Bret Stephens is one of the NY Times’s house conservatives. Unlike his colleagues David Brooks and Ross Douthat, he seldom manifests any interesting departures from right-wing orthodoxy, though, to his credit, he is an anti-Trumper. Like many ideologues of both left and right he tends to view the world in simplistic, Manichean terms—it’s good guys vs bad guys, with the latter often benefitting from the support of various dupes.

Stephens’s simplistic, Manichean understanding of the Israel/Palestine cleavage is on display in his front page diatribe in today’s NY Times Sunday Review. Stephens fulminates against what he sees as increasing tolerance among progressives for anti-Semitism. He has no trouble citing deplorable instances of anti-Semitism among the far left and anti-Zionist movements, but his claim that tolerance for same is becoming mainstreamed by the not-so-far left rests on very thin ice. The thin ice consists of just two things: the fact that some prominent Democrats opposed a bill designed to protect states seeking to punish participants in boycotts directed against Israel, and allegedly anti-Semitic statements by two newly elected Congresswomen.

The “anti-BDS” bill is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s protection of free speech; Stephens doesn’t bother to tell us how he can possibly justify it.

The statements by the two Congresswomen are worth examining, since the furious counter-reaction they have elicited reflects a determination to shield Israel from any but the gentlest criticism.

In 2012 Ilhar Omar tweeted “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” After her recent election to Congress, critics zeroed in on her “hypnotize the world” phrase, identifying it with ages-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish omnipotence. Omar responded to the criticism by acknowledging that her wording was “unfortunate.” To my mind her tweet was an awkward but benign expression of frustration that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians has not evoked more widespread and effective opposition around the world.

The other statement Stephens finds offensive was by Congresswoman Rashida Tliab, who remarked that Congressional supporters of the anti-BDS bill “… forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.” The critics charge that this assertion reeks of the “dual loyalty” slander, that Jews divide their loyalty between the USA Israel. The charge is patently silly, since most of the sponsors of the bill, led by Marco Rubio, are not Jewish. Is it anti-Semitic to suggest that Marco Rubio subordinates American free speech values to his knee-jerk support for Israel?

So, that’s it—that’s the thin ice on which Stephens rests his claim that progressives are going with the flow of anti-Semitism. What really bothers Stephens is that cracks are appearing in the uncritically pro-Israel consensus that dominates our politics. Harsh criticism of Israel is simply unacceptable, and must be denounced and delegitimated as anti-Semitic wherever it rears its ugly head. One excellent critique of Israel appeared in the Times Sunday Review section just a few weeks ago—a front-page article by Michele Alexander. Though he doesn’t mention it, Alexander’s piece undoubtedly outraged Stephens, who demanded and got from his editors equal billing to try to neutralize it.

Stephens might also be motivated to use the anti-Semitism accusation as a weapon against the left much as his predecessors on the right for decades wielded charges of “soft on communism.” A giveaway is his guilt by association attack on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who had the temerity to communicate with Britain’s leftist Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn.  (Corbyn is legitimately vulnerable to charges of softness on anti-Semitism.)

We need more dissident voices in a Congress that can see no evil in Israeli behavior. I hope that Tliab and Omar remain uncowed, and I hope that they get other progressives to listen to them.


  1. Jeffrey Herrmann February 10, 2019 at 8:40 pm

    I am not supporting Stephens’ position on the tweets or the anti-BDS legislation. But a man who writes “… that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is far more complicated than the black-and-white picture drawn by Israel’s progressive critics” and “[n]one of this is to embrace the “Likud narrative” of the conflict, or support the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, or reject the idea of Palestinian statehood, or suggest that Israel is above criticism and reproach“ doesn’t strike me as in the grip of Manicheism.
    I think Stephens is correct in writing “[a]nti-Zionism — that is, rejection not just of this or that Israeli policy, but also of the idea of a Jewish state itself — is becoming a respectable position among people who would never support the elimination of any other country in any other circumstance…“
    Likewise, “To insist that the only state in the world that has forfeited the moral right to exist just happens to be the Jewish state is anti-Semitic….”
    I hear and read those kinds of statements all too often lately. They need to be called out for what they are, whether uttered by someone whose views fall on the right or the left or along any other political dimension.

    • tonygreco February 10, 2019 at 10:37 pm

      My characterization of Stephens as simplistic and Manichean is based not only on this article but on previous ones as well–e.g., on Israel/Palestine, on communism and on Venezuela. Yes, he gives lip service to the right to criticize israel, but his understanding of the relevant history is completely one-sided and selective in its pro-Israel partisanship.

      I don’t think that advocacy of a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine is inherently anti-Semitic. I personally cling to the possibility of two states, but the argument that Israeli expansionism has ruled out such a solution as a practical possibility is a reasonable one. I discussed the two options in a post on 2/26/16. I reluctantly acknowledged then that the 2-state possibility was becoming increasingly problematic. That was three years ago, and it is all the more problematic today.

  2. Michael February 12, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    you are right on target
    the best i can say for Stephend is that he is a little less smug, arrogant and supercilious than when he was writing for the wall street journal

Have a comment?

Required fields are marked (*)