The New York Times’ Bret Stephens, Hasbarist

Bret Stephens speaking at the 92nd Street Y, Youtube screenshot.

On October 15, 2023, a week after Hamas’s attack on Israel and in the early days of an indiscriminate Israeli response, New York Times editorialist Bret Stephens wrote a column titled “Hamas Bears the Blame for Every Death in This War.”

After allowing that “[r]easonable people can criticize Israel for not allowing enough time for civilians to get out of harm’s way,” Stephens, having rhetorically covered himself, endorses the impending ground invasion and arrives at the conclusion inscribed in the column’s title. “The central cause of Gaza’s misery is Hamas,” he writes. “It alone bears the blame for the suffering it has inflicted on Israel and knowingly invited against Palestinians.”

After five months of war, at least 30,000 Palestinians dead (12,000 children, certainly an undercount), innumerable documented atrocities, a partial indictment for genocide, and the prospect of a spiraling Middle East conflagration, you might think his tune would have shifted, even a little. After all, even Tom Friedman has managed to squeeze out some criticism of Israel.

Not Bret. As the horror of the assault has ballooned and the genocidal logic underlying it become clearer than ever, Stephens hasn’t budged, calling for the permanent defunding of UNRWA, attacking the UN investigation into allegations of genocide, even approvingly citing his October 15 essay in a late-January column blaming Hamas’s tunnel-building for the dismal state of the territory that has been blockaded for nearly two decades.

In doing so, he has arrived at something like the capstone of his career, two plus decades in media defending and cheerleading Israel and helping to prep the ground for genocide in what may be the most violent assault of the twenty-first century. Hats off to Bret, then, whose long career as Israeli propagandist could only lead him here.

A Brief History of Bret Stephens

Let’s go back to 2017, when editorial page editor James Bennet brought Stephens over from The Wall Street Journal as seeming correction for the Times’ myopia in the lead-up to the 2016 election. This was an odd choice, given that blind dismissal of Trump really lay in failing to understand a revolt against calcified elite consensus—a consensus few people in media embodied better than Bret Stephens, who grew up and entered media via extraordinary privilege.

Stephens’ ostensible “diversity” as a hire was in being a never-Trumper, but then so was everyone else at NYT; his public views—climate skepticism, anti-Arab racism, libertarian tax policies—were just particularly reprehensible. Fundamentally Stephens reflected an antiquated Bush-era neoconservatism, retrenchment rather than novelty in the Trump era, which made his hiring especially senseless.

He immediately leaned into the role: his first column for the paper offered half-baked climate denial which ultimately required a correction for factual inaccuracies, and led publisher Arthur Sulzberger to email frustrated former subscribers asking them to return. (Stephens has since lightly retracted these views on climate change; an exciting, one assumes all-expenses-paid junket to Greenland to see glaciers melting did the trick. Sounds fun!)

In subsequent years Bret has dutifully covered other ground. He endorsed Trump’s 2017 trickle-down tax bill. He claimed that masks to prevent Covid transmission didn’t work. He wrote a particularly galling column entitled “20 Years On, I Don’t Regret Supporting the Iraq War” in which he essentially claimed that Iraqis, not the United States, were to blame for the violence of the insurgency, and that even if nukes or chemical factories weren’t found Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction (throughout failing to make any of mention of the million-plus dead or forced to flee due to the war).

Nevertheless—perhaps Bret can see things others cannot? In another memorable column—“The Secrets of Jewish Genius”—he wrote about the genetic superiority of Ashkenazi Jews, citing as evidence a paper which had appeared in a eugenics journal (this column also required a correction and a long editors’ note, which reads, in a darkly comic way: “After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views”).

Zionist Ideologue

But nowhere has Stephens been so vociferous as on the issue of Israel.

The one-time editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post—a job he took in 2002 because he felt that post-9/11 media was insufficiently supportive of Israel (“Insofar as getting the story right helps Israel, I guess you could say I’m trying to help Israel,” he said)—who once wrote that antisemitism was a “disease of the Arab mind,” has repeatedly, aggressively, and unequivocally defended the Israeli state.

In 2018 he defended the passage of the Israeli nation-state law, a racist provision that legally elevated Jews over non-Jewish minorities in the country and established “Jewish settlement as a national value.” Running a particular kind of cover for Israel—an enduring theme—Stephens specifically implored liberal Jews not to “[give] up on Israel on account of an overhyped, underwhelming law whose effects would be mostly invisible if they hadn’t been so loudly debated.”

