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Korach on the Loose
My Point of View, June 30, 2011
© Rabbi Jack Moline

What can be learned about Delta Airlines, Huma Abedin and Auchentoss Single-Malt Scotch from a Biblical scoundrel?

In the early 1980s, Proctor and Gamble, manufacturer of household products that keep things clean, became the victim of dirty rumors. It seems that parties unknown interpreted the company logo, a crescent "man in the moon" facing thirteen stars, as the company's endorsement of the Church of Satan. In fact, the logo had originated in the middle of the 19th century, with the thirteen stars included as a tribute to the original thirteen colonies. But the falsehood spread so effectively aided by a competitor in spite of denials from civic and religious leaders that P&G eventually changed its logo.

It may be hard to feel compassion for a corporation, but it is not hard to sympathize with the consumers who eventually had to bear the increased cost of products to cover the revamping of all of Proctor and Gamble's packaging.

The rumor-mongers used a technique that is as old as the Bible. They took a picture and connected the dots. The dots were not in the original picture, but they had reached a conclusion and superimposed their evidence. Moreover, seeing an advantage in what must have struck most people as absurd, P&G's competitor took to spreading the lie.

In the Book of Numbers is the story of Korach, a Levite during the years of the exodus from Egypt. Distressed at the grim outlook for his generation, Korach fomented a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of self-advancement at the expense of "the people." According to rabbinic commentary, one tactic used by Korach was to invent the story of a poor widow who was systematically stripped of her sustenance by Moses and Aaron. Korach quoted selectively from the Law every verse in and of itself accurate to underscore a conclusion he had fabricated. The Bible makes clear that Korach held an appeal for some, with dire consequences for all of them.

Korach lived in a self-contained community, so his rumors spread quickly and were refuted quickly. Proctor and Gamble faced its challenge before the Internet, so the rumors about its logo spread more slowly and were answered more slowly. But of late, the worst of the two have combined in a series of rumors and misrepresentations. And those who promote them should be ashamed and should be rebuked.

In the late spring of 2011, Anthony Weiner, a Member of Congress from Queens, NY, resigned from his position in the aftermath of a scandal involving inappropriate pictures and texts he had sent to a variety of women. Some people were angry and some people were saddened, but some people saw an opportunity. Mr. Weiner had been married for less than a year to Huma Abedin, a close assistant to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Ms. Abedin is a Muslim (and Mr. Weiner is a Jew), and it was not long before a headline appeared on the ultra-right-wing web site Front Page asking, "Why is Weiner's Muslim Brotherhood Wife Not Resigning?"

The article itself never ties Ms. Abedin to the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist party with the dubious credit for some of the earliest acts of terror in the Middle East. It does, however, carefully assert associations of her mother and brother with people known to be associated with aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood. And having implied, if never stated, Ms. Abedin's role as a Muslim Brotherhood operative, it goes on to suggest that she married Mr. Weiner as part of a plan to access sensitive information since she is "a practicing Muslim."

Front Page and other sites of its ilk are well-known sources of conspiracy theories and questionable logic. But this story was noticed by members of the Jewish community including rabbis and circulated as if it were credible. Korach lives.

It is easy to dismiss such extreme examples as atypical. After all, most people read these stories with a critical eye, and even readers on the Front Page web site posted comments calling the headline into question.

But shortly thereafter, World News Daily, another source of conspiracy theories, ran the headline "Delta Adopts Saudi `No-Jew' Fly Policy." In this story, the author accuses Delta Airlines of cooperating with the policies of Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is owned by the Saudi government (it is in the process of going private). Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive entry visa requirements in the world, including a prohibition of entry to anyone holding an Israeli passport or having an Israeli stamp on the passport. There is some evidence that people with "obvious Jewish names" are also denied entry visas. It should be noted that there is virtually no tourism industry in Saudi Arabia that is not connected to Mecca, a city officially restricted to Muslims only.

In fact, SAA has joined SkyTeam Alliance, an association of airlines that enables passengers to book more easily from airline to airline. SkyTeam is based in Amsterdam and is one of three such industry alliances. The other United States carriers that fly internationally, United, American, Continental and US Airways, belong to the other two alliances. Those alliances also include airlines from countries that restrict travel on an Israeli passport. Delta does not profit from this arrangement and has not changed its non-discriminatory ticketing policies. It is the responsibility of any passenger to have personally arranged all travel documentation before boarding for a specific destination. Since Delta does not fly to Saudi Arabia, Delta would not be forced to decide between its policies and the Saudis' policies.

Delta, on the other hand, indeed flies to Israel.

Once again, this exaggeration for the sake of justification might well have escaped popular notice had it not been for a mainstream outlet. Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes for the Huffington Post web site, is a Conservative rabbi about as mainstream a combination as there is, left of center. Modifying the World Net Daily headline only slightly, Miller sent his version of this alarmist fabrication screaming into the computers of Jews and others, including his reworking of Delta's name ("Don't Even Let Them Aboard") and his suggestion that eventually he might be denied boarding on Delta flights from his home town of Detroit. Within twenty-four hours, it reached my computer from three different sources and appeared on the local news.

One rabbi, having read this piece, wondered if the Saudi presence was responsible for Delta temporarily suspending service from Atlanta to Tel Aviv. (No, in case you are wondering, unless you consider higher prices for Saudi-produced jet fuel justification of that conclusion.) By Friday evening, the end of the initial news cycle, congregants were asking if they should surrender their Delta frequent flyer points in protest. Rabbi Miller stands by his column. Korach lives.

The broad reach and instantaneous speed of modern communications ensures that any message can go viral. Yet, not every message does go viral. Why is that?

The answer is also in the story of Korach. Surely, he was not the first of the Israelites to rebel against Moses. Other stories of dissatisfaction and rebellion abound in the Torah the Golden Calf, the desire for meat, fraternizing with pagan tribes. But Korach gets mentioned because he used his position of respect in the community to take advantage of irrational fears. Korach has drawn a picture of himself as the central leader, the arbiter of truth, the credible source. And worse he has offered no solution to his complaints. He has merely invented their cause.

Saudi prejudice against Israel and Jews is wrong, and ought to be opposed. Likewise, hate-mongering about Muslims is wrong and ought to be opposed. In our complicated world, people sometimes look for small symbolic actions that they think can address large problems. Unfortunately, the symbolism of those actions is about the sum total of their effectiveness and often they are instead counterproductive.

When the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs called for the boycott of single-malt Scotch from an area in Scotland where the local council had voted to support boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, they included the one distillery that had proactively sought kosher supervision as a service to the Jewish community. BDS should be opposed; substituting a different brand of Scotch would not do it, but it makes people feel very virtuous. (One correspondent of mine likened it to opposing the Nazis.)

And mounting an attack on one major US airline that offers non-stop and other direct flights to Israel may seem like a very principled stance, but it will not impact Saudi policy and may, instead, diminish traffic to Israel and reduce the number of available flights. But it gives voice to righteous indignation.

There is good reason to be alert in our world. There are serious dangers to people of good will, and still more than enough anti-Jewish sentiment to go around. But those who substitute hysteria and half-truths for information and who recommend storming airline ticket counters as the solution are the very people who keep Korach on the loose.

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