Letter to President Elliott: Bret Stephens Talk

Associate Professor of Philosophy Rafeeq Hasan argues that the college’s decision to invite Bret Stephens to speak on Israel-Palestine, without promoting an event advocating for Palestinians, is misguided.

Editor’s Note: The letter below was originally sent to President Michael Elliott on Nov. 17. It is reprinted here with minor edits per The Student’s style guide.

November 17, 2023

Dear President Elliott,

I received with astonishment the email sent from your office announcing a college-sponsored lecture by Bret Stephens. The stated goal of the event is to “create opportunities for members of our community to listen and learn across differences of faith, background, and perspective related to the conflict in the Middle East.” I am writing to express my view that inviting Stephens does not contribute to this goal.

Free speech matters. But so do the institutional acoustics in which that speech is embedded. The college sent out no similar official email announcing last week’s visit from Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and journalist who was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. Does this disparity not signal to the campus community a message about whose viewpoint matters more to the college? Behind ostensibly universalist values such as freedom of speech often lie unacknowledged dynamics of power and standing. This essential lesson from critical race theory seems to me particularly applicable here.

Let’s be clear about the person whom the college has officially invited to speak on the Middle East. Citing from his recent columns for The New York Times, Stephens has repeatedly cast suspicion about the accuracy of the staggering numbers of deaths that have resulted from the IDF’s siege of Gaza. Indeed, he has questioned the accuracy of basically any report of Israeli atrocities. Stephens has declared by fiat that any form of anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and that the phrase “From the River to the Sea” necessarily expresses the genocidal desire for the expulsion of all Jews from the state of Israel. (No matter that the history of the phrase is extraordinarily complex and disputed by scholars of the Middle East.) He has described Jewish Voice for Peace as “Jewish beards for aggressive antisemites.” In the face of campus criticism of Israel, Stephens has quipped that “‘Defund’ the academy’ is a much better slogan than ‘Defund the police.’” (Perhaps Stephens intends his speaking fee from Amherst as but a small step toward that goal?) He has suggested that the United Nation’s criticism of Israel indicates the death of a “once great human rights organization.”

Expanding the time frame slightly to include the period when Stephens was also writing for The Wall Street Journal, Stephens has offered qualified defense of Israel’s illegal settlements and notoriously described antisemitism as a “disease of the Arab mind.” This not to mention his infamous use of discredited racist ‘research’ aimed at proving the inherent intellectual superiority of Ashkenazi Jews. Is this the person to contribute to a healthy campus conversation about the Middle East?

Lest my intention be misconstrued, I want to repeat my commitment to free speech and viewpoint diversity. Although I strongly disagree with Stephens’ views, they are entirely within the orbit of legitimate discourse. I am in no way advocating that Stephens’ lecture be cancelled, a fate that is sadly all-too-frequently befalling pro-Palestinian artists, activists, and intellectuals on American college campuses. Had, say, a student group been interested in inviting Stephens and applied to the college for funding, I would not be writing this letter. I would also not be writing this letter had I been notified by your office of an entire speaker series on the conflict, featuring a number of voices alongside Stephens’, including those of Palestinians. (Though I can think of a number of thoughtful and qualified defenders of Israel, such as Rabbi Sharon Brous, who would be better suited to elevating the campus conversation. But this, obviously, is not my decision to make.)

As I write this letter, Israel’s bombing of Gaza has created a death toll of more than 11,000, including more than 5,000 children. Save the Children has reported that Israel has killed more children in the first three weeks of bombing Gaza than were killed annually in all conflict zones across the entire world since 2019. This morning I woke up to find a story from the BBC reporting Palestinian children desperately asking a UN aid worker, “‘Did you bring a piece of bread for me with you? Did you bring a sip of water for me with you?’” As a father of a young child, I have been holding back tears all day. An email inviting all of us to a college-sponsored lecture by Stephens, without any mention of a forthcoming speaker advocating for the basic human rights of Palestinians, is, at best, in poor taste.

There are no shortage of people expressing points of view very different from that of Bret Stephens whom the College might invite. Some names that come to mind include: Judith Butler (Berkeley), Omer Bartov (Brown), Nadia L. Abu El-Haj (Columbia), Saree Makdisi (UCLA), Noura Erakat (Rutgers), Phyllis Bennis (Institute for Policy Studies), Rashid Khalidi (Columbia), and Hanan Ashrawi. Most interesting perhaps would be an invitation to Josh Paul, former director of the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau, which oversees U.S. arms transfers. Paul’s searing essay in today’s Times about his choice to resign from the State Department over the provision of U.S. weapons to Israel should be an essential reading for those looking to understand the conflict from a less narrowly ideological point of view.

One final note. Perhaps most surprising about the email was that it was signed not just by the president and provost [Catherine Epstein], but also by Sheree Ohen, chief equity and inclusion officer. Is Ohen aware that she has signed her name to a college-wide emailing inviting a speaker who once suggested that Black Lives Matter “has some thuggish elements?” Is a lecture by Stephens really in line with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s stated mission to “sustain the growth of a just, equitable, vibrant, and intellectually challenging educational environment, and a culture of critical and compassionate campus engagement?” Perhaps, at the end of the day, the answer is yes. (I would welcome the arguments.) But there seem to me arguments worthy of consideration that point instead to the answer being a resounding no.

Rafeeq Hasan
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Amherst College