In 2021 he attacked a small handful of progressive Democrats for trying to block funding for Israel’s Iron Dome, in the process arguing that the missile defense system “very likely saves Palestinian lives by vastly reducing the political pressure on Israeli leaders to rapidly eliminate Hamas’s vast rocket arsenal by ordering a ground invasion.” (How did that work out?) He also called Jamaal Bowman, Pramila Jayapal, and Rashida Tlaib antisemitic—this sort of smear being another pattern of his.

The congressional vote to which Stephens refers, of course, came a few months after Israel’s May 2021 assault on Gaza, which killed at least 260 people and wounded 2000, a war Bret enthusiastically endorsed in a column titled “For the Sake of Peace, Israel Must Rout Hamas.”

But in that case Hamas had launched rockets; how might Bret respond to explicitly nonviolent protest? Similarly, it turns out: in 2018–2019 he wrote columns denouncing the Great March of Return, during which Israeli solders killed over 200 Palestinians near the Gaza fence and injured nearly 10,000 in a particularly sadistic bout of violence. “If Palestinians want to build a worthy, proud and prosperous nation, they could do worse than try to learn from the one next door,” Bret wrote.

Increasing Fanaticism after 10/7

Unsurprisingly, Stephens’ writing since October 7 has gotten even worse, as he has adopted a genocidal enthusiasm and one-sidedness extraordinary even by American media standards.

In his second column after the attack, Stephens scolded leftists and Palestinian supporters for being, in his recurring refrain, antisemitic—blaming “a much broader swath of the left that looks in heartfelt horror at what happened on Saturday but rarely stops to wonder whether it played any role in creating the moral and intellectual climate for what has unfolded.” In this attempt to guilt them one also reads a call for a return to Zionism—another theme in his writing, particularly after 10/7.

His next column (“Hamas Bears the Blame for Every Death in This War,” mentioned above), preemptively blamed Hamas for what would obviously be an inconceivable death toll; a week later, “The Palestinian Republic of Fear and Misinformation” cast doubt on that very death toll (“It’s bad enough that Hamas tyrannizes Palestinians and terrorizes Israelis. We don’t need it misinforming the rest of us,” he wrote).

These themes have persisted over the last several months: unmitigated defense of Israel, attacks on anti-Zionists (including Jews), blaming Palestinians, and arrogant and baseless accusations of antisemitism. In “For America’s Jews, Every Day Must Be Oct. 8” (does he write his own headlines?), Bret reminds Jews—presumably, American Jews—not just to remember what happened on October 7, but to remember that “[o]n Oct. 8, Jews woke up to discover who are friends are not.”

Who, exactly, are these enemies? Bret names Black Lives Matter, Jewish Voice for Peace (whose members, he condescendingly writes, are “being used as Jewish beards for aggressive antisemites”), and American universities—and for good measure, again casts doubt on the almost certainly vastly undercounted Gaza death toll.

But the heart of it comes at the end. “What can Oct. 8 Jews do? We can stop being embarrassed, equivocal or defensive about Zionism, which is, after all, one of the world’s most successful movements of national liberation,” Bret writes. “We can call out anti-Zionism for what it is: a rebranded version of antisemitism, based on the same set of libels and conspiracy theories.”

Pro-Israel Side Gig

Stephens’ obsessive propagandizing on behalf of Israel—and his recurring conflation of Israel with Judaism—is surely attractive to those powerful interests who stalwartly support the Middle Eastern state. Israel has one of the most powerful PR machines in the world, devoted to Hasbara, a particular kind of Israeli propaganda directed at an external, largely Western audience.

So it’s interesting to note that while Bret’s main gig these days is at the Times, he also holds a side job working as editor in chief of a new journal called Sapir, a role he began when the publication was founded in 2021.

Sapir describes itself as “a journal exploring the future of the American Jewish community and its intersection with cultural, social, and political issues,” but a cursory look at its coverage belies this neutral description: it is avowedly pro-Israel, quick to throw around allegations of antisemitism, and despite branding itself as a “quarterly journal of ideas for a thriving Jewish future” has little room for American Jews critical of Zionism (it partners with the right-wing news site Jewish Insider for digital distribution).

Sapir is published and funded by the Maimonides Fund, which raises more questions than it answers. Maimonides Fund describes itself as “a private grantmaking organization that funds in North America and Israel,” but this also-mild descriptor obfuscates the organization’s status as a dark-money fund with unknown donors, as Eric Alterman noted in columns in The American Prospect.

