Bret Stephens isn’t just a political affairs columnist at the world’s most famous newspaper. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion writer whose conservative views put him at odds with his employers and colleagues at The New York Times.
That’s fine by Stephens, who is comfortable running against the tide. A Mexico-raised grandchild of European Jewish refugees, Stephens cut his chops at The Wall Street Journal, then moved to Israel in the early 2000s to take the post of editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post — all while he was still in his 20s. After he moved back to the United States to return to the Journal, this time on the editorial page, in 2013 he earned a Pulitzer in commentary “for his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.”
Today, Stephens, 48 and a father of three, is deepening his involvement in the Jewish community. In addition to his job at the Times, he is the editor in chief of the new Jewish quarterly Sapir, a publication of the Maimonides Fund that seeks to explore “the future of the American Jewish community and its intersection with cultural, social, and political issues.”
Stephens is a speaker and participant in the Z3 2021 Futures Workshop, which explores new ways for Israel and Diaspora Jewry to reimagine their relationship. Ahead of his Z3 appearance, Stephens talked with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about why wokeness should be seen as a threat by American Jewry, what President Trump got right about Israel while also putting the U.S.-Israel relationship at risk, and what stories about Israel are being missed by mainstream media.
This is a condensed version of that conversation with him.
A Pew survey released in May found that only 40% of Reform Jews and 58% of Conservative Jews feel very or somewhat attached to Israel (compared with 82% of Orthodox). The trend lines seem clear. What’s the argument for why American Jews should care about Israel?
I don’t think there’s a future for American Jewry in the absence of a secure and prosperous Jewish state. Israel has single handedly resurrected Jewish civilization and culture in a way that would have been difficult if not impossible in the absence of Israel. As evidence, just look at the opposite trajectories of Yiddish vs. Hebrew, the Jewish language of the Diaspora vs. the Jewish language of its national homeland. Second, the notable increase in antisemitism in our age of supposed tolerance, pluralism, enlightenment and wokeness is another reminder that life in the Diaspora is never going to be fully secure — and is increasingly less secure, less comfortable, and less bright.
I am seriously concerned, especially by that number you cited about Reform Jews. The argument seems to be that Israel has gone from being a pole of attraction to a pole of repulsion, if not revulsion, for American Jews. I’m not buying that. Maybe it’s lost its magnetism for a lot of Reform Jews, but I don’t think it’s become a pole of revulsion, except in the most vocal corners of the Jewish extreme.
There’s no question that there are zones of ideological intimidation, notably on college campuses, and that’s obviously hugely concerning — most of all, because those campuses are supposed to be zones of thoughtful free expression. It’s concerning from a Jewish point of view but also from the point of view of the state of American liberalism. But whatever the far left is doing clearly isn’t working, and the evidence comes in that happily lopsided vote in Congress for Iron Dome funding. Boy, was the progressive caucus ever shut down — not by Republicans but by mainstream Democrats.
So much Jewish philanthropic money goes into trying to shore up the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Is this money well spent? How could we be doing better?
You have to compare North American Jewish attachment to Israel to the attachment of other American immigrant groups to their respective homelands. The Irish in America are less attached to Ireland, and the Germans in America to Germany, than American Jews to Israel. I think many of the programs have been pretty successful. Birthright has been widely successful, on the whole, as a program that has awakened an attachment to Israel in the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young Jews who would otherwise see Israel as a distant cousin in a faraway place. The caliber of American Jewish leadership may be higher today than in generations past because of those connections to Israel. Are there programs that fail? Of course. That’s in the nature of philanthropy.
Much is written about the Israel-Diaspora relationships. In your view, are there any underreported themes/stories worth exploring?
People forget that Israel ranks 11th on the list of the world’s happiest countries. You would scarcely know it. This little country — which demands more of its citizens than nearly any other democracy in the world, that arguably is in greater danger for war or even extinction than any other democracy in the world — manages to produce a remarkably happy group of people. Why is that? What explains that? It goes beyond the question of what Israel provides its citizens in terms of material well-being.
I think it has to do something about the nature of national purpose. Happiness, I think, is connected to a concept of purpose in life, and Israel is one of those countries in which purpose comes preprogrammed. That’s not true in the United States or most of Europe. If you’re born in Paris or Omaha or Toronto, what’s your purpose? You kind of have to figure it out. Concepts of civic duty are so attenuated.
That’s not the case in Israel. Israel is a country that has managed to marry a politics of purpose with a reasonably free society. That’s quite incredible, all the more so in this day and age.
You’ve been a consistent critic of Donald Trump, though you’ve praised some of the positions he took as president. He’s called himself the best president ever for Israel. Do you agree? How would you rate his performance?
I agreed with a lot of the policy, and I always said so. I believe in giving any president credit where credit is due. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the JCPOA, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the historic achievement of the Abraham Accords — I praised every one of those.
