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‘Israel is going to endure’: Bret Stephens on anti-Semitism and Israel’s war against Hamas

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This episode of Hub Dialogues features The Hub‘s executive director Rudyard Griffiths in conversation with New York Times columnist and Pulitzer prize winner, Bret Stephens, about Israel’s war against Hamas and its geopolitical dynamics as well as the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on AcastAmazonAppleGoogle, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I want to begin, Bret, by just reflecting on the magnitude of what has happened. This is now the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Let’s explain to our listeners the scale of this, the reverberations of this, not just in Israel, but what this means for Jews internationally as we reflect on, again, just an unfathomable but all too real terror that was perpetrated over the last weekend and into today.

BRET STEPHENS: Well, one way to think about it, and maybe this works a little bit better with American audiences than Canadian ones, but I’m sure they’ll get the point. There are roughly a little more than 9 million Israelis, 9.3 million Israelis as of 2021. There are 330 million Americans. That means that proportionally there are 35 Americans for every one Israeli. So when 900 Israelis are massacred murdered in cold blood. You can do the math. That comes to north of 30,000 Americans. That’s ten 9/11s. 9/11 was about 2,900 Americans, and that was a national trauma that has haunted us here in the United States for two decades. This is 10 times that number.

The second way of thinking about it, Rudyard, is Judaism is a religion, but it’s also a family. In many cases, that’s literally true. I have family in Israel. Every Jewish friend I have in the United States or Canada does as well. Everyone I have in Israel at least knows someone who was murdered on Saturday because it’s that small of a country. When 9/11 happened, of course, I remember that vividly, but my guess is that relatively few Americans actually knew someone firsthand who was in the towers, or in the Pentagon, or on Flight 93. Even then, it horrified us beyond anything we had experienced for generations.

Everyone in Israel has a brother, a sister, a cousin who is gone, and that might help explain the rawness of the emotion that I think every Jew in Israel or in the diaspora is feeling right now. Literally, members of our family, close friends, or at the most close friends of friends, have been torn from us in the cruelest and most despicable and cowardly way imaginable.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well put, Bret. Very well put. Let’s turn to immediate events. It now looks like the opening stages are set for a significant ground offensive into Gaza to neutralize this heinous terrorist threat. What are your thoughts on that as the consequential result of this weekend’s massacres? What’s at stake? What’s at play?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, look, we need to look at this through multiple layers. One is the question of the immediate ground offensive, how that’s conducted, what its aims are, can it perhaps rescue some of the more than 100 Israelis and foreigners, by the way, there are Americans right now who are hostages in Gaza. I think there are German citizens—I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re Canadians as well. My hope is that the Israelis not only think hard about the tactical objective of punishing Hamas and degrading its war machine but the strategic question of whether Israel can accept Hamas as the de facto sovereign in the Gaza Strip for more than a decade, for 16 years since Hamas took power in Gaza in a very bloody coup by throwing their political opponents out of windows.

The Israeli calculation, and I have to say not a great one—in some ways a cynical one, was that bad as Hamas is, it’s a containable threat and it presented certain advantages for Israel, divided Palestinian polity between the West Bank, controlled by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, the President, nominally the President, Gaza, and the West Bank. It was an advertisement to Israel and the wider world why Israel couldn’t contemplate further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, given the possibility of Hamas taking over. There was a sense that even though Hamas was a threat, technologies like Iron Dome and the technology to stop the tunnels that had been a problem for a number of years made it more of a nuisance than a strategic threat.

So there was what in Hebrew parlance is called a conceptia, a concept that this was an arrangement that for all of its flaws basically suited Israel’s strategic interest. It allowed Israel to sort of cauterize the Gaza threat while it dealt with larger problems as far as Israel was concerned, namely the threat from Iran. Well, that concept turns out to have been fatally flawed because Hamas was more willful, had greater capacity and more, I hate to say this, I don’t say this in a positive sense, more strategic imagination than Israel gave it credit for. So the Israelis, first of all, are going to have to think about a new status quo for Gaza. I wrote a column a few days ago imagining what that might be and how it actually could end up being productive for the region for all parties concerned.

