Sunday, September 25, 2016

Bret Stephens Interview at Vassar: "Why I Support Israel and Why You Should, Too"

      Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal columnist and news commentator, was interviewed at Vassar on Sept. 20 by Steven Cook, ’90, on the topic of “Why I Support Israel and Why You Should, Too.”  The event was funded by the Office of the President as part of the administration’s “Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences” initiative.  Cook, who is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of two books on the Middle East, posed a series of questions to Stephens regarding his support for Israel and his views on anti-Israel activism in the US.  The audience comprised about 70 students as well as several alumni and a few professors, college administrators and some community members.  The audience was seated around tables, and interim College president Jonathan Chennette, who introduced the event, said the seating was intended to provide the audience with the opportunity to discuss the topic with each other and formulate questions to Stephens after the interview.  What follows is a summary; a video of the entire interview can be seen at

      Cook began by asking why Stephens chose the title he did.  Stephens said because his mother had survived by hiding in Nazi-occupied Europe, he supported Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.  Another reason for support, he said, was the “values question.”  Israel is a liberal county, in the sense of its being a place of individual freedom and tolerance.  He acknowledged that some Western liberals are unhappy with Israel’s recent governing parties, but noted that this was no different from developments in other democracies, citing France as an example.  He said that despite France’s taking such actions as banning the “burkini,” no one questioned France’s legitimacy.  Cook then asked Stephens why Israel is singled out for criticism, unlike France.  Stephens said the Arab world has capitalized on Israel’s politics “in a way that’s fundamentally dishonest.”  He added that among Western countries there was the sense that Israel, in the words of Eric Hoffer, is expected to behave like a “Christian” nation, that it is held to a higher standard of behavior.  He did not refer to anti-Semitism as a possible basis for singling out Israel and in fact, made no mention of anti-Semitism in any context during the interview.

      Cook next turned to the issue of settlements on the West Bank and whether, in light of those settlements, the Palestinians could reasonably ask if they have an Israeli “partner for peace.”  Stephens said the settlements are a “serious problem,” especially in light of the current Israeli government’s policy of ex post facto legalization of outpost settlements that had not received initial approval.  But he went on to stress that the activists are using the settlements as an excuse to attack the very existence of the Jewish state.  He said, “Unfortunately, and I say this, I think this is tragic but I think this is true and I think to some extent it’s validated by some of the rhetoric that you get from groups like SJP, is [sic] that we’re not really having a conversation about 1967, we’re having a conversation about 1948.”  He explained that lasting peace would not come about by Israel’s dismantling the settlements but by Palestinians’ recognizing the existence of Israel.  He noted that after Israel removed settlers from Gaza, Hamas was elected the majority party and began its rocket attacks on Israeli territory.  This, in his conclusion, indicated that the settlements were not the central obstacle to peace.

      The last question before the discussion session concerned options for the next US president and whether the two-state solution was still possible.  Stephens expressed his firm conviction that there eventually would be a Palestinian state but acknowledged that it would not come about in the foreseeable future.  He said that people on both sides should undertake small gestures to promote goodwill, citing Israel’s admittance of Syrian refugees for treatment in its hospitals.

      Q&A Session.  Stephens and Cook announced at the outset that they would give priority to questions from students.  The first question concerned the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defense minister and civilian-military relations in Israel.  Stephens said Lieberman “has no business being Minister of Defense — any more than Trump has of being president, but that’s what happens in a democracy.”  He explained that Lieberman’s appointment came about because Premier Netanyahu needed his support to obtain a majority in the Knesset.

      The next questioner brought up the topic of who would succeed Mahmoud Abbas.  Stephens noted that Abbas is currently in the 12th year of a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians’ legally-recognized governing body.  He discussed potential successors but did not predict who might be the next leader.  He commented that, in the context of Palestinian self-government, “one rarely hears about Palestinian obligations,” meaning that the Palestinians themselves need to organize credible political institutions.

      The next student prefaced her question with a criticism of Stephens’ opening remarks, which had included a reference to the possibility of disruption at the event.  She then asked Stephens what he would recommend for people who wanted to be activists on the Israel-Palestinian issue.  Stephens apologized for his earlier remark, which he termed an “unfounded assumption” and which earned him applause, but he added that there was a history of pro-Israel speakers and events being disrupted by heckling and other gestures.  Turning to the student’s question about activism, he said activism is important but that it should be an “informed,” balanced” activism.  He said he was not aware of any other activist group undermining the legitimacy of another state or of their protesting against violence or repression in Syria, Turkey, or China.  He asked that students approach activism in “a broader, more reflective sense” and that they avoid groups that delegitimize Israel.  He cited J Street and Americans for Peace Now as organizations that oppose the settlements but don’t seek to delegitimize Israel’s right to live in peace and security.  Stephens added that students should also be active in pushing for change by Palestinians, for example, by working for the election of Palestinian governments that don’t celebrate the murder of Jews.

      Another student asked why Israel gets so much more attention in the news.  Stephens responded that he didn’t know and called upon activists to ask that very question themselves.  He added that activists should put pressure on the Palestinian Authority and on the rest of the Arab world as well as putting pressure on Israel.  He closed with a call for “vigorous,” “probing” and “fair” activism, for students to be critical but also “self-critical.”

      A few FTI members attended the event.  They report that there were no efforts to disrupt it.  A few days before the event, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Vassar had posted about it on their Facebook page.  They described Stephens as “having a track record of racisms, specifically Islamophobia”, and indicated that SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), another anti-Israel student organization, would “be partnering” with Vassar Professor Joshua Schreier to hold a “Talk Back” event on September 22 in which they would discuss the Stephens event.  Schreier was formerly head of Jewish Studies, is an avowed anti-Zionist and a BDS supporter, and teaches the only courses on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Just before the Stephens interview, a student member of JVP handed out fliers advertising the “Talk-Back.”  An FTI member asked if alumni were welcome and was advised by SJP that the “Talk-Back” would not be open to alumni.