initiation pledge process altogether — a deeply unpopular move in some quarters of the fraternity. Cohen sought to portray the move as something that will be looked upon in years to come as akin in its inevitability to eliminating SAE’s past racist and anti-Semitic exclusions.

Now, the charge of racism, which Cohen regarded as having been abolished decades ago, may overshadow his legacy as one of SAE’s key reformers.

As a Jew, Cohen is a seemingly unlikely candidate to lead this particular fraternity. But there is more. Cohen was born in South Africa and moved to America at age 16 with his parents, who were disenchanted with their home country’s racial apartheid regime. His father, a physician, was the first Jew to represent South Africa in the Olympics, competing in swimming and water polo. But the family, which is of English descent, viewed itself as separate from the Afrikaans speakers who politically dominated the country.

When it was time for college, Cohen chose his home state school, the University of Arizona. But he was miserable during his first year there in the dorms, and decided to join a fraternity. To some extent, his path to a fraternity that had in the past excluded Jews was random. Cohen and a friend ran into a group of alumni trying to reopen the university’s SAE frat house, which had been shut down several years before because of vandalism and hazing abuses committed by the earlier members. Cohen and his friend agreed to join and recruit members for the reinstated chapter. As it turned out, some 40% of the members recruited were Jewish.

“I never experienced one iota of anti-Semitism, either in the chapter or from any of the alumni,” Cohen said. His friend Josh Stein, now a lawyer in Orange, California, told the Forward not only that there was no anti-Jewish atmosphere when the two lived together at the SAE fraternity house, but also that the other members “went out of their way to make sure we [were] comfortable.” Among other things, Stein offered, the frat’s non-Jewish members made sure that ham was kept separately from other food in the frat house.

Cohen became president of his chapter for two terms. Upon graduating he worked for the fraternity’s national headquarters, setting up new chapters. He then moved on to a successful business career. Cohen now owns an escrow service company and resides in Newport Coast, California, with his wife, who is also a South African Jew, and his three children. The family belongs to a Reform synagogue in Irvine, and their three children went to Jewish day school in the early grades, later moving to public school. “I thought they were in too much of a bubble, and I believe in diversity,” he said.

The sight of a nice Jewish boy like Cohen growing up to head a non-Jewish fraternity is not unusual nowadays, experts say. After World War II, fraternities removed restrictive clauses from their bylaws, and Jews, who had earlier set up their own separate fraternities and sororities, quickly became an integral part of Greek life elsewhere.

“It has become common to find in fraternities that would never, ever have accepted Jews in the past, many Jews in all positions,” said Miriam Sanua Dalin, professor of history and Jewish studies at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, Florida. Dalin, who has researched the issue, noted that in some cases, there was an actual bias toward filling leadership positions with Jews, who were viewed as “more qualified” to lead and to present the fraternity’s positive face. This played into the stereotype of Jewish students being less rowdy and less inclined to use alcohol in excess.

But racism, Matthew Hughey wrote in a March 13 column in The New York Times, is still alive in fraternities, especially when it comes to blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans.

“Why do some Greek-letter organizations seem to bring out the worst in people?” asked Hughey, a University of Connecticut researcher. “Historically white fraternal groups can be key mechanisms in the intergenerational transmission of white wealth, power and status. The stakes for belonging are high, and the culture must legitimate its own existence, forcing out those who fail to conform.”

The University of Oklahoma incident brought to the surface other claims regarding racist events involving SAE chapters. According to reports, chapters in Texas and Louisiana were also known to sing the chant heard on the Oklahoma student bus. Cohen argued that 99% of SAE members have never heard the song.

For Cohen, the discussion of racism at SAE is, to a great extent, a distraction. He credits the fraternity with his success as an adult. “I went from a very reserved, introverted boy to a very confident young man, and I attributed a lot of it to SAE,” Cohen said. If there is any racist behavior, which he describes as “despicable” and “disgusting and deplorable,” he intends to “nip it in the bud right now.” But he believes this is not the main issue facing SAE.

Cohen will be stepping down as president in June and would still like to be remembered for his main project — abolishing the pledge for SAE prospective members, and thereby doing away with hazing and cutting injuries and casualties. Ending a process that had defined Greek life for centuries was a tough sell for Cohen. Threats from insurers to decline coverage because of SAE’s reputation as an unsafe fraternity helped him convince students and alumni that the move was necessary.

A year later, he believes it was a great success. Membership is up, internal criticism died down and SAE, Cohen says, is a safer place. Cohen launched the reform initiative because he feared that his own children would go to a fraternity that was not safe. “I’m more confident now with my kids joining SAE than I ever was,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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