The second risk, however, is that as this theater of war unfolds in Gaza, other theaters will open, possibly in the West Bank with an effort at a new Intifada, possibly among Israeli Arabs, possibly with vulnerable Israeli populations abroad. At any given time, there are lots of Israelis wandering around India, Nepal, South America, a year after military service. Then of course, most worrying, is in Lebanon with Hezbollah, and then against Iran itself. So that’s a long answer, but it’s important to realize that we may not be sort of looking at the horror in the rearview mirror, at least in the midst of it, but looking toward a very long, very protracted, very bloody war on multiple fronts against multiple adversaries.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: If we think about the risks of escalation here, you’ve just elucidated a couple of them. The risks from Southern Lebanon, the risk of Iran and its self-avowed policy of the destruction of the state of Israel. Do you see the potential here for, Bret, that this could be a trip wire for a larger response? Surely, if we imagine a ground offensive in the coming days, lasting potentially for weeks, to neutralize the Hamas terrorist threat, this will elicit a response, a reaction from the Arab world. Is escalation inevitable?

BRET STEPHENS: No, it’s not inevitable. I was modestly heartened by what appeared to be the Iranians and Hamas and Hezbollah walking back a claim that Iran had greenlighted and masterminded the attack. It seemed to suggest to me that they were saying, “We don’t want to scream in your face. ‘We did this, come get us’.” They seemed worried about the prospect of escalation as well. So the Arab world, whatever it says publicly, people like MBS (Mohammed bin Salman), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MBZ (Mohammed bin Zayed) of the United Arab Emirates, they’re actually no friends of Hamas.

They see Hamas as a cat’s paw for Iranian power, and they wouldn’t mind seeing Hamas defenestrated, or at least not literally, but thrown out of power in Gaza because it’s a threat to them. Even though Hamas, of course is a Sunni organization, they’ve essentially become an arm of Shiite power which they fear. Egypt, just across the border from Gaza, also fears Hamas because Hamas is an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood or a cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood. Lots of parties are interested in getting rid of Hamas. They’re just not going to say it publicly. I would add, if I were an Israeli policymaker, the reason Israel was able to make diplomatic inroads recently in the Arab world with openings to UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and even Sudan was the perception that Israel was the strong horse in the region, that Israel had capacity, military capacity, will and initiative. If they are now perceived as a weak horse, perceived as immobilized by the horror that’s befallen them. Then, the Arab world is going to swiftly turn away from the rapprochement with Israel because the ties aren’t based on love, they’re not based on kinship—they’re based on a strategic perception. Israel now has an interest in showing that perception is astute.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Bret, do you have a sense here that Hamas has dangerously overreached? That possibly, this horrible attack exceeded beyond their wildest expectations, and as a result, they’re vulnerable right now. They’re on their back foot in terms of international approbation and condemnation. They’re on their back foot in terms of some of their traditional sponsors, like Qatar and other players in the region. Is this in fact an opportunity now to push on Hamas, not just on the military front, but a full-spectrum renunciation of this terrorist organization?

BRET STEPHENS: I don’t think Hamas is behaving as if it has overreached. They are gloating, they are celebrating. They are basking in the approval in Arab streets, and in fact Western streets, around the world. Secondly, part of the cynical calculation of Hamas is they win when they kill Jews, and they win when the Israelis kill Palestinians because they use those dead Palestinians for propaganda purposes to advertise the fact that Israel is a depressive, colonial occupier state. Third, their experience of past Israeli policy is that while Israel will take whacks at them in response to provocations, Israel’s not yet prepared to remove them as the governing power in Gaza for the reasons I mentioned earlier. So it’s not at all clear to them, and it’s not entirely clear to me that they’re going to come out of this the losers.

The rhetoric I’ve heard coming out of Jerusalem is we’re going to hit them even harder this time. But again, according to the calculus of Hamas, those losses are themselves a form of victory. So I think until Israel decides to change the concept, until Israel agrees with other regional powers, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and of course, the United States, that Hamas has to go, Hamas is going to remain in power, or certainly going to have major influence among Palestinians. We should be careful not to apply kind of Western standards of advantage and disadvantage to a movement whose aims are so fundamentally different from what we think are the aims of most political organizations or regimes.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Let’s talk a little bit about the Western response. President Biden, on Tuesday, the 10th of October, gave a strong speech from the White House, of the unilateral, unconditional condemnation of these terrorist attacks, these massacres that have been perpetrated by Hamas on Israelis and on Jews. Do you sense, Bret, there’s something maybe different this time, in terms of the international reaction and possibly international support continuing after we know what will be a difficult phase in the weeks and possibly months to come as the conflict goes to the ground in Gaza?

