Confronting the Threat of Anti-Semitism

Sharing concern about the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens ’91 addressed the Middlesex community on November 29, initially reviewing several of the blatant, often violent acts that have occurred in recent years. Among them were the murder of 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 and, in a Dallas synagogue in January 2022, the taking of four hostages by an extremist bargaining for the release of a convicted terrorist.

“I could go on. It does go on,” Bret said. In 2020, he noted – the latest year for which statistics are available – 55 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes targeted Jews, a fact that is even more disturbing given that only 2.4 percent of the American population is Jewish. Yet, over centuries and millennia, Bret pointed out, Jews have been expelled, ghettoized, and massacred; only decades ago, during the Holocaust from 1941 to 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators aimed to kill every Jew in the world.

“Why the Jews?” Bret asked. “It’s hard to say why, and we need to talk about it.”

Offering two possible explanations, he first described – and debunked – a few long-standing prejudices about Jews, such as the trope that they are greedy, as epitomized by Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin. Yet, a Pew Research survey of charitable giving found that Jews are among the most generous donors, perhaps because, as Bret said, “In the Hebrew Bible, charity is commanded 157 times.” Similarly, he countered claims that Jewish people control entire spheres, like media and finance, by detailing the leaders of major networks, publications, and financial institutions.

The persistence of anti-Semitism across countries and centuries, however, led Bret to another idea: that anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory that “Jews are uniquely prone to use deceptive means to accomplish evil ends and must be stopped.” Because conspiracy theories are a way of thinking, he cautioned, “If society becomes addicted to conspiracy theories, they will start to take anti-Semitism seriously.”

Reviewing four principles of the religion, Bret explained that Judaism has a concept of “peoplehood, going back to Abraham and Sarah,” and that to some non-Jews, “peoplehood implies ‘difference.’” A powerful commitment to fighting for freedom is another fundamental value, as is valuing and celebrating differences of opinion. Notably, Judaism has long embraced a culture of literacy, such that “even when scattered, they were held together by language and reading,” Bret said. Given that literacy was rare 2000 years ago, he continued, a largely illiterate population might think, “These people have secret knowledge” – a notion that could invite conspiracy thinking and make Jews a target of persecution.

Because the tenets of Judaism align well with ideals of democracy – in which debate is deemed essential and education is valued – anti-Semitism “should matter to you,” Bret stressed. “When it emerges, it’s a symptom that your democracy is in trouble.”

As Bret mentioned at the beginning of his talk, anti-Semitism is deeply personal to him; his father’s family fled persecution in Russia, and his mother was hidden as a child in Nazi-occupied Europe. “Not all of her family was so lucky,” he said. Projected on the Kaye Theatre’s screen behind him was an old photograph of four young women on a beach in Šķēde; at that spot in December 1941, three of his mother’s cousins were among the 2749 Latvian Jews murdered by the Nazis.

“Why do we care about anti-Semitism and democracy?” Bret reiterated. “Because this photo happened in my mother’s lifetime, and it could happen again today. It’s important for you to know and care about it as educated people.”

Before and after his address, Bret visited classes and held discussions with students, faculty, and staff, thoughtfully answering questions on a variety of topics. Emphasizing his commitment to free speech, he recommended not “cancelling” those who promote hate speech but having conversations with them instead, countering “bad ideas with better ideas.”