But Maimonides evidently has money: a recent listing for a full-time program manager at the Sapir Institute offered a $120,000–$140,000 salary with competitive benefits (the Sapir Institute was established in 2023 to turn ideas in the flagship journal into “viable plans of action”).

It is challenging to find out much more about the organization. According to another self-description, “Maimonides Fund aims to connect Jews to their people and their heritage, and to contribute to the vitality of the State of Israel.” Other projects they’ve contributed to include a Jewish storytelling organization co-launched by Steven Spielberg, to which they gave $1 million; Fuente Latina, a nonprofit that “seeks to bring pro-Israel information to Spanish-language media”; and Birthright Israel, where they are listed in the $500,000–$999,999 range for the 2022 annual campaign, right next to Haim and Cheryl Saban.

The fund’s evident agenda raises questions about Bret’s role at Sapir and its relation to his work at the Times. Presumably Bret gets paid for his editorial direction by this well-funded organization? And if he is indeed compensated by an organization that aims to “contribute to the vitality of the State of Israel,” should a disclaimer be put on the numerous columns he writes on the war in Gaza, or on Israeli–Palestinian issues more generally? When Tom Friedman wrote a column supporting Michael Bloomberg for president, he disclosed that his wife had received funding from Bloomberg—why is something similar not the case for Bret?

When Alterman asked the Times about this, spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told him this had been deemed unnecessary, the implication presumably that Stephens is so pretenaturally pro-Israel that there could be no conflict of interest in his work for Sapir. In a media environment already so heavily weighted in favor of pro-Israel coverage, this is a weak explanation.

What is absolutely clear is the posture at Sapir toward the war in Gaza. The contents of their recent special issue on what they call the “War in Israel” are ominous: titles like “Anti-Zionist Committees of the American Public,” “The Road to a Second Kristallnacht” (penned by Stephens), “The Palestinian Problem Is a Religious Problem,” “To Jewish College Students Who Are Scared,” “The War Against the Jews,” and a ten-part diary of an IDF soldier.

Bret’s leading editorial—“‘We Are Alone’: Reflections on the Jewish-American Response to October 7”—is a dismissive and contemptuous piece that pretty well sums up his general attitude, opening with an attack on writer Joshua Leifer, who wrote a piece for what Bret describes as “far-Left publication Jewish Currents.”

Leifer, Stephens writes, and other progressive Jews were deluded to believe in any genuine peace process; they were in fact “useful idiots” to think they could escape something like eternal antisemitism (particularly on the left), and they—not decades of a cruel occupation—have served to mainstream anti-Zionism.

Now, Bret says, the wise ones will have to make a break and return to Zionism—it’s the only way.

The “Bret Stephens Policy”

Not content to simply convey his views by print column in the most important newspaper in the United States, Stephens also has a habit of directly targeting and smearing critics.

In 2019, Stephens was ridiculed—and ultimately left Twitter—after emailing GWU professor David Karpf in response to a tweet Karpf wrote about a bedbug infestation at the Times office (“The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”)

Shortly thereafter, Stephens emailed Karpf (and cc’d his provost, Forrest Maltzman), writing: “Someone just pointed out a tweet you wrote about me, calling me a ‘bedbug’… I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face.”

While the petulant response was risible, as Karpf (who is Jewish) pointed out in a subsequent editorial, Bret’s intent was not. In cc’ing his boss, he was plainly trying to get Karpf in trouble, “to impose a social penalty… for making jokes about him online.” (Two days after Karpf’s op-ed was published, Bret wrote a column lamenting vague uncivil speech, noting how Nazis called Jews “bedbugs.”)

As Karpf also pointed out, only months earlier Bret had done something similar, ambiguously threatening journalist Samer Kalaf, who had sent him an angry email over one of his columns on the Great March of Return.

But this behavior is apparently not limited only to those outside the paper. In 2020, New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali posted a Twitter thread that went viral in which he outlined the “Bret Stephens policy,” the seeming exception to criticism to which Stephens was entitled at the paper.

“So many have been contacted by editors because Brett has whined or complained,” Ali wrote. “This is so common there’s now a community of us writers & editors whom Bret has narced on bc he was upset they were critical of one of his many terrible takes… As a result many walk on eggshells when it comes to him. There’s a simmering resentment and feelings of a very real double standard. People fear for their jobs so remain quiet.”

Reached by phone, Ali expanded on his experience.

