Australia/Israel Review

Bret Stephens on Israel’s War for Survival

Jul 4, 2024 | Oved Lobel

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens speaking to AIJAC in Melbourne: “There will never be any long-term peace in the region as long as the Islamic Republic rules Persia”
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens speaking to AIJAC in Melbourne: “There will never be any long-term peace in the region as long as the Islamic Republic rules Persia”

“I think it is, in fact… an aspect of Jewish history that we too seldom recognise as a repetitive pattern: that our zenith comes with our precipice,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens told an audience of AIJAC supporters in Melbourne, referencing how in just 11 years, Germany went from being the pinnacle of Jewish civilisation and integration to electing Hitler. And since October 8, Jews around the world felt that “we had in a sense returned to a history we thought we had put behind us.” 

Stephens, a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies, addressed AIJAC functions in both Sydney and Melbourne in June, covering a broad swathe of topics including the war against Hamas and the explosion of antisemitism across the West, as well as the broader struggle with the regime in Iran and its terrorist organs. 

The isolation and hatred Jews around the world have experienced after the October 7 slaughter and mass kidnapping should not have come as a surprise, Stephens said. “If you were paying attention in the years leading up to last October, you would notice how many of the ideas that were percolating in society, if not antisemitic on their face, were antisemitic adjacent.” 

In the first place, he argued, the idea of so-called “privilege” – that is, success – being a great evil was always going to come back to haunt the Jews, as would the imposition of ideological conformity and the ostracism of sceptical thinkers known as “cancel culture”. Even more dangerously, Stephens lamented, “racialisation of politics always finds Jews on the wrong side of wherever virtue is presumed to hold.” Whereas his mother, hidden during the Holocaust, was previously hunted for not being white, Jews are now absurdly considered white, even hyperwhite, due to their success, he noted. 

Finally, the spread of conspiratorial thinking across the West, many modes of which intersect at antisemitism, made the explosion thereof unsurprising. “What is antisemitism? It’s not just a bigotry. It’s a bigotry matched to a conspiracy theory about the Jews,” he explained. 

But how to fight it? Stephens outlined one common approