Parasha Korach

Silencing Your Critics When does a controversy that erupts at a student organization at a small college make the front page of the New York Times?  — When that controversy involves Israel.  A few months ago the students at the Hillel at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania rebelled. They wanted to sponsor a speaker to talk about Israel. They could not do it, because inviting that speaker violated a policy of Hillel. That policy prohibits inviting speakers that “deny the right of Israel to exist; “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel”; support boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel; or “foster an atmosphere of incivility.” These guidelines also prohibit Hillel’s sponsoring programs with organizations that espouse any of these views. Sounds reasonable, right? However, last year a group of fifteen students had dinner at the Harvard Hillel house with Avraham Burg. Burg is an Israeli author and politician, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency, and former speaker of the Israeli Parliament.  Burg had to cross the street to speak in another building, however, because his visit was co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which supports boycott and divestment from Israel. At the State University of New York in Binghamton, Benjamin Sheriden, a senior, arranged the showing of the Academy Award nominated “5 Broken Cameras”. This is a documentary on the non-violent resistance of a Palestinian farmer to the actions of the Israeli army. Benjamin Sheriden also invited the brother of the filmmaker to talk about the film. This brother is a Palestinian angry about Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Benjamin Sheriden claims that this movie and invitation led to his being forced to resign from a Hillel board. He also claims that he lost his paid internship for promoting study abroad programs for Israel. “The second I question Israel,” — Israeli policies, not its existence — all of a sudden I’m a pariah?” he asked. “If Hillel is going to be the group that represents all Jews, how can it say, ‘On Israel we have one policy only’?” Eric D. Fingerhut, the president and chief executive of Hillel, responded sharply to the rebellious students who declared themselves an “Open Hillel”.  Hillel’s mission, he asserts, is to build Jewish identity and life-long connections to Israel.  Hillels are not permitted to sponsor any activities which are deemed anathema to that mission, or which might interfere with a positive connection to Israel. Supporters of the policy note that there are plenty of places on campus where students can hear dissident views of Israel. Campus Hillels are not the place for that discourse to take place.   
Peter Beinart, an American Jewish writer with leftist tendencies, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha-Aretz that under Hillel guidelines, Amoz Oz, the great Israeli writer, would not be allowed to speak at a Hillel. A few weeks ago Oz called the settlers on the West Bank “Hebrew neo-nazis”.  Isn’t that demonizing Israel, asks Beinart. He goes on to argue that half of the Israeli cabinet as well as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe could logically be excluded from speaking at Hillels by the guidelines that Hillel executives have promulgated. [1] The guidelines are so vague, he writes, that they are really an excuse for powerful people in a given Jewish community to exclude those from speaking who they do not agree with. He suggests a simpler formulation for a guideline ““Hillel will only host speakers who affirm the right of both Jews and Palestinians to live in the land of Israel.” This, he says, would exclude racists and exterminationists who dream of the land cleansed of everyone from the other side, but would significantly broaden the intellectual and moral debate that surrounds the Jewish state. Who has the right to speak, and who must be silenced? That controversy, so central to the issues at Hillel, are also central to our parasha this Shabbat. In it, Moses is faced with a rebellion of his own. Korakh, Moses’ first cousin, issues a challenge to Moses. Who elected you to be our leader? By what right do you call all the shots for our community?  Is Aaron the most qualified person to be our High Priest, or is he High Priest because he is your brother?  The entire community is holy, but you exalt yourself and your brother above us. Why are you privileged to speak on the community’s behalf? Moses responds with the same answer that all leaders up until the American Revolution have responded with when their authority has been challenged. If they didn’t themselves claim to be a god, they all believed, or wanted their subjects to believe, that they had been appointed by G-d. Having derived their authority from G-d, they had the right to do whatever they pleased.  Moses really was appointed by G-d, but how was Korakh to know this was true?  How was he to know that it was not just something that Moses said to justify his position – like all leaders from time immemorial? Moses was, of course, able to prove that he spoke on behalf of G-d, and Korakh and his followers were silenced. Who has the authority to determine who speaks at college Hillels? Is it the members of the International Board of Directors, who donate their time, energy, and considerable financial resources to provide support and direction for campus Hillels? These are men and women who have a long term commitment to Hillel and are deeply invested in its mission.  Or should the students themselves; on campus for only four years before they move on, have the authority to invite whoever they want to hear speak? If students were able to take more “ownership” of their programming, have more autonomy in their choices, would this cause more Jewish students to be active in Hillel? Would Hillel then be perceived as being more inclusive, open to more points of view, and thereby draw more Jewish students in – as students in the “Open Hillel” movement claim? I have to admit I do not know the answer. It is perhaps instructive to look at how Moses dealt with the rebellion against him. Moses calls upon the rebels to speak to him. According to Rashi, Moses sent for them so that he could appease them with words of peace. “We will not go up,” was their reply, as they repeated their grievances against Moses. From this our rabbis teach that we should always seek to end controversies through words and through compromise. We need to open our hearts to truly listen to the other side. Angry declarations and defensive missives played out on the front pages of a national newspaper do not a dialogue make.