Foreign Currents: In Response to Bret Stephens

Foreign Currents columnist Cole Warren ’24 is joined by Editor-in-Chief Sam Spratford ’24 to problematize the “Manichean worldview” voiced by Bret Stephens at last week’s talk.

In the 1960s, activist and scholar Isaac Deutscher discussed how he understood the relationship of his Jewish background with his political and religious beliefs. When asked about what defines a Jew, he famously wrote, “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.” Influenced by the intellectual histories of both Judaism and socialism, Deutscher eloquently synthesized his own understanding of his identity with a call for the universal emancipation of all oppressed people.

We mention this quote not only because of its relevance to the events that have been unfolding in Palestine and Israel, but also because this message contains the timeless truth that solidarity with and among the oppressed and marginalized is required to create a more equitable world. In other words, every people’s liberation is intertwined. These values have informed much of our own intellectual and political beliefs — including, for one author, their relationship to their Jewish identity. Over our past four years at Amherst College, we always hoped that this institution shared these same values. These values necessarily demand the cultivation of critical debate about Western imperialism, capitalism, and white supremacy, centering equity and sensitivity to the diverse identities represented in our student body.

Unfortunately, we feel that Bret Stephens, who was invited by the president’s office to present his viewpoint on the conflict unfolding in the Middle East, has ultimately weakened the college’s effort to create a productive campus dialogue of this kind. With this letter, we hope to offer a perspective that problematizes some of the more distorted viewpoints that Stephens voiced in his lecture.

We attended Stephens’ talk last Wednesday in Stirn auditorium entitled “Israel, Antisemitism, and the U.S.” Unsurprisingly given our knowledge of Stephens’ past contributions to public discourse, we disagreed with almost everything he said. For brevity’s sake, we want to focus on Stephens’ Manichean worldview, which led him to present an argument that justifies continued violence in the region (as long the violence is even slightly related to the goal of dismantling Hamas) and allowed him to make sweeping claims such as “anti-Zionism is just an updated form of antisemitism, which in itself was an updated version of older forms of Jew-hatred.” In order to sustain a culture of critical and compassionate campus engagement, his dualistic thinking on Israel-Palestine must be addressed.

During such an unprecedented campaign of mass death, it is incredibly irresponsible to uncritically accept the ends-justify-the-means attitude reflected by Stephens in reference to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. In order to defend this line of thought, Stephens made numerous comments that mischaracterized Israel’s past and present security policy toward the strip, ultimately portraying Israel as the “good guy” concerned with safety and flourishing for all people. His justification of the blockade of Gaza as a purely “defensive” Israeli military action failed to acknowledge how Israeli authorities have complete control of the movement of people and goods to and from the territory. His statement “there’s no reason why Gaza can’t be a Dubai on the Mediterranean” seemed particularly in poor taste, especially since the Gazan economy has been dependent on international aid and the limited access to the Israeli labor market since the beginning of the blockade. If one accepts Stephens’ incorrect history, then Israel’s current military campaign appears much less like a brutal massacre and more like a benevolent attempt to free Gaza from the regressive presence of Hamas.

In the interest of portraying Hamas as the sole actor standing in the way of peace in Gaza, Stephens failed to mention that Israel’s status-quo treatment of Gaza has been far from peaceful. The Gaza Strip was established through the relocation of 200,000 refugees forced from their homes by military offensives to establish the State of Israel. As Geneva Centre Fellow Ahmad Samih Khalidi explained at another recent event, Gazans have since 1948 lived with material insecurity, unable to develop an independent economy, and virtually unarmed against periodic Israeli invasions and bombardments.

We, of course, find the Oct. 7 attacks morally reprehensible and, like Stephens, are committed to minimizing the possibility of it happening again. It is for this very reason that it is so urgent to recognize the desperate conditions surrounding Hamas’ rise to power. Flattening the strip and further dispossessing Gazans thus ensures a future of even more anger, more violence. Liberation for Gaza cannot only mean dismantling Hamas (which is, as a side note, an unlikely result of the current military campaign) but committing to a lasting state of equality and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Notably, Stephens’ vision for said two-state solution seems mostly concerned with creating a docile and profitable population for the Western world’s benefit. In addition to his “Dubai on the Mediterranean” remark, Stephens urged Palestinians to imagine a future as “a small boutique nation … like the Emirates.” This amounts, in Stephen’s own words, to abandoning “what you are owed, or what was taken from you, or what happened in the past.” The idea that the dispossession of the Palestinian people is a past event that they have failed to “get over” devalues their political aspirations and agency, so that Israel as well as Western imperial interests can impose themselves on the region.