BRET STEPHENS: We’ll see. In the past, when Israel has been hit like this, the pattern of American administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have been rhetorical statements of support for Israel, followed by cold feet after a week or so. And you can go back to the George W. Bush administration, the Reagan administration, the Obama administration, the Clinton administration, to see this pattern.

I think Joe Biden is pro-Israel in his bones. He is a president who knew Golda Meir 50 years ago when she was prime minister, and he was a sitting US senator. That’s how long Joe Biden has been a leading figure in American politics. He feels it very strongly, and he’s an emotional politician. I don’t mean that the least bit in a disparaging way. I think it’s good to have a president who can look at those images and break down in tears, as I freely admit, I have many times these past few days.

If there’s someone listening to this who could look at what happened to children in that kibbutz, to the teenagers of that music festival, to the grandparents and little babies abducted to Gaza, to the women being spat on, the corpses being spat on, and not say to themselves, “That is pure evil. Pure evil,” leaving aside all other political considerations, that is pure evil, I would submit there is something the matter with you. You should really take a good hard look at your moral compass and say, how can you not, from the bottom of your heart, say, all politics aside, this can never happen in a civilized world? And I’m glad the President of the United States is giving voice to that emotion, that outrage, that moral impulse that I think every decent person at a moment like this ought to share.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: We are seeing though, Bret, these voices that we knew would be there, often for whatever set of circumstances on the left, who have traditionally been supporters of the Palestinian Independence Movement. I’ve been shocked personally. I wonder what your reaction is to their seeming inability to differentiate Hamas from possibly more legitimate expressions of Palestinian defiance? And here in Toronto, we’ve had protests on the street where people in large numbers are gathering together to wave not just Palestinian, but Hamas imagery and symbols. Bret, this is shocking to me. It suggests that antisemitism is a far bigger problem than I certainly realized as a non-Jew. And I’ve been thinking a bit to myself. I’ve got to spend some time on this because this has brought home to me the extent of antisemitism in our society.

BRET STEPHENS: I watched from the sidelines a rally in New York City, and I gather there was another one in Toronto and around the world, a pro-Palestinian rally. And I was wondering, would there be even a perfunctory statement of condemnation, even a nod towards the goal of non-violence? Nothing. This was euphoria, it was euphoria, it was cheering.

And the organizations that had put this together were the usual hodgepodge of far left-wing organizations. The Democratic Socialists of America had been urging people to attend the rally. This is the left wing Party that now has Members of Congress, although at least two of the members did condemn the rally in merely mouthed way, but they did condemn it. This is a left, which those of us who follow antisemitism closely, we’ve known for a long time, whatever else they’re saying, their version of opposition to Israeli policies indistinguishable from antisemitism; they don’t want Israel to get out of the West Bank or ease restrictions on Gaza. They want Israel to no longer exist. And more than that, when they watch hundreds of Israelis being massacred, they are cheering, they are justifying, they’re saying, “Resistance against occupation is not terrorism.”

When your thinking is that Zionism equals genocide, when that’s your equation, then any means are justified in stopping Zionism because it’s genocide, according to that perverted logic. And too much of the left has been caught up in that thinking. Look, I, at least until three days ago, always considered myself a supporter of at least conceptually a Palestinian state. If a Palestinian state is a neighbor to Israel, the way Canada is a neighbor to the United States, what’s the problem? I don’t think Zionism came into being in order to exercise control over people who didn’t want to be controlled by the state of Israel. I get that. What you have is a horribly tangled situation that emerged from a succession of wars that were started to wipe Israel off the map, to kill Israel in its crib. And this is a complex tragedy that has unfolded over multiple generations. There’s no simple answer, I hate even to use the word solution to it. And there are perfectly decent arguments to be made that Israel should change its policy.

