June 2, 2020

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On the Antisemitic Cartoon(s) and on Israel, @BretStephensNYT is a Part of the Problem. (Judean Rose)

We were sorry when Bret Stephens left the helm of the Jerusalem Post. We liked him. He was young and intelligent, and not (yet) poisoned by the left.

He gave class and weight to our small town paper, with his Wall Street Journal editorial creds. It gave us pride to think we’d snagged him for ourselves.

But then he left. It was 2004, the Second Intifada, when bus bombings were a near daily event. One of those bombs exploded near the Stephens’ family residence, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. From the Sydney Herald:

Bret Stephens, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, said he heard the boom and ran to the scene.

“There was glass everywhere, human remains everywhere, shoes, feet, pieces of guts. There were pieces of body everywhere,” he said.

We well understood the fear, why he left.  But it seemed, nonetheless, a betrayal. We needed Stephens and his reasoned editorials. We needed him in Jerusalem.

With regret and a longing for what might have been, we kept our eyes on Bret as he returned to the Wall Street Journal, taking his talent and insight with him. He usually got it right on Israel, and for that at least, we were grateful.

Then he went to the New York Times. As did Bari Weiss, after having served at Tablet, a respected Jewish interest publication, and like Stephens, a subsequent stint at the Wall Street Journal.

When these two went to the New York Times, Jews collectively wondered what in the actual hell was going on. Both Stephens and Weiss were known to be pro-Israel centrists, which is almost like being conservative. Why would they go to the New York Times, which has long been seen by many Jews as anti-Israel? It felt like they’d gone to the dark side. And it was fishy.

We had no idea what was behind the move. All we could do is hope they’d bring reason to the pages of a newspaper that had never liked the Jews or Israel.

A review of their columns since the move offers mixed messages. Stephens, for instance, told us in one editorial, written on the occasion of Israel’s 70thbirthday, that some Diaspora complaints, especially with respect to religion and refugees, are validand should be heeded by Jerusalem. That didn’t sit well with those of us who feel that having left, he has no valid business telling Israel what to either heed or disregard.

Regarding Lara Alqasem, who was expelled from Israel (and ultimately allowed back by a turncoat Israeli High Court), Stephens wrote,

“The case for such liberalism today is both pragmatic and principled. In practice, expelling visitors who favor the B.D.S. movement does little if anything to make Israel more secure. But it powerfully reinforces the prejudice of those visitors (along with their supporters) that Israel is a discriminatory police state. If the Israeli government takes umbrage — and rightly so — when Israeli academics or institutions are boycotted by foreign universities, the least it could do is not replicate their illiberal behavior.

“Detaining people like Ms. Alqasem also does little to stem a worrying trend among young American Jews, who are increasingly alienated from Israel because of its hard-line policies. . .

“. . . Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness. Does the Jewish state, which prides itself on ingenuity, innovation and adaptability, really have so much to fear from a 22-year-old graduate student from Florida?”

This too, did not sit right with those of us who remained in Israel. The attempt to expel Alqasem was popular in Israel, as her intention in coming here was to punish and hurt the Jewish State, and to poison the minds of young Israelis. For far too long, we’d been a doormat and let people like her in the front door to do their damage. At last we’d grown a pair and told someone capable of doing harm that she was not welcome. In criticizing Israel’s attempt to bar her entry, we definitely felt that Stephens was playing for the wrong team.

Then there was his response to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a town that had hosted Stephens and his family. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem was another move popular with Israel, but apparently not with Stephens, who wrote:

 “There’s the view that recognition is like giving your college freshman a graduation gift: a premature reward for an Israeli government that hasn’t yet done what’s needed to make a Palestinian state possible.”

It is difficult to believe that Stephens is unaware of just how much Israel has done to advance the cause of peace, and conversely, how little the other side has done with its continuous famous no’s; its refusal to accept normalization with Israel on any level. Stephens, having heard and witnessed the aftermath of a bus bombing, having lived in the heart of the city that Trump recognized, would seem to be the last person to tell Israel that it has not done “what is needed” to satisfy the other side. In suggesting that Israel had omitted some act that would somehow change the Arab refusal to accept anything less than all the territory Judenrein, Stephens most definitely drew a line in the sand between him and us, meaning between Bret Stephens and Israel. 

While we might wonder what the New York Timesoffered to get Stephens (and Weiss) on board, both physically and metaphorically, it’s important to note that their views have not been confined to the Grey Lady. In the pages of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Stephens came out of the closet on settlements:

“Israel is not a nation of saints and has made its mistakes. The most serious of those is proliferation of West Bank settlements beyond those in historically recognized blocs.”

Really? Settlements are the problem, a mistake? This is what prevents peace? Jews building homes in indigenousterritory? Or is it that intransigent non-peace partner who refuses a Jewish State within any borders one might name? The “partner” who blew up the bus that made Stephens and his family, pick up and leave?

As for Bari Weiss, she also gets it wrong on settlements.

“So the big criticism, right, is that they’re occupying another people and that is corrosive to the State of Israel, sort of morally like to occupy another people. On the other hand what happens if they pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, right?

“I’m for a two-state solution ultimately ending the occupation but if I’m real I have to be honest about what that would look like. Well, what it looks like in Gaza is that now you have a terrorist State right at the border which is ruled by Hamas.”

Why is this position on settlements wrong? Because Jews have a right to build homes in Judea and Samaria. They have the legal right and the moral right. It is their indigenous territory. Building homes hurts no one. Building homes does not prevent peace or coexistence. Also, Israel occupies no one. Arabs either live as Israeli citizens, or under Arab leadership in towns and villages in Judea and Samaria, or in Gaza.

