Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens extols ‘Jewish pride’ ahead of Hillel of Silicon Valley gala address

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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Bret Stephens first connected with Hillel in an unusual way: After someone keyed a swastika into his car door when he was an undergrad at the University of Chicago, he sought solace at his local Hillel chapter.

“I was marginally Jewish when in college,” said Stephens, 49, an opinion writer with the Times since 2017. The swastika incident “was the first time I contacted a Hillel house. They made me more aware of my Jewishness.”

He’s been a fan of the international student organization ever since.

Stephens will show his appreciation on Feb. 26 when he delivers the keynote address at “L’Dor V’Dor 2023,” an online gala sponsored by Hillel of Silicon Valley.

Sarita Bronstein
Sarita Bronstein

The fundraising event will honor Sarita Bronstein, who celebrates her 10th anniversary as executive director of the Hillel, which serves several local colleges including San Jose State University. Stephens will address the gala’s theme, “Celebrating the Greatest Miracle: The Jewish People.”

The conservative columnist may be best known for his rejection of the Trump-led GOP after years as a member of the Republican Party. As he recently told his Times colleague and fellow conservative Jewish columnist David Brooks, “I think of myself as a conservative-minded independent. If I haven’t finalized my divorce from the G.O.P., we’re definitely separated and living apart.”

He has written often about Israel, antisemitism and other issues of concern to the Jewish community, among them the hostile climate Jewish students face on some college campuses.

When confronted with anti-Israel activism or outright antisemitism, Stephens told J., he suggests one overarching response.

“The only strategy that works is Jewish pride,” he said.

Stephens said he bristles when Jews and others clamor for “safe spaces” on campus. “When we talk about safety, we’re already losing the conversation. It means creating spaces where Jews should feel safe, when in fact Jews should feel safe everywhere. To be Jewish in this day and age unfortunately requires intellectual and sometimes physical risk taking. The only way Jewish students are ultimately going to gain the respect they deserve is by demanding it.”

While Stephens is appalled by efforts to ban pro-Zionist speakers on campus — such as the recent moves by student groups at Berkeley Law — he is equally adamant that universities “have a responsibility to invite a wide range of opinion, and once invitations are extended they should be honored. And speakers have a right to speak without being heckled. I don’t believe in the heckler’s veto.”

The only way Jewish students are ultimately going to gain the respect they deserve is by demanding it.

That includes pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices as well. “You can’t be a proud Zionist and demand the right to free speech,” he said, “while attempting to shut down the rights of those with whom you have profound disagreement.”

The New York City native grew up in a proudly Jewish and pro-Zionist home. His maternal grandparents fled Nazi Germany as Holocaust refugees, while his paternal grandparents fled Russian pogroms. Stephens spent several years of his childhood in Mexico City, where his father worked for a chemical company, and made his first visit to Israel at age 9. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and a master’s in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

“I always thought of myself as a Jew and admired the State of Israel,” he said. “It’s only when I studied Judaism in an academic setting that I began to take Judaism really seriously. That has matured naturally by being a father and having a family.”

Stephens served as an editor and opinion writer for Commentary, the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post before joining the New York Times. He’s been a steady conservative voice in the op-ed pages, but with the advent of Trump, he denounced the Republican Party, which today he considers not conservative but “illiberal.”

In addition to his work with the Times, Stephens founded SAPIR, a 2-year-old online quarterly journal that examines aspects of the American Jewish community and its intersection with cultural, social and political issues. Stephens serves as editor-in-chief.

Stephens uses his soapbox to address Jewish issues. In recent months he has written about the return to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who not long ago was considered politically washed up. He is particularly concerned with Netanyahu’s stated determination to neuter Israel’s Supreme Court by permitting the Knesset to override court rulings.

“I don’t like the direction the government is taking,” he said. “I am alarmed. Not because I have any doubt Israel will find its moral center and figure it out, but because the judicial reform effort is itself wrongheaded; it’s being carried out in a ham-fisted manner, and it is dividing a country that needs to be more united in the face of its challenges, not to mention damaging Israel’s reputation not just among critics, but among its friends.”

Stephens’ interests are broader than just Jewish matters. Ten years ago he published a book titled “America in Retreat,” which argues that the United States had begun unwinding its traditional postwar leadership role. With the U.S. economy strong and American leadership uniting the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what does he think of his book’s premise now?

“I think the book was actually pretty prescient,” he said. “We spent a decade telling ourselves we could turn our back on the ills of the world and the world would leave us alone. In this period of relative isolationism, the dangers to our security have only grown: in Ukraine, in China’s threats to Taiwan, in Iran’s approach to a nuclear breakout. We’re living in a scarier world because we thought we could relinquish the role of the world’s policeman. My argument is: We ought to be. If not us, then who?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.