The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
When The New York Times hired Bret Stephens earlier this year as an op-ed columnist, I wrote, “His voice will be a welcome addition and corrective to the Times tilt against Israel.”
Who knew then that he’d wind up using his new platform to criticize a pro-Israel organization?
Yet that’s exactly what Stephens did in a recent column lacing into the Zionist Organization of America for allowing a former Trump administration official, Stephen Bannon, to speak at its dinner in New York.
The Times columnist’s overall point — that Jews should beware antisemitism on the right as well as on the left — is perfectly sensible. But the column suffers from a series of flaws that hurt its credibility.
November 21, 2017 4:30 pm
First, it’s hypocritical of Stephens to attack the ZOA for associating with Bannon on the grounds that a website Bannon operated published articles about, and in some cases by, other figures that Stephens finds objectionable. “No organization that purports to represent the interests of the Jewish people should ever embrace anyone who embraces anti-Semites,” is the way that Stephens phrases it. The hypocrisy comes from the fact that the New York Times op-ed page, where Stephens works, has published articles by Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti and by the foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Times reader comment platform is itself a cesspool of virulent anti-Semitism. One reader comment on Stephens’ own ZOA column, by Peter Feld, said, “there’s nothing anti-Semitic about opposing a Jewish state on stolen land ruling over a captive population. Bannon is nothing but a symptom of the racism that has animated Zionism for over 130 years.”
That comment generated 67 “thumbs up” recommendations from Times readers and was only one of ten comments, out of 529 submitted, that Times moderators awarded a gold ribbon signifying that it was a “NYT Pick.” This isn’t just some fluke; the Times has a persistent and ongoing problem with antisemitic reader comments. If Stephens is going to fault the ZOA for associating with Bannon on the grounds of Bannon’s ties to a website purportedly populated with anti-Semites, that same standard would dictate that Jewish organizations stop inviting Stephens himself as a speaker until the Times cleans up its own act.
The column is afflicted with flaws beyond hypocrisy. The standard Stephens proposes is impractical. As the eminent Israeli author Yoram Hazony commented about Stephens’ column, “Herzl negotiated with the British empire, the Kaiser, the Sultan, the Czar, the Pope. No successful Jewish policy can be built on a politically correct doctrine of ‘liberal friends only.’”
Stephens’ critique of Bannon is so broad that it would include lots of people who are not enemies of the Jews. “Unlike Nixon, whose anti-Semitism seems to have been of a knee-jerk and atavistic variety, Bannon’s alt-right views — his opposition to free trade, a liberal immigration policy, ‘international bankers,’ ‘corporatist global media’ — are consonant with a sinister worldview that always finds a way to get back to a certain class of rootless cosmopolitans,” Stephens writes. If opposition to free trade is all of a sudden a disqualifier, does that mean that Evy Dubrow, the longtime Washington representative of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, should have been written out of the organized Jewish community? Bernie Sanders has railed against “corporate media” and also has been critical of free trade agreements. Does that make him a sinister alt-right antisemite?
Finally, the Stephens column fails to disclose to readers that the columnist had a lucrative financial relationship with the organization he now criticizes as a “disgrace.” On November 12, 2013, Stephens spoke at the annual awards dinner of the ZOA’s Pittsburgh district, for a fee of $7,500 plus travel expenses, according to the ZOA. In January of 2014, he spoke to the ZOA’s Southwest Florida Chapter. On February 19, 2015, he spoke in Palo Alto, Calif., at an event sponsored by the ZOA’s West Coast chapter, for which he was paid a fee of $8,000 plus travel expenses, according to the ZOA. Each fee amounted to more for one speech than the median journalist makes in two months of work.
One might argue that disclosing the financial relationship would strengthen Stephens’ argument, because he must really have a strong conviction about something to put that kind of income stream in jeopardy. Or one might argue that it would weaken it, making readers wonder if the column has more to do with Stephens’ speaking business — had the ZOA fees dried up? Does he have other paid speaking customers that compete with the ZOA for pro-Israel donors? — than with the underlying merits. I emailed Stephens and a Times spokeswoman on Friday afternoon to ask about the speaking fee issue and to give Stephens an opportunity to address it. I got no response from them.
At the Palo Alto ZOA event, Stephens said, according to a YouTube video of the speech, “It’s especially a pleasure and an honor to speak for the ZOA. The ZOA is very dear to my heart for many reasons, but I want to single out one, which I think is particularly important. ZOA is not afraid to be unpopular. And I think that that is probably the quality that is most desperately needed today in political discourse generally, but speaking as a Jew, in Jewish discourse particularly.”
This probably won’t make me too popular with Stephens, but here it is: he had it more right in California back in 2015 than he did in his recent Times column.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.
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