The Arabs could have had a state, and rejected every offer. And in fact, they received 78% of the British Mandate to build their own national home. This is Jordan, where 80% of the population is “Palestinian.” Israel furthermore gave the Arabs a second territory to rule, expelling thousands of Jews to do so, in the Disengagement from Gaza.

There is so much more I would say to Bari if only we could sit down for a heart-to-heart. I feel I know her. Both of us are from Squirrel Hill. Her grandmother was my beloved English teacher. 

Andy Weiss was not only a beloved English teacher, but served as my student adviser, inviting me to her beautiful home for Sunday brunch just so we could chat at length. I could tell her anything. And did.

Her late aunt, Ellen Weiss Kander, was my dear bunk mate at summer camp, a woman who was kind and sweet as sugar. Her untimely death from liver cancer was a loss to all of Pittsburgh and certainly to the Jewish community.

Ellen Weiss Kander, A”H, is second from right, top row. She was sweet as sugar. The author, Varda Meyers Epstein, is second from left, bottom row
But aside from the settlement issue, Bari gets it wrong on Israel. Especially here, where she says, “Zionists love Israel because of the way in which it brings together the values of individual freedom and Jewish civilization, not because of some blood and soil nationalism.”

That is exactly wrong. I love Israel because of exactly neither of those values, but in particular because of blood and soil nationalism. I would eat Israel’s dirt with a spoon. I love it that much. (I kissed the tarmac at Ben Gurion. And that was not tasty. But I digress.)
Having reviewed the evolution of views regarding Israel since the move by Stephens and Weiss to the New York Times, we come to Stephens’ latest op-ed on the now infamous antisemitic cartoon of a blind, be-yarmulked Trump led by the dachshund Netanyahu.
Stephens begins:

“As prejudices go, anti-Semitism can sometimes be hard to pin down, but on Thursday the opinion pages of The New York Times international edition provided a textbook illustration of it.”

. . . and then did so again on Saturday:

The second antisemitic cartoon appeared a day after the publication of Stephens’ op-ed, and the same day an antisemite 1) killed Lori Kaye; 2) peppered little kids with shrapnel; and 3) blew off a rabbi’s finger(s). Here we will give Stephens credit: he could not have prophesied, as his deadline approached, that the second cartoon would be published. But the second cartoon blows away Stephens’ premise for his piece: that the (first) cartoon was an oversight, not policy.

Stephens says what Jews long known about the New York Times: that it buried news of the Holocaust during World War II and ever since, has been rabidly anti-Israel. “For these readers,” says Stephens, “the cartoon would have come like the slip of the tongue that reveals the deeper institutional prejudice. What was long suspected is, at last, revealed.”

Stephens fails to mention the Congress Jew tracker that appeared, then quietly disappeared, in 2015. He also neglected to bring up the “Jesus is a Palestinian” piecethat had been published in the pages of the NY Times just one week prior to either antisemitic cartoon.

But with his brief mention of selected historical facts, Stephens now thinks he has us in the palm of his hand—that we’ll now buy anything he has to say. At this point, the op-ed becomes an apologia. “The real story is a bit different, though not in ways that acquit The Times. The cartoon appeared in the print version of the international edition, which has a limited overseas circulation, a much smaller staff, and far less oversight than the regular edition. Incredibly, the cartoon itself was selected and seen by just one midlevel editor right before the paper went to press.”

This does not pass the smell test. This is the New York Times. Oversight is its middle name. But even if we were to be persuaded it was a mere editorial oversight, what happened in the wake of publication proves otherwise. There was the non-apology that stood only until we wouldn’t stand for it, at which point, a “real” apology was issued. There was the second cartoon, which, like nothing else before it, reveals the endemic antisemitic policy at the New York Times. Finally, there is the lack of action: no one was fired.

And there is definitely a feeling that someone must be fired. A head needs to roll, and if, as is suggested by Stephens, it was “just one midlevel editor” than that is the elected head.

What happened, this situation, cannot be left as is, allowed to fester and stink. This is an ugly bloom that must be nipped in the bud.

So first Stephens tells us it was an oversight. Then he tells us that the publication of the (first) cartoon was not a willful expression of antisemitism, only ignorance. (Which is it? Ignorance or an oversight?) He writes:

“The problem with the cartoon isn’t that its publication was a willful act of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t. The problem is that its publication was an astonishing act of ignorance of anti-Semitism — and that, at a publication that is otherwise hyper-alert to nearly every conceivable expression of prejudice, from mansplaining to racial microaggressions to transphobia.”
This too, does not wash. Of the two actors who let that cartoon go to press, the cartoonist and the editor, neither of them were ignorant. The grudging non-apology, as well, was a purposeful expression of the newspaper not being sorry for hating Jews. All of what happened sprang, indeed, from willful antisemitism.

But this is what Jews do when they are a part of the problem: they make excuses for the bad behavior of others toward them and their people. This is wrong. The New York Times, precisely now, must remain in the hot seat, and do much, much more to rectify this sickness, this evil.

Almost as an afterthought, Stephens finishes his defense of the Times, by committing an act of fealty to the anti-Trump overlords at his place of work: treason by omission. Stephens refers to a need to apologize to the Israeli prime minister, “The paper owes the Israeli prime minister an apology,” but then goes on to say nothing about the insult to his own president.

Here was POTUS depicted as the big blind hulking Jew led by Israel, but Stephens deems this unworthy of even a pat New York Times apology. Because in Stephens’ world, it is apparently a mitzvah to kick Trump in the teeth, to overlook any insults to him, and to never apologize for any of it.
I’m not sure what happened to Bret Stephens. Was this always how he felt—what he believed? It is difficult to understand, and it is not very pretty. All I know is, I used to admire the man, and now I find I cannot.

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