June 15, 2022
Bret Stephens is no stranger to American Jewish Committee (AJC) or to its mission of defending Israel and fighting antisemitism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative journalist, editor-in-chief of Sapir, and op-ed columnist for The New York Times is also not new to the AJC Global Forum stage, having appeared several times to talk about the threat posed by Iran and the rise of antisemitism in Europe and the U.S.
Over the past 12 years, Stephens, 48, has sounded the alarm for AJC audiences about the threats posed by an unsanctioned Iranian regime, the danger of Jews growing too complacent in Europe and the U.S., and the crucial role Israel plays in securing the Jewish future. He returned to AJC Global Forum 2022 to debate American University Professor of History and Jewish Studies Pamela Nadell on whether the golden age of American Jewry has come to an end.
Nadell argued that the golden age has only just begun, especially now that Jewish women -- half of American Jewry -- are rising to leadership positions and can be ordained in many denominations. After being" written out of history" for so long, she said, they "are now making it."
Stephens argued that the pinnacle of American Jewish vitality is not only in the past, but that American Jewish life is already in steep decline.
"I hope I lose this debate," he said in his opening remarks. "The history of the Jewish people in its diaspora has been a history of darkness at noon. At our zenith we reached our precipice, and that is what I fear we may be confronting here in t he U.S. today."
To understand Stephens’ perspective on the question, here are five things to know about this familiar face and cautionary voice.
- He’s practiced journalism in America, Europe, and Israel
Stephens joined The Wall Street Journal in 1998 as an op-ed editor and moved to Brussels the following year, where he wrote editorials and edited a column on the European Union.
After drawing the conclusion that Israel was being treated unfairly in the global arena, he left the Journal in January 2002 at age 28 to become the youngest editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. There, he oversaw the paper’s news coverage and editorial pages as well as its international and digital editions. He also wrote a weekly column.
In 2004, he returned to the Journal to serve as a deputy editorial page editor where he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for a collection of columns that covered the fragility of democracy as demonstrated in Egypt and Greece, the first telltale signs of cancel culture, and the Obama administration’s tendency to tolerate antisemitism, violence, and suppression of free speech committed by Islamists.
The following year, he wrote America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, in which he cautioned against a mounting U.S. isolationism and warned of global chaos if the U.S. does not behave like the world power it has become.
He moved to The New York Times in 2017 and, in 2021, helped launch Sapir, a journal exploring the future of the American Jewish community and its intersection with cultural, social, and political issues.
When Nadell pointed out that the launch of Sapir is one of many shining symbols of American Jewish vitality, Stephens chuckled: "That's one bright spot."
In 2011, Stephens wrote a foreword to a book titled License to Murder about the history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Oscar Wilde," he wrote, "once said that homosexuality is 'the love that dare not speak its name.' Today, antisemitism is the hate that dare not speak its name."
When Stephens later unearthed from his father’s belongings a 1980s issue of AJC’s Commentary magazine with those same words on its cover, he realized he had held on to that line and the idea behind it since he was a boy.
Now, Stephens is outspoken about the many variants of antisemitism that exist today – on the right, on the left, and in Islamist circles – and society’s denial that hatred of Jews is still a problem.
“The fantasy about Jewish power may seem outlandish, but it’s far more pervasive than many think — which gets to the point of people participating in antisemitism even when they aren’t knowingly perpetrating it,” he wrote after a terrorist took hostage 11 congregants inside a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
- He Believes Anti-Zionism Has Made Antisemitism Seem Cool
During a session at AJC Virtual Global Forum 2021 with his former Times and Journal colleague Bari Weiss, Stephens pointed out that a new antisemitism has been percolating ever since 1975, when the United Nations declared that Zionism is racism.
“Antisemitism is a conspiracy theory, which holds that Jews are imposters and swindlers,” he said in a session titled “The Mainstreaming of Antisemitism.” “And in the 19th century, the view was that Jews were imposters as Germans, imposters as French, imposters as Britons and so on. They didn't really belong. And furthermore, that they were swindlers, they were stealing the wealth of the countries they had joined.”
“What is anti-Zionism?” he continued. “It's the view that Jews are imposters and swindlers. They are imposters in the sense that they are pretending to be Middle Eastern, but actually are from somewhere else, have no connection to the land. And they're swindlers in the sense that they're stealing what belongs to other people.”
In the 2022 Great Debate, he raised a similar point. "Most of you in this room have children or grandchildren in universities," he said, "where the only acceptable bigotry is the antisemitism of our day, which is known as anti-Zionism."
- He Believes Israel is Key to the Future of Jews
Stephens left the Journal for The Jerusalem Post in 2002 because he wanted to correct the pervasive narrative that Israel was perpetuating violence with the Palestinians. As editor-in-chief at the age of 28, he led the Post through the more tumultuous years of the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, which reversed any progress made in peace negotiations and triggered a wave of anti-Israel furor and antisemitism across the world.
“One of the reasons I left the Wall Street Journal for the Post was because I felt the Western media was getting the story wrong,” Stephens said in 2004. “I do not think Israel is the aggressor here. Insofar as getting the story right helps Israel, I guess you could say I’m trying to help Israel.”
During his session at AJC Global Forum 2021, Stephens interrupted the moderator to drive home the point that the State of Israel is the only real security Jews have in the world today.
“We used to think that, well, the U.S. couldn't possibly change because of our long traditions of tolerance and liberalism,” he said. “We're seeing that change now. … So, the only security a Jew has, even those who hate Israel, is Israel. And we should bear that in mind when we think about issues that profoundly affect the long-term security and health of the only Jewish state in some of the most dangerous and contested terrain in the world.”
Yet when it comes to expressing an affinity with Israel, he said, Jewish college students feel silenced by the frightening cancel culture that prevails.
- This Was His Fifth Global Forum
At AJC Global Forum 2022, Stephens squared off against scholar Pamela Nadell, to debate whether the golden age of American Jewry is over, in the annual tradition of AJC’s The Great Debate.
In the Great Debates of 2010 and 2014, Stephens faced his future Times colleague Roger Cohen and took a firm stance against any Iran nuclear deal that did not severely limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capability.
“What I am trying to do very simply is say that a regime that calls for the annihilation of Israel and denies the Holocaust should not be allowed under any circumstances to acquire the means by which they can annihilate Israel and perpetrate a second Holocaust,” he said in 2010 in response to Roger Cohen’s implications that he was a warmonger.
At AJC Global Forum 2015, Stephens joined a panel of experts to discuss the rise of antisemitism in Europe and whether Jews have a future there.
“I would urge European Jews to have an instinct for danger,” he said at the time. “It’s not what Europe is now that should worry us. It’s a trend line. It’s not simply the antisemitism. It’s a European Union producing economic stagnation for its people generation after generation, and we know where that leads. Understand where things might be going and act accordingly while you can.”
At AJC Global Forum 2022, he issued a similar warning to American Jews. At a time when university administrators are quick to focus on the hatred at hand and exclusively condemn homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, this phobia and that phobia, or declare that Black lives matter, they are not as ready to condemn antisemitism without mentioning other communities.
"Incidents that would be five-alarm fires when they involved different ethnicities or different minorities are treated as trivialities when they involve Jews," he said. "When they involve other bigotries they are loud and insistent."
Nadell argued back that Stephens was ignoring a positive shift in that trend sparked by AJC and Hillel's recent summit of university presidents. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs are starting to include discussion of antisemitism and the Jewish community "They have been ignoring that, you're right," she told Stephens. "But they are not going to continue to ignore it any longer."