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The 1945 satirical novella “Animal Farm” by George Orwell depicts a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where animals can be equal, free, and happy. But their idealistic aspirations are eventually crushed under the dictatorship of a pig fittingly named Napoleon, who is supported by a group of snobby pigs and a herd of adulating sheep.
Initially, one of the Seven Commandments established by the animals to govern their new society is “All animals are equal.” But towards the end of the book, this slogan is altered by the pigs to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The changed mantra reflects the rise of a new elite class among the animals, specifically the pigs, who start to resemble the oppressive human rulers they initially overthrew. The altered commandment symbolizes a betrayal of the revolution’s original ideals, and the establishment of a new tyranny under Napoleon and the pigs.
Orwell’s “Some animals are more equal than others” is a piercing critique of political hypocrisy. It reflects the reality seen in governing entities around the world that loudly champion the ideals of equality and justice for all, yet subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, create an elevated class among those under their jurisdiction.
This paradox of proudly proclaimed egalitarianism contrasted with the reality of selective privilege forms a cornerstone of Orwell’s sharply observed narrative, and it remains as accurate today as when it was first published.
This past Tuesday, we were presented with a shocking live-action version of Orwell’s perceptive observation during the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.
The gathering heard from three presidents of Ivy League universities, Claudine Gay of Harvard University, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. All three universities have witnessed a dramatic spike in overt and even violent antisemitism over the past few weeks, since the Hamas-perpetrated October 7th massacre against Jews in Southern Israel.
It was a perfect opportunity for these senior representatives of three bastions of academic excellence to publicly distance themselves from the radical elements that have overtaken student activism on their campuses, and turned their institutions into cesspools of ugly prejudice and hatred against Jews. Instead, they obfuscated and used every rhetorical trick in the book to evade admitting the truth, which is this: on their college campuses, Jews are not treated equal to other minorities, which means that Jewish students can be targeted in ways that other minority groups can never be targeted, and those who target them will not face formal consequences.
Consider this astounding exchange: “Yes or no, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] rules of bullying and harassment?” – Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York repeatedly asked this question to the witnesses. Kornbluth initially answered, “If targeted at individuals not making public statements,” and then added, “I have not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus.”
Stefanik pointed out that M.I.T. students had publicly called for “Intifada”, which is a euphemism for violence and terrorism against Jews. “I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic depending on the context,” Kornbluth responded. In what context is calling for an Intifada not antisemitic, one wonders.
The answer is simple and tragic: in a world where Jewish rights are not equal to the rights of others, calling for an Intifada is not considered antisemitic. Although, imagine calling for an Intifada against blacks, or Asians, or transgenders – would anyone hesitate to consider the context?
Magill was equally slippery: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.” Stefanik kept going: “I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
Magill responded, “If it is directed, severe, pervasive – it is harassment… it is a context dependent decision, Congresswoman.”
Stefanik appeared stunned. “It’s a context-dependent decision? That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context – that is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer!”
The pantomime continued with Magill’s next answer: “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment.” This time Stefanik was even more shocked. “Conduct, meaning committing the act of genocide? The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable! Ms. Magill, I’m going to give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s Code of Conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment, yes or no?”
But Magill still refused to be drawn. “It can be harassment,” she responded after a pause and then a smirk.
At this point, Stefanik moved on to Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay. “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?” It was almost as if the three presidents had colluded and rehearsed their lines in advance. Perhaps they had.
“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay responded.
By this time Stefanik was incredulous. “What’s the context?” she asked.
Gay shot back, “Targeted at an individual.”
Stefanik’s jaw dropped. “It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them? Do you understand that dehumanization is part of antisemitism?”
Gay didn’t need to answer. We all know the answer. The three pigs had made their views very clear. Dehumanizing Jews doesn’t matter. Or, it only matters when the powers-that-be decide it matters; Jewish victims of dehumanizing antisemitism have no say in whether it matters or not. Because “some animals are more equal than others.”
“This is why you should resign,” Stefanik told Kornbluth, Magill, and Gay, as she finished her round of questions. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.” Although of course they won’t resign, because on their Animal Farms, they are Napoleon, and they are fully supported by similarly snobby pigs and herds of adulating sheep.
In Parshat Vayeishev, we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers had a grudge against Joseph and unjustly targeted him. Motivated by jealousy and blinded by hatred, they accused him of crimes he had never committed, and eventually sold him off into slavery to Egypt. There he encounters even more injustice – he is thrown into prison after being falsely accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife.
The Talmudic sages note that Joseph’s brothers were convinced their treatment of Joseph was equitable and just; they were seemingly unable to put themselves in Joseph’s shoes and see things from his perspective. In fact, as far as they were concerned his perspective didn’t count – only their perspective mattered. Crucially, they had the power to be judge and jury, despite their inherent biases – and their refusal to be objective resulted in family turmoil that took decades to come right.
Joseph’s resilience and eventual rise to power in Egypt, despite his brothers’ treachery, offers us some hope from the dawn of Jewish history. It reminds us that even in the face of overwhelming injustice and prejudice, integrity and truth do eventually prevail.
This parallel is a poignant reminder that despite the current dominance of unfair and biased attitudes against Jews, and the lack of equity in the treatment of Jews as the current crisis in the Middle East continues to rage, the potential for a just outcome still remains. Let us pray it is not too long in coming.