Mondoweiss / May 26, 2023
The story of Ethiopian Jews is “the best reminder that Israel, whatever else is said against it, has been a beacon for the oppressed,” Bret Stephens writes. But that’s not true.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has been unflagging in his promotion of the need for a Jewish state, and he has a thick skin. For instance, when Israel was massacring unarmed protesters on the Gaza border in 2018, he offered a spirited defense, blaming Palestinians for their “culture of victimhood… and violence.”
Stephens’s latest effort is especially imaginative. At a time when the American left is acknowledging and commemorating the Nakba — the creation of 750,000+ Palestinian refugees by Israel’s founding in 1948 — Stephens focuses on another refugee population entirely: Ethiopian Jews who have emigrated to Israel. Titled “Israel’s Unfinished Exodus Story,” his long, long article reports on the 95,000 Ethiopian Jews who have come to Israel over the last 40 years to escape famine or persecution.
Because that’s what Israel does, it saves the Jews of the world, Stephens explains. One prosperous family left Ethiopia for a simple reason, he says: “They left because they were Jews, and knew their real home lay elsewhere.”
And lest that Zionist lesson is lost, he tells us of his own ancestor escaping Europe in 1918, and says this creates an obligation to Jews today to support Israel. “Whether from Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, Poland or Germany, there are eerie resemblances in almost every Jewish family’s story of escaping persecution — a story that ought to unite us as Jews and that obligates us as human beings.”
The nuttiness of Stephens’s story — and it really is nutty — is that he lavishes attention on the salvation of Jews but completely leaves out the fact that Palestinians have been dispossessed by Israel’s establishment.
Stephens even states: The Ethiopian emigration is “the best possible reminder that Israel, whatever else is said about or against it, has been a refuge for the vulnerable and a beacon for the oppressed.”
This is just not true. Today millions of Palestinians are both “vulnerable” and “oppressed,” and Israel is the source of that persecution. But Stephens doesn’t notice them because that would destroy his argument. The article never mentions Palestine or Palestinians.
Happily, some eloquent Times commenters are on to him.
A French commenter, Manu, is offended by the antisemitism inherent in Stephens’s assertion that Ethiopian Jews knew that “their real home lay elsewhere.” Manu’s Jewish friends know that their home is France, Manu says.
Others point out that Stephens is ignoring Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Writes Ed Jones in Wales:
“This very moving tale invokes both the philosophical tenets of the Jewish faith and their efforts to embody those principles in the state of Israel. But Israel is also a state that has created refugees, nearly 800,000 of them. And more are being created every day. According to UN studies, Gaza will soon become ‘unlivable’ because of lack of power, sanitation and access to potable water. Nearly half of those affected are children. This is Israel’s basic contradiction. Humanitarian principles and democracy for some of its inhabitants, but ghettoization, cruelty and oppression for others.”
While John Dirlik of Montreal says that Stephens’s storytelling leaves out Israel’s supremacist reasons for the Jewish immigration, and that you cannot rationalize a religiously-discriminatory state today:
Arguably, the primary reason for Israel’s “Law of Return” was not to be a refuge for Jews but rather to alter the demographic balance in Israel. To put it in a less politically correct way: too many Arabs threaten the composition of a self-declared Jewish state. Hence policies to reduce their numbers (like denying the right of Palestinian refugees to return home) and increase that of Jews (by providing generous incentives for Jews to move there). The idea of a Jewish state (or Muslim or Christian) should be anathema to rational people in the 21st century: a civilized country should be the state of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity and religion, or lack of it. As in the US and Canada and all Western liberal democracies. Hardly a controversial position.
I take hope from Stephens’s column and the commenters. Stephens is obviously desperate. Israel is getting a worse and worse name for even New York Times readers: 44 percent of Democrats regard Israel as an apartheid country. 48 percent of Dems sympathize with Palestinians, only 39 percent with Israel — a giant reversal of sympathy in just the last few years.
This revolution in public opinion has taken place thanks in great measure to Israel’s own conduct and the activism/social media that is publicizing its actions.
No wonder Stephens needs to change the subject.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006