“I think I quote-tweet responded to [one of Bret Stephens’ articles] and said something like, you know, racist garbage. And I thought nothing of it,” Ali said, describing how the incident started.

And then he got a call from a Times editor.

“I could tell from his voice that he did not want to make that phone call. He said hey, there’s some terms and conditions of, you know, how we behave with fellow employees and… maybe you referring to Bret this way is not appropriate,” Ali said.

Later, Ali said, other writers reached out to share that they’d had the same experience.

“There’s several writers he’s done this to, overwhelmingly women and people of color, who like me were kind of infuriated that they even had to tolerate this call from management on behalf of Bret Stephens and his aggrieved feelings,” Ali added. “But nobody was willing to go on the record because they believed that the old boys network would retaliate against them. So they just kept quiet.”

New York Times Frontman

An obfuscator of Israeli crimes, extreme anti-Palestinian bias, a shady pro-Israel side gig, nasty interpersonal relations with media workers—how does Bret Stephens keep his job with the New York Times?

Something like an answer might be found in his March 5 column, “The New Rape Denialism.” In it, Bret attacks critics—again, particularly left-leaning critics of Israel—who have voiced skepticism about the allegations that Hamas committed mass rape on October 7, attacking them as dishonest, and yet again, as antisemitic.

But it’s a curious piece: if you follow the hyperlinks, a nondescript link in the fourth paragraph to “one recent article” takes you to the major story that ran in The Intercept on February 28, which meticulously picked apart the Times’ enormously impactful story of December 28, “Screams Without Words.”

The NYT story, landing when it did, was not, as Stephens seems to suggest, a mere account of the horrors of October 7. The story specifically argued that there was a “broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7” and arrived at both an apparently concerted campaign to spread the narrative of mass sexual violence and a rising international backlash to the devastation in Gaza.

As The Intercept painstakingly breaks down, the Times’ reporting—along with a host of supplementary information, including previous interviews by supposed witnesses, and the podcast comments of the unusual freelancer at the heart of the story, Anat Schwartz—does not convincingly back up that allegation of a pervasive pattern.

While The Intercept is careful to note that this does not mean sexual violence didn’t occur on October 7—and a UN report from early March does support the notion that some did, while also examining allegations of sexual violence against Palestinians in Israeli custody—the February 28 story emphasizes that the accusation of a pattern lent a very specific kind of legitimacy to Israel’s incessant assault.

And so here Bret gets clever, dismissing the disturbing problems with the Times report to blur everything under the broad brush of antisemitism—“If, God forbid, a gang of Proud Boys were to descend on Los Angeles to carry out the kinds of atrocities Hamas carried out in Israeli communities, I’m pretty sure no one on the left would devote any energy trying to poke holes in who got raped”—and going so far as to compare The Intercept’s careful parsing of problematic story to Holocaust denial.

But then, isn’t this precisely why Bret keeps his job? It’s why he has this job, and it’s why he can—in fact, is paid to—say whatever he wants about Israel. Stephens may be a cartoonish fundamentalist, but he is not an aberration at The New York Times; he is an expression of the paper’s underlying biases. He is unlikely to be censured because his job is to be an Israeli propagandist. As Gaza descends into famine, this never-ending assault may be the preeminent test of how good he is at it.

Addendum

Two days after this piece ran, Stephens published another column, “Israel Has No Choice but to Fight On.” It’s a doozy. In it, Stephens holds an imaginary conversation with himself, or what he characterizes as a hypothetical “intelligent critic” of Israel’s war on Gaza. Obviously intended to shore up US support (an almost inexplicable goal, as it’s been limitless), Stephens ends up convincing himself that, yes, Israel must see this war through to its mythic end. At one point, Bret asks himself, “Do you have any specific suggestions for how Israel can defeat Hamas while being more sparing of civilians?” to which his imagined critic replies, “I’m not a military expert.” Brave stuff. One wonders why Bret couldn’t speak to one of the hundreds or thousands of real-life intelligent critics—perhaps even a Palestinian? Probably because his insipid and lazy commentary crumbles under even the most minimal pushback—plus, it would require actually doing a bit of work. Bret’s response, when his critic asks how he can justify starvation, which via an entirely manmade famine created by Israel’s siege, is daily killing children throughout Gaza? “Like all wars, this one is horrible and heartbreaking. But I blame Hamas, not Israel, for the devastation.”

Will Solomon writes a newsletter, Nor’easter, on climate and environment in the Northeast US. He can be found on Twitter and elsewhere at @wsolol.

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