June 11, 2024
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Bret Stephens: A Voice of Reason and Moral Clarity

Bret Stephens

Many of my friends in the Jewish community no longer read The New York Times, and given the newspaper’s biased, anti-Israel coverage since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, I can’t fault them for their decision. I still read the Times every day; I justify my decision because the newspaper has excellent feature articles and business news. And … Bret Stephens writes regular op-ed pieces for the paper.

If you haven’t read Bret Stephens and his excellent columns on Israel, you’re missing out on a thoughtful observer of current events … and one of the few journalists whose opinions about Israel, antisemitism and the Israel-Hamas war are shaped by reason and moral clarity.

I was privileged to hear Stephens speak in Stamford recently, and since then I’ve listened to a couple of his podcast interviews. I thought as a service to readers who might not be familiar with his opinions, I’d summarize some of the things he has recently said about Israel and the Jewish community.

Stephens pointed out that many of us don’t appreciate the level of the October 7 massacre, and what it means for a country to suffer an atrocity of this proportion. The 1,200 individuals who were slaughtered in Israel by Hamas on October 7 would be equivalent to 45,000 deaths in America, if you compare the 9 million residents in Israel to the 330 million residents in the United States. After the 9/11 tragedy, in which thousands of Americans were killed, Stephens said he did not know anyone who perished. Today in Israel, it is impossible to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who was killed, injured or taken hostage on October 7.

The opinion columnist has visited Israel a couple of times since the October 7 attack, and he obviously has witnessed a lot of grief among its citizens and a lot of fury (both at Hamas and at the Israeli government). However, the overriding emotion he has witnessed, he says, is despair—the Jewish predicament of feeling existentially alone has never been stronger, according to Stephens. In the past, he always sensed a strong feeling of confidence and resourcefulness among Israelis. Right now, he does not see that usual Israeli swagger, as the ground seems to be crumbling right under their feet.

Stephens says that Hamas views not just every Israeli death as a tactical victory but every Palestinian death as a propaganda victory, which makes fighting the war against them that much more difficult, as both deaths serve the group’s ultimate purpose.

He also says that there is a misunderstanding of the word “proportional,” which is often utilized by critics of Israel when discussing its use of force. Stephens believes that you should use force proportional to your need to achieve an objective. It does not mean an equivalence or a ratio between two parties.

As for antisemitism, Stephens has never felt more despondent and more alienated from the rest of the American community. And he believes things will get worse before they get better. He points out that Kristalnacht didn’t happen in one night in 1938, it was prepared for—there was a campaign to create the feeling that anything done to Jews was OK, because Jews were “guilty” and the ones to blame for all of society’s ills. Stephens believes that something similar is happening in America—that the public is being prepared to believe that anything done against the Jews is permissible because they are the guilty party.

Stephens believes that two things must happen in response to the current wave of antisemitism: 1) We have to accept that unfortunately this has been our history and our destiny, and 2) We have to fight like hell against it.

In terms of the antisemitism that is happening on campus, Stephens feels that philanthropists should rethink their gifts to universities and instead direct their monies to where our children will feel safe. He also believes that persuasion is virtually impossible with antisemites. But fear is real. Stephens believes we should instill fear in university administrators—that it is not OK to have a different standard for antisemitic speech and other hate speech. “I believe in free speech as a standard; I don’t believe in it as a double standard,” he says.

Stephens says we should also be calling out the hypocrisy that exists in the media. As an example, he points to the fact that many state that Israel should be held to a higher standard because it is a democracy. The same people call Israel an apartheid state. Well, which is it? “Are you going to hold us to the standards of an apartheid state or a democracy? This constant ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ kind of argument must be called out for what it is.”

Stephens says that there are now October 7th Jews in Israel who unfortunately will never be the same. He also believes there needs to be October 8th Jews in the Diaspora who must realize that something in our psyche must change. We cannot lose our instinct for danger.

As to the hostages, Stephens believes we need to balance the freeing of the hostages with the need to fight a war. Israel has a supreme moral interest in redeeming hostages, as this is a core Jewish value. But it is counterbalanced by another reality: If, by trying to save hostages, you endanger more people, it is not a wise or productive strategy. It’s a devil of a problem for the Israeli government, and unfortunately Hamas knew exactly what it was doing when they took the hostages. “I believe that Israel should do everything it possibly can to free the hostages, but it should not make itself hostage to the hostages,” says Stephens.

As to the future of the Palestinians living in Gaza, Stephens believes that Hamas has terrorized the Palestinian people and has governed the area horrifically in the past 15 years. To the extent that Israel and the international community can now provide humanitarian relief to them, the journalist believes that it ought to be done.

According to Stephens, the Palestinian people must say to themselves that they want their children to succeed—and not spend the rest of their lives in a perpetual cycle of revenge. “Too much of Middle East politics has been defined by what Palestinians feel about the past rather than about how they feel about the future. Cultures can change. I’m generally not an optimist, but I believe things can get better.”

Stephens believes that eventually there will have to be a Palestinian state, and Israel needs to admit that this is a strong possibility. He also thinks that Jews should not be in the business of ruling over other people: “It was not Israel’s choice to be in the position they are in. But Zionism won’t be served if Israel continues to rule over millions of Palestinians.”


Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of “Meet Me in the Middle” (meet-me-in-the-middle-book.com), a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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