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Categorizing Bret Stephens as extremist is an unfair claim

Op-ed in last week’s Collegian leaves out context behind recent speaker’s past statements.

An op-ed in last week’s Collegian (“Bret Stephens’ visit to campus normalizes hateful rhetoric,” 2/9) by Megan Carr ’18 argues that Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and recent visitor to campus, is guilty of denying Palestinians basic status as humans. Her article suggests that Stephens purposefully omits details of Palestinian suffering, even going so far as to label his words as “hate speech.” Stephens tells a one-sided story of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Carr writes, “[stripping] Palestinians of their history” in the process.

I should immediately make clear that I did not attend Stephens’ talk on campus last week; I am 6,000 miles away from Gambier, spending my semester in Jerusalem. Thankfully the Collegian uploaded a video of the talk to Facebook, which I was able to watch.

Not that this matters much, because the basis of Carr’s op-ed does not appear to be what Stephens said on campus. Rather, her piece is a sort of rejoinder to an article that appeared long ago and in a different publication, raising the question of why the editors felt the need to publish her piece in the first place. Her article’s opening premise is equally confusing. Do we now occupy a campus where advocating for Israel in a Wall Street Journal article two years ago invalidates one’s denunciation of travel bans and border walls?

As evidence of Stephens’ offenses, her column cites a 2015 Wall Street Journal column (“Palestine: The Psychotic Stage”) in which he critiques American media coverage of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks carried out against Jews in Israel and the West Bank. These attacks, the vast majority of which are perpetrated by so-called “lone wolves,” have claimed hundreds of casualties. While today the pace of attacks has slowed dramatically, some months in 2015 saw more than 600 stabbing attempts.

These attacks are praised by, among others, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who not only personally calls for and glorifies the attacks, but whose government actually pays for them. According to cnsnews.com, a whopping 10 percent ($172.5 million) of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) annual budget is spent compensating the families of jailed and “martyred” individuals who have participated in attacks on Israelis. This compensation policy is what initially inspired Israel to bulldoze homes of attackers, as the government hoped to lessen the financial incentive offered by the PA for murdering Jewish Israelis. In his op-ed, Stephens takes particular issue with the media’s failure to tell the story of Palestinian incitement — a charge of one-sidedness practically identical to the one Carr’s op-ed levies against Stephens himself.

I do not agree with Carr’s assessment of Stephens’ piece; I believe that Stephens seeks to correct media bias rather than inspire it. But this is not my reason for writing, because mere disagreement is nothing out of the ordinary. Instead, I am writing out of extreme frustration that in her op-ed Carr seems not to follow her own advice. She does a fair bit of selective history and political commentary herself.

Carr’s op-ed chastises Stephens for not mentioning al-Nakba (“the catastrophe”), when some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or chose to flee from the new State of Israel after U.N. partition in 1948. But there is no mention in her piece (or, as she fails to note, in Stephens’) of the 850,000 Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries who met the same fate post-1948. Does she not know these Jews were expelled too, or does it not matter?

Similarly, Carr’s piece admonishes Stephens for mentioning Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque without informing readers of its immense importance to Muslims. But Stephens does not mention the incalculable importance of that site to Jews either. For those who do not know, the al-Aqsa Mosque is constructed on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. And while the significance of the location is shared by adherents of the two faiths, access to it is not. Muslims are free to pray there, while Jews have been forbidden from doing so by the Israeli government. Instead, Jews pray at the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple—the closest they can get to it.

If one cannot mention a place without giving its full historical and religious background, articles about sites in Jerusalem would span dozens, if not hundreds, of pages. Maybe that is why Stephens left out a full explanation of al-Aqsa’s importance to Muslims, and the Temple Mount’s to Jews. If Carr wants to bring up the significance of the site to Muslims, so be it. Why, though, does her article ignore its equally-valid significance to Jews? If she believes a knowledge of the historical record is essential for understanding the motivations of some Palestinians, why is she unwilling to extend this same courtesy to Israeli Jews?

I was struck by Carr’s comment that most liberal college students will never openly attack people of Middle Eastern origin. In fact, this has not been my experience, and even a cursory reading of the news would make it clear that many liberal college students are all too willing to attack people of Middle Eastern origin, as long as those Middle Easterners are Israelis.

It is by now obvious to me that no speaker sticking up for Israel will ever be acceptable to many members of the campus community. These speakers are bullied and disrespected on stage by audience members (as was the case with the avowedly liberal Dr. Einat Wilf last semester), or have their credibility assassinated in the Collegian (as is the case with Stephens). But there is  something particularly frustrating about watching Stephens be slammed with accusations of bias, and much worse, in a Collegian op-ed that is itself so manifestly unfair to Israel.

Matthew Gerson ’18 is a political science major from Washington D.C. Contact him at gersonm@kenyon.edu.