BOSTON – You’re organizing a pro-Israel event at Boston’s Northeastern University with a panel featuring six members of the Jewish state’s parliament who have been flown in for a speaking tour.
A few days before the event, social media starts buzzing about an anti-Israel demonstration planned by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), to take place before and during your Knesset members’ event. In addition to its colorful chants about Israelis as genocidal baby killers, SJP is known for constructing “Israeli apartheid walls” on campuses around the globe.
As an organizer of the high-profile MKs’ event, where do you turn for help?
If you are Northeastern’s Hillel executive director Arinne Braverman, your first call is to the president of the university’s Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter — better known as AEPi, the Jewish fraternity with overtly pro-Israel members who “vote with their feet,” said Braverman.
To prepare for SJP’s anti-Israel demonstration, the AEPi brothers decided to activate other Boston-area chapters, hoping that — on the evening of the event last April — SJP’s anti-Israel demonstrators would be surrounded by a sea of AEPi sweatshirt-wearing, Israeli flag-holding, Jewish fraternity brothers.
According to Braverman, this public show of support for Israel helped hundreds of community members avoid harassment from SJP activists as they entered the event. At least 90 Boston AEPi brothers turned out that evening, and all because the Northeastern chapter asked them to support Israel, said Braverman.
“AEPi brothers are the students who you can always count on to turn out a crowd,” Braverman told The Times of Israel. “They are the students who are unconfused about Israel, the ones who will wrap themselves in an Israeli flag while surrounded by SJP students calling for Israel’s destruction,” she said.
Since September, that same prideful Zionism made AEPi campus houses and brothers the target of at least ten “violent incidents” on campus, according to Andy Borans, the fraternity’s executive director. Incidents included anti-Semitic messages spray-painted in campus bathrooms, cigarettes extinguished on Israeli flags, and swastikas carved onto the cars of Jewish students, said the AEPi head.
Less violent, but still of concern, “mock IDF eviction notices” have appeared under thousands of dorm room doors. Additionally, said Borans, campus media outlets — and some professors — are disseminating more anti-Israel messages than ever. He pointed to “a serious emboldening of anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus, more vicious and violent than we have seen in decades,” he said.
Just hours after the end of Yom Kippur in September, swastikas were spray-painted onto the AEPi house at Emory University in Atlanta. On the heels of that incident, AEPi partnered with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to launch an app called CombatHateU in October. The app is one of several developed by the Center to monitor and expose hate speech, particularly online.
From Borans’ point of view, battling anti-Semitism requires not only the means to expose it, but also a strong sense of “top-down leadership,” he said.
The executive director made his own waves in April, when he adamantly spoke out against the potential admission of J Street to the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Jewish Organizations — the same umbrella organization to which AEPi had been admitted three months earlier. During the debate on J Street’s admission to the Conference, Borans “eloquently described J Street’s harmful activities on American college campuses,” as put by the Zionist Organization of America in a post-vote statement.
Credited with helping to torpedo J Street in the vote, Borans and AEPi came under attack for “ties to right-wing donors,” as well as the legitimacy of Borans’ claim that 90% of AEPi campus members urged him to vote against J Street.
Drawing the ire of organized American Jewry does not bother Borans, he said, especially when it comes to fighting Israel-bashers and setting an example for young AEPi members on the frontlines of anti-Semitism.
“AEPi brothers see our alumni around the world supporting Israel with loud, strong voices, and they mimic that,” said Borans. “We are not quiet about handling anti-Semitism or nonchalant, and this gives students courage and credibility to go out and fight the good fight,” he said.
Back at Northeastern, former chapter president Arthur Maserjian credits travel to Israel for catalyzing activism among the fraternity’s 60 members. Each year, large delegations of AEPi brothers join campus Birthright Israel trips, and many come back ready to rumble for the cause, said Maserjian.
“AEPi brothers are at the forefront of pushing for change in dealing with the administration, when needed, and building a campus network of support for Israel with outreach to other organizations,” Maserjian told The Times of Israel. “During all my years at Northeastern, AEPi provided a stronger pro-Israel message at a time when the campus had a lot of anti-Israel messages and programs,” he said.
The ‘secret sauce’ of Jewish American male leadership
Unbeknownst to many Israel supporters, AEPi members have been at the forefront of American Zionism for generations. Brother Eddie Jacobson — who died, or as fraternities say, passed into the “chapter eternal” in 1955 — was President Harry Truman’s close friend and widely credited with convincing Truman to support the establishment of modern Israel. Sam Rothberg, also a brother, created Israel Bonds in 1951 to help grow the new Jewish state.
Today’s 10,000 campus members are more hooked up than ever, with older brothers like Alan Dershowitz and Sheldon Adelson ready to — for instance — pen an op-ed in support of embattled honorary AEPi brother Daniel Mael of Brandeis University, or fly a hundred brothers to Las Vegas for a weekend of advocacy training. On campus itself, brothers are as likely to engage with Hillel House staff members as local Chabad rabbis, a whopping 80 of whom are AEPi brothers, according to Borans.
And then of course there’s Facebook guru brother Mark Zuckerberg, known for keeping quiet about anything related to Israel, but through whom AEPi — and its Harvard chapter — gained worldwide attention in 2010’s “The Social Network” film, about Zuckerberg and Facebook’s rise to fame. According to Borans, the film inspired the creation of the fraternity’s first United Kingdom chapter.
In 1913, AEPi followed in the footsteps of the first US Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, created in 1898. During the 1920s heyday of Jewish Greek life on campus, there were 17 such fraternities and sororities. Only AEPi, however, maintained its sectarian character and spread to places like Canada, where it is that country’s largest fraternity.
The mid-1970s are acknowledged as the crisis years in AEPi’s history. At a time when Greek organizations were in steep decline on campuses everywhere, AEPi held intense debates about whether to recruit non-Jewish members to save the fraternity. With fraternities and sororities drawing increased scorn in a post-Vietnam, anti-establishment era, AEPi decided to remain “a Jewish fraternity,” and not change into “a fraternity of Jewish men,” as it was explained.
Two generations after making that Herzl-esque decision, the storied fraternity with 100,000 global alumni is finally growing roots in Israel. When he spoke with the Times of Israel at the end of December, Borans was on his way there from the US, where he met with leaders of emerging AEPi chapters at Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University and the Technion.
In 2009, AEPi opened up shop as Israel’s first fraternity, based at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya. Chapter growth has exceeded expectations, including through Israeli students looking to recreate the “brotherhood” aspect of service in the Israel Defense Forces, plus a healthy dose of North American-born “legacy” brothers from IDC’s international school, said Borans.
“AEPi is very much generational, and our guys want their kids to be in it,” said Borans. “They want their kids to not lose their Jewish identity in college, but to embrace that identity and their relationship with Israel,” he said.