But I also had deep misgivings that go beyond the question of policy and go to ideology and character. Ideologically speaking, the America First principle is antithetical to Israel’s interest in an engaged, internationalist America. Under America First, U.S. interests always take precedence, in a zero-sum game between America and the rest of the world. That sort of truculent nationalism in the long term is a deep threat to Israel, which counts on America having a sense of global engagement and support for the free world, standing for freedom and democracy and liberalism and values.
Under Trump there was an Israel exception to the America First rule. But would there be an exception like that under a Rand Paul presidency? Trump strikes me as a man who has no sense of loyalty. So he was pro-Israel, maybe because his favorite daughter married a Jew. Good thing his favorite daughter didn’t marry an antisemite. Good thing the son-in-law didn’t do something to irk him. Trump’s pro-Israel line did not feel principled. I balance my praise for much of the policy with an abiding suspicion of and concern about the nature of the thinking that went into the policy.
How’s President Biden doing on Israel?
He’s doing better than Obama. I think Biden has the good sense to realize that the United States has more important priorities than trying to roll the Sisyphian ball up the hill known as a Palestinian state. He at least has not undermined the Abraham Accords. I can’t register any major complaints about the Biden administration on that count. On other accounts, yes.
How much do you think intersectionality, wokeness and cancel culture threaten the Israel-US Jewish relationship?
I think it threatens American Jews. I think wokeness is a real threat to a thriving American Jewish life. No. 1, it’s attempting to make race the primary form of identity in American life in a way that is anathema to Jewish experience and tradition. We are being shunted into a racial category which many of us don’t recognize as our own and deprived of the uniqueness of our particularistic ethnic and religious experience.
No. 2, it is trying to change the nature of success in America to a function of what it calls privilege. Jews have thrived in the United States because in America success was admired and emulated, whereas in Europe Jewish success was envied and hated. That’s why America was such a great deal for American Jews. Wokeness threatens that.
A third aspect is that wokeness insists on a kind of intellectual and moral conformity which also is anathema to the Jewish American tradition of impishness, irreverence, dissent, activism. To the extent that Jews have made their mark intellectually as a people that takes a contrary view, wokeness really threatens that and potentially undermines it.
Wokeness has to be a central concern of every major Jewish American organization, because it’s not a liberal ideology; it’s a totalitarian ideology posing as a progressive ideology. Even if it’s not overtly antisemitic, it has a remarkable way of sliding into antisemitism, which you see again and again. It’s almost uniformly, virulently anti-Zionist — if you want to make a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. I think this has to be a front-and-center concern of Jewish leadership and organization life. Not only is it a threat to the liberal ethos writ large, but a threat to Jewish thriving within that liberal ethos.
What are some the insights/perspective you gained form your experience living in Israel and running the Jerusalem Post that you might not have picked up on had you stayed in America?
Well, I certainly learned how Israelis can simultaneously be both the most delightful and infuriating people on earth — said with affection. I learned what national resilience is all about. I lived down the street from Café Moment in Jerusalem. My wife was supposed to be in the café the night it blew up (in March 2002), when 11 people were murdered and rivers of blood flowed down the incline of Azza Street. We used to go to Café Hillel in Jerusalem’s German Colony all the time. We were lucky we weren’t there the day it blew up (in September 2003). And every single time Israel picked itself up. That to me is an indelible lesson for life as it should be lived.
Has it been difficult being a conservative journalist at America’s most famous liberal paper? What about your experience at The New York Times has surprised you?
It is always challenging to be the fish swimming in the opposite direction, at any institution. It was challenging to be the Never Trumper in the News Corp family, and it is sometimes challenging to be the more conservative voice in a broadly liberal institution. Fortunately, I’m a born contrarian, so it kind of aligns with my personality. The biggest surprise is the extraordinary reach of The New York Times. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I joined the Times. The rest of American journalism feels like islands at the edge of a continent, and that continent is the Times.
You are the editor of Sapir, a new quarterly journal of Jewish ideas published by the Maimonides Fund. How’s that going, and what’s the theme of the next one?
It’s now a permanent thing. We started with the idea of four issues on four big topics. We’ve done social justice, power, and continuity, and the theme of the next one is aspiration. The fifth issue will probably be about Zionism. We’ve had a good response. A lot of people have said to us: We needed this.
We’re trying to do something that’s a little bit different from other Jewish publications. We are trying to stress the prescriptive end of issues — the ‘What do we do about this’ side of things. It’s not meant to be simply another catalogue of Jewish lament. It’s meant to be a handbook for Jewish action. Second, we are not looking for a mass audience. We are looking for an influential audience. We are interested in getting this into the hands of people who can make things happen, in finding ways to bring together thought leaders with doers in the philanthropic and organized Jewish world.
I’m not trying to put together a right-wing journal or stamp it with my own brand of politics. You will find voices like Benny Morris, Anshel Pfeffer and others who are unmistakably on the left in our pages, and I’m very proud of that fact. We want this to be a conversation, and you can’t have a conversation where everyone is singing from the same song sheet.