“And, Dr Gay, at Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” “It can be, depending on the context.” (Dr Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, responding to Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, during a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism at American Ivy League college campuses on 5 December 2023.)

Dr Gay’s shocking answer echoed those of her colleagues from other Ivy League Universities, namely Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT. Magill has since resigned her position. Each of these highly educated women could not unequivocally state that calls for genocide against Jews were unacceptable examples of hate speech and harassment at their campuses. They all played the “context” card as if there were some contexts that did indeed justify the extermination of an entire race. Stefanik, the fourth-ranking House Republican said in a statement following the congressional hearing: “After this week’s pathetic and morally bankrupt testimony by university presidents when answering my questions, the Education and Workforce Committee is launching an official congressional investigation with the full force of subpoena power into Penn, MIT, Harvard and others. We will use our full congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage.”

How is it possible that the leaders of three of the most prestigious educational institutions in America could not respond “yes” to a question that even the least sophisticated, moral person would answer in an instant? Are they all anti-Semites? Are they afraid of upsetting the pro-Palestinian lobby? Were they under the influence of wealthy donors from the Middle East who have an anti-Israel agenda and have threatened to withdraw funding? I do not believe that any of these suggestions is accurate. A close examination of our parsha might perhaps reveal an insight into their behaviour.

After Pharaoh had his epic dreams of thin cows eating gaunt cows and meagre wheat sheaves consuming healthy sheaves, he shared his night vision with the best minds of Egypt. None of their interpretations satisfied him. Suddenly, the head butler spoke up (Bereishit 41:9-12), “I mention my sins today. Pharaoh became angry with his servants, and he placed me in the custody of the house of the chief executioner, me and the chief baker. We dreamed a dream one night, I and he, each of us dreamed in accordance with the interpretation of his dream. There with us was a Hebrew lad, a slave of the chief executioner; we told him and he interpreted our dreams for us; each of us in accordance with his own dream he interpreted.” Upon hearing this, Pharaoh had Yosef brought before him.

The Sages (Bereishit Rabbah 89:7, cited by Rashi) comment, “Cursed are the wicked for they cannot even do a real favour! [For he called Yosef] a lad, that is a fool and a Hebrew, that is a foe.” Why did the butler speak of Yosef in such an unflattering way? Chizkuni suggests that he was motivated by self-preservation. He was concerned that if he gave a true description of Yosef, Pharaoh might promote him to high office and Yosef would hate the butler because he failed to mention him to the king earlier, as he had promised. Alternately, he was concerned that Pharaoh would become enraged at him for concealing the identity of so wise a man, hence he belittled him. The butler called him a “lad” even though Yosef was 28 when he met him. His implication was that he was an inexperienced youth. He also called him a slave, the lowest class of Egyptian society. But he added one more contemptuous description – Hebrew. It is important to note that the word Ivri, Hebrew, as used here does not refer exclusively to a member of Avraham’s family. Rather, Ivri was a reference to all of those who came from beyond the river Euphrates or who were descendants of Ever, a great-grandson of Noah’s son, Shem. The Egyptians were descendants of Noah’s son, Ham. 

The Egyptians despised the Hebrews. Later in our parsha (43:32), we are told that “the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews, as it is an abomination for the Egyptians.” Rabbi Steinsaltz (Weisfeld Edition of the Humash) writes, “It can be inferred from various sources that the ancient Egyptians were a conceited, racist nation, who treated the Semites from the north with contempt. The meals of Semites were considered an abomination for Egyptians, who refrained from eating animal meat and tended towards vegetarianism… The Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, attests to the Egyptians’ hatred of strangers, whom they considered impure.” The adjective that is often applied to Egypt in the Tanach is rahav, which means arrogant and haughty. One example is Isaiah (30:7) where the prophet remarks, “Egypt will help with futility and nothingness; therefore, I called this: Arrogance, ineffectuality they are.” Again, Rabbi Steinsaltz (ibid) writes, “Besides Biblical references to Egypt’s arrogance and pride, this characteristic is even more evident in the Egyptians’ own writings. The early Egyptians believed that they possessed all the wisdom of the world and that they had invented everything. They considered themselves to be the only enlightened and cultured nation, while others were boorish, worthless barbarians” (see Ezekiel 29:15; Rashbam and Chizkuni, Genesis 43:32)…

Which brings us back to the three university Presidents. These are arrogant people who live in Ivory Towers and look down on the “everyman”. In their minds, problems even as pernicious as rampant anti-Semitism, can be solved with policies, subtle distinctions and fancy words. If calls for genocide are becoming widespread on campus – no problem! – just change the meaning of the term or use it in a different context or excuse it on the grounds of freedom of speech and expression.  There is a point in the congressional hearing when Rep. Stefanik asks (now ex-) president Magill whether calling for genocide of Jews constitutes bullying and harassment.   When she gives her now infamous, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman” answer, she has a noticeable smirk on her face and her body language seems to be saying, “What’s wrong with you, you halfwit? Don’t you understand what I am saying?” Her pride, arrogance and pseudo-intellectualism are her downfall. In Kohellet (7:16), King Solomon warns, “Do not be overly righteous and do not be exceedingly wise; why should you go insane?”  Excessive wisdom can backfire and lead to insanity. The type of insanity we are currently witnessing: the failure of the “brightest” in society to call out evil and differentiate right from wrong.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:


The Fast of the Tenth of Tevet which commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin, is next Friday 22 December. In 1949, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared the Tenth of Tevet as Yom HaKaddish HaKlali, the day on which Kaddish should be said by family members for victims of the Holocaust whose yahrzeits are not known. The fast begins at 04:01 and terminates at 20:19. One may only begin one’s Shabbat meal after this time.

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