But the objection of this side of the left, of the far left to Israel, is not about the policy. It is about the state of Israel and its right to exist in any borders. And people who sincerely care about Palestinian interests have a real interest right now, this moment, in dissociating themselves in the strongest possible way from what Hamas just did. Because a Palestinian movement that is captured effectively by Hamas, ideologically by Hamas, is one that will never give birth to a Palestinian state because no rational government in Israel will ever allow that to happen after what just happened on Saturday.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well said. And I only just hope that some deserved discrediting will now go on, and that some people will now have the common sense to walk back these statements which have been issued both not simply by individuals, but often by institutions. Our labour movement here in Canada, bizarrely, seems to have taken a “one hand this, on the other hand that” view of this massacre, these terrorist acts. I think it’s important for listeners to hear from you because you’re so good at explaining to people just why it is important that the West, the United States in particular, support Israel, that this is more than just supporting an ally. That there are causes and principles and ideals here that are greater than just our national interest, however narrowly or expansively one defines that. Can you give us that case, that rationale? I think it’s one we need to be reminded of.

BRET STEPHENS: Let me give you two cases for it. If you’re listening to this show and you consider yourself a liberal or progressive, and your values are for feminism, your values are for LGBTQ rights, your values are for a free and vigorous press holding people in power to account, your values are for an open society, then the state in the Middle East that most closely aligns with your values is Israel. Now, you can absolutely and emphatically oppose Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. There are millions of Israelis who feel as you do, right? Just as there are millions of Americans who vehemently opposed the Trump administration even when he was the president. Try finding LGBTQ rights in Gaza. Try finding women’s rights in most of the Arab world. They’re non-existent. So if you care to see those values defended, even if imperfectly—and they are imperfectly defended around the world—then your instinctive sympathies should be with Israel. That doesn’t mean you refrain from criticism. Criticism can be a form of love. In my family, it’s the most common form of love, at least as far as my mom is concerned, right?

Now, if you’re conservative, and you want to be sure that other countries are fighting for themselves, are developing strategies and methods to stand up for democratic life, for free markets, for the idea of the West, for conservative Judeo-Christian values, then you have a conservative case to be made for an alliance with Israel. Back in 1973, 50 years ago, during the Yom Kippur War, Israel had to depend on American Hawk missiles for air defence. Right now, the American air base in Guam, Anderson Airbase, which is at risk from a possible Chinese attack, they’re relying on the Iron Dome system, which was developed in Israel. American tanks, and I think this is true throughout NATO, are turning towards Israeli technology to defeat, to better protect themselves against RPGs and other kinds of threats.

So Israel is generating value, economic value, strategic value, and tactical value for Western states. And I think you should look at it in those two lights, whether as a liberal, your values more closely aligned with Israel than certainly they do with Hamas or the Palestinian authority. And the same is true as a conservative. And it’s also, I make one final point, Rudyard, which is that we no longer live in a world where our oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, are our moats. We can’t afford to simply turn our back on the world and imagine that it will turn its back on us. We can try to do that, but eventually, it comes back to haunt us. We have an interest in supporting allies at the periphery, on the front lines between open societies and closed ones, whether it’s Taiwan, South Korea, Ukraine, or Israel, who are willing to fight and defend the way of life that we hold dear. And if we can support them in that effort, then it spares us the risk of having to do it for ourselves. So one of the arguments that I make, thank goodness, look at the Ukrainians fighting for themselves. All we are doing is supplying them with the tools. They are supplying the lives and the risk, and the same is true in Israel. So that to me is the set of values that should undergird broad Western support for an embattled, imperfect, but democratic state like Israel.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Great insights Bret, as always. Let’s conclude just by having you project forward. I’m not going to hold anyone to any predictions, but what are you looking for to try to understand where this war will go next? Do you see any potential for things that you would identify or see and say to yourself, “Okay, it’s clearly going in this direction, or it’s clearly going in that direction?” I’m trying to get a sense from you of markers and then on-ramps and off-ramps as we try to imagine what might happen over the weeks and months to come.

BRET STEPHENS: I hate those questions. Ask me about what’s going to happen in a 100 years and we’ll all be dead when the predictions are noted. Look, we have to look very carefully at a few things. Will Palestinians in the West Bank try to start a third Intifada to complicate the task for the Israeli military? And will Israeli Arabs join them as they did in 2021, briefly, in some rioting that really shook the inner security of the state of Israel? Secondly, more importantly, we’ve seen some skirmishing up in the north. Is that going to escalate or is that going to end? And things can turn on a dime in this scenario. But that’s a matter of looking very carefully at signals. The fact that the Iranians seemed to step back from acknowledging participation in the massacres was a good sign that things won’t escalate. But again, that could change very, very quickly.

