Jewish alumnus sues Univ. of Pa. over water buffalo incident

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PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Eden Jacobowitz, whose late night cry of "water buffalo" turned the second half of his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania into a "politically correct" nightmare, is suing his alma mater for damages, both mental and physical.

According to his attorney, Edward Rubenstone, the complaint was filed in the civil court division of Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court on Feb. 13. Jacobowitz is seeking damages "in excess of $50,000, plus interest and costs of suit, plus punitive damages."

The charges against Penn include gross negligence, breach of contract, reckless or intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and defamation.

The lawsuit stems from an incident that began just before midnight on Jan. 13, 1993, when Jacobowitz was in his dorm room working on an English paper.

Several black sorority women were making noise in front of the dorm. Jacobowitz remembers yelling, "Shut up, you water buffalo."

When the women hollered back that they were looking for a party, he added, "If you're looking for a party, there's a zoo a mile from here."

The sorority members, incensed by the yelling, called the campus police.

When the police asked Jacobowitz if he knew the race of the women, he said yes, but that it had no relevance to what he had shouted.

Some of the sorority women said that Jacobowitz had yelled "black water buffalo," but he insisted he had never mentioned race or color.

An Israeli-born Orthodox Jew from Long Island, N.Y., Jacobowitz explained at the time of the original case that his use of the term "water buffalo" came from the Hebrew word "behema," which can mean "water buffalo" but has often been used by Hebrew speakers as a mild rebuff when someone commits a thoughtless act.

Robin Read, who was then with the university's Judicial Inquiry Office, decided, however, that the water buffalo reference was racist.

In March 1993, she told Jacobowitz that no further action would be taken if he would apologize to the women and admit that he harassed them racially; if he would lead a sensitivity seminar on race in his dormitory; and if he would agree to have the incident recorded in his permanent transcript.

When Jacobowitz refused, Read told him he would have to attend a judicial inquiry.

The hearing took place on May 14, 1993. Three days later, the university published the tribunal's findings denying Jacobowitz's request for a dismissal of charges, and postponed a trial until the fall.

Almost immediately, the sorority women called a news conference and withdrew all charges, saying that undue publicity had deprived them of a fair hearing.

As far as the university was concerned, the case was officially closed.

But, after Jacobowitz graduated, he decided to see if he had a case and contacted Rubenstone.

"We charge breach of contract," Jacobowitz said in an interview last week, "because when you decide to go to a school, you basically sign an agreement that you'll abide by the rules and the school will treat you fairly and justly according to their standards.

"But the school violated their own policies by continuing the case on and on when it was clear that the charges had no merit."

Jacobowitz, the complaint says, is seeking damages because the prosecution of the case "impaired his academic career." He had to take incompletes in two of his second-semester freshman courses, and the ongoing case caused him to feel "fear, alienation and depression" while on campus.

He also suffered from a respiratory condition that began in the spring of his freshman year and persisted for at least six months.

"I definitely want damages," Jacobowitz said. "I think they owe it to me. Because when you enter an Ivy League school and are paying Ivy League prices and you get the door slammed in your face, then you're owed something."

Earlier this month Penn's attorney filed written objections to the complaint in court, according to Barbara Beck, director of news and public affairs at the university.

"The objection makes it clear that the university believes that the complaint has no merit and should be promptly dismissed," Beck said.

"The university plans to defend itself vigorously," she added.

Rubenstone dismissed Penn's objection as "pretty standard stuff," but acknowledged that the case would take some time.

Jacobowitz, whose degree from Penn is in communications, is doing temporary work for a medical company in the Philadelphia area while he waits for responses from the numerous law schools to which he has applied.