New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said he had no qualms about writing a column rebuking his employer for publishing a cartoon based on an anti-Semitic trope.
The cartoon featured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the form of a dachshund, leading a blind U.S. President Donald Trump, who is wearing a kippah. It was published in the international edition of the paper on April 25.
“That was the easiest column I ever wrote in my life,” Stephens told a large audience at Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation on April 30. “Either I was going to write the column or lose all of my self-respect. And either the Times was going to publish the column, or I was going to resign.”
Stephens argued that the cartoon wasn’t worrisome because of what it says about his employer. After all, it was published in an offshoot paper with a relatively small circulation and small editorial staff. The cartoon was pulled off the wire by a mid-level editor right before going to print, without any oversight.
Rather, Stephens said it was worrisome because of what it says about the general public’s awareness of, and sensitivity to, anti-Semitism, at a time when society is hyper-vigilant about other forms of bigotry.
“But blatant anti-Semitism doesn’t raise an eyebrow, doesn’t get the attention that it needs,” he said. “And why is that? Because the West, the intellectual classes, have spent the last 30 years normalizing anti-Zionism to such a degree that we’ve removed every single guardrail that there used to be and now it’s a tiny, almost invisible step to move from naked, aggressive anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism into outright anti-Semitism.”
Stephens also shared a story about a recent act of anti-Semitism that he experienced on the streets of New York. He and his wife were going to visit a close friend in the hospital because she had just given birth. As they exited the cab, an Orthodox Jewish man wanted to get in, so Stephens held the door open for him.
“As I’m standing there with my wife, a passerby is walking up the street, sees the Jewish gentleman heading our way, and he says, ‘Hey, Jew. Hey, Jew. Jew! Jew!’ My wife says, ‘You can’t speak to him like that.’ At this point, he’s turned, he’s walked past us and he says, ‘You heard me.’ And he walks on,” Stephens said.
Stephens said he barely had time to call the other man a name before he passed. He’s been thinking of that incident a lot, because to him, it’s representative of the rising levels of overt anti-Semitism around the globe. As Stephens said, it didn’t occur in “one of those neighbourhoods you hear about in Europe.” It was in Manhattan in the middle of the day and it’s happening to a large number of visibly Jewish people.
“If Jews can’t walk down streets openly as Jews – in the United States, in Canada, anywhere else – we are not living in free countries. We are living in countries defined by fear,” he said. “This is unprecedented. This needs to scare us very deeply.”
According to Stephens, it is incumbent upon the Jewish community to set basic standards of anti-Semitism and stand by them, instead of slowly allowing the definition to deteriorate.
“Those standards are not born from a kind of ethnic chauvinism. They’re not untrue to our values, they are essential to our values. Because what we should learn as a Jewish community, and why we have survived over the generations, is that our sense of loyalty, while it extends to every human being, also goes, above all, to us. If I am not for myself. That too is a central Jewish value,” he said.