To this end, though Stephens stated his willingness to listen to criticisms of the Israeli government, anyone who denies Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state in Historical Palestine characterized by the primacy of the Jewish people is, in his words, an antisemite. Although he did try to support his claim that the state of Israel currently provides equal rights to all of its citizens (ignoring, of course, the systemic discrimination against non-Jews and Jews of color, as well as the persistent inequality between European Jews and Mizrahim), we find Stephens’ sweeping remark extremely counterproductive and alienating to valuable oppositional voices. This is extremely disconcerting given the noticeable rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other insidious forms of racism worldwide over the past few years. We recognize and condemn the fact that antisemitism has infiltrated some pro-Palestine discourses. However, Stephens’ dismissal of all arguments critical of his interpretation of Zionism as antisemitic not only trivializes both terms, but quells further discussion of the possibilities for peace in the future, whether that be a long-lasting ceasefire in Gaza right now or a future multiethnic polity where all people are guaranteed security and dignity.

Remarks like this also discount the agency and identity of Jews who are critical of the Zionism that Stephens espouses. For instance, Stephens’s conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism grossly devalues the rich intellectual history of nationalism and anti-imperialist activism on the Jewish left. By his logic, Jewish intellectual staples such as Ilan Pappé, Isaac Deutscher, Hans Kohn, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Einstein should be categorically written off as antisemites due to their critiques of nationalist Zionism or their support for a binational state. We would hope this genre of argumentation seems absurd to anyone on Amherst’s campus or elsewhere who was taught to value close reading, critical thinking, and intellectual openness (which, unfortunately, does not seem to include the U.S. Congress).

We also hope that it is understood how demeaning this argument is to the experiences of Jewish students on campus who have, for the past two months, been plagued by grief and despair as they wake up each morning to a new round of Israeli attacks supposedly carried out in their name. This is preceded, of course, by years of growing up with the confusing and heartbreaking awareness that the preservation of your people is supposedly contingent upon the dispossession of another. This fallacy tacitly demands that anti-Imperialist, anti-Zionist Jews make a choice between their identities. We wholeheartedly reject this proposal. To blanketly label anti-Zionist Jews as antisemites is to alienate them from their own community at a time when, more than ever, their viewpoints can contribute to the goals of liberation and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Take, for instance, Hayim Katsman, a scholar and activist on the Israeli left who was killed in the Oct. 7 attacks. Amid Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign to annex the West Bank and create what Katsman saw as a “de jure (rather than merely de facto) apartheid Jewish state,” Katsman in 2019 sent out a call to the Israeli left to be forceful and unequivocal in their reimaginings of what peace in the region could look like. Katsman rightfully noted the inherent contradiction between “the Zionism practiced today” — the movement for an “exclusivist Jewish nation-state” — and the achievement of a truly equitable nation for Israelis and Palestinians: “Clearly, there is an inherent tension in Israel between the nation’s stated aspiration to grant equal rights to the entire ‘demos’ and the actual policy of preserving privileges for the Jewish ‘ethnos.’”

Katsman did affirm the necessity of rejecting Zionism on the terms Stephens defined it — as the right of the Jewish people to their own nation-state in Historical Palestine. Far from antisemitism, however, what motivated Katsman’s commitments was both a deep concern for Palestinian liberation and the enactment of a more just vision for Jewish self-determination focused on “the creation and preservation of a Jewish national identity that was defined by language, culture, and, most importantly, a sense of a shared past, present, and future.” Katsman amplifies the idea of “a constitutional democracy for both Jews and Palestinians on the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River” as one program that could ensure a sustainable future for all of these interests. For Jews opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish ethnostate, Katsman was a beacon of hope for the prospect of universal liberation.  

We left Stephens’s talk with feelings of disgust, anger, and deep sadness. To see his hawkish comments so brazenly deployed to justify the ever-escalating slaughter of Palestinians was extremely disconcerting. Perhaps the worst characteristic of this talk, though, was how banal it felt to attend. Throughout, Stephens spoke unaffectedly about events that are nearly unspeakable. At last month’s talk by Mohammed el-Kurd and last Wednesday’s panel with Ahmad Samih Khalidi, both speakers were nearly moved to tears when discussing the events unfolding in Gaza. By contrast, when moderator and Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas rightfully probed Stephens to answer what more Israel could do to minimize civilian casualties, Stephens’ first instinct was to respond with, of all things, humor: “It’s like the joke about how porcupines make love — with extreme caution.”

All that being said, we want to affirm our commitment to freedom of speech. In this letter, we did not intend to argue that Stephens should not have spoken at Amherst College. We agree with the president’s office that learning across different faiths and viewpoints is necessary. Although we thoroughly disagree with most of Stephens’ neoconservative beliefs, his pedigree goes to show that his views are far from the fringe of contemporary political discourse. It is precisely for this reason that we valued the opportunity to see him speak, if only to equip ourselves for conversations with people we disagree with.

We did not, however, intend to sit idly by in the wake of the reductive, polarizing, and sometimes inaccurate comments he addressed to an auditorium packed with members of our community. We hope that this letter not only serves, in the immediate sense, as a counterpoint to Stephens’s talk, but also helps encourage critical habits as you engage with discourses on Israel-Palestine in your daily life. If you truly want a more just and peaceful world, you must be willing to consider these criticisms.