And the third thing is whether the Israelis will try to solve their near problem by dealing with their far problem. If Israel concludes that Iran had a major hand in the attack, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least, and if the Israelis have good intelligence to that effect, they might want to essentially adopt the Russian motto of escalate to de-escalate. They might want to go very big and shock the Iranians so as to do two things: number one, strike the central enemy as opposed to the peripheral enemy; and number two, change the psychological equation here.

Israel cannot obtain an unconditional victory because they’re never going to get an unconditional surrender. It’s never going to be a surrender ceremony on the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. But what they can do is achieve an unequivocal victory. That is to say, one that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind, whether it’s in Riyadh, or in Gaza, or in Tehran, who the victor of this battle was. And that’s important because if Israel can achieve an unequivocal victory, it restores deterrence, it restores a sense of self-respect. It gives wavering allies like the Saudis and the Emiratis the reasons to think, “Okay, the Israelis got surprised, but this is still a capable adversary.” And it might give the Palestinians room to think, “we never want to do that again.” We have to move down a different path. We have to think of a future Palestinian state, not as the tip of a spear aimed at the heart of the Jewish state, but as an independent, sovereign territory, and perhaps one day a state that wants to be progressive in the best sense, that wants to contribute to a better region, a better civilization that wants the Palestinian name to be connected to something better than what we saw on Saturday.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, that is critical, I think, the re-establishment of credible deterrence. This attack, this horrible massacre has eroded Israeli deterrence. There’s just no other way to look at it. And I think reestablishing that is going to be one of the key objectives of what comes next. We’re all going to know what that looks like when credible deterrence is restored. Final question, Brett, I know this is very personal to you. You have many friends and family in Israel. What are you hearing from people on the ground? What is the mood in Israel right now? How are Israelis responding to the shock? Are they coming out of that shock? What do you think the national mood and attitude is going to be going forward now?

BRET STEPHENS: I think anguish is competing with fury, and very much the way it felt for Americans on 9/11 and the days after. I think there’s a sense that first, they’re going to settle some scores with their enemies. They’re going to bury their dead and mourn them. There’s going to be a political reckoning real soon, as soon as this war is over. I don’t see how this failed leadership in Israel can possibly survive after a debacle of this magnitude. But the Israelis will sort themselves out, I’m sure of that.

Israel has a lot of problems, and I underscore it is very far from a perfect country. I don’t know of a perfect country, and Israel is a country of human beings trying to make their way through history. But it is a country that has a great deal of social capital. That is to say, beyond the capacity of the state, people recognize one another as brothers and sisters. A colleague whom I happen to know with one degree of separation, a journalist for an Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Amir Tibon, lived in a kibbutz on the Gaza border and was stuck in the safe house of his house when he could hear the terrorists outside with his wife and his two young daughters. And he called his father, who is a retired general in his 60s, and his father and mother got in a car and drove down from Tel Aviv to rescue their child, a 35-year-old journalist stuck in a safe house.

On the drive down, they encountered wounded soldiers. So then first they rescued the wounded soldiers, and then they continued to drive down picking up soldiers along the way. This retired general effectively inserted himself in a unit as a 62, 63-year-old man, and fought his way into his son’s kibbutz to rescue his son and his grandchildren. Say what you will about Israel, in a society where that happens, that society, in the long run, is going to endure, and we should be looking, and Israel will be looking for examples like that to remind itself that it is still a country worth fighting for, still a country worth loving, still a country worth having.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Bret Stephens, thank you so much for coming on short notice today to talk about the issue that we’ve all got to wrap our minds, and as you remind us, our hearts around in the days and months to come. We look forward to reading your columns, you’re a guiding light for many of us, and understanding these and so many other contemporary issues. So thank you again for your insights and your words of wisdom this afternoon.

BRET STEPHENS: Thank you for having me, and I’m hoping that the next time I’m part of a Munk Debate or conversation it’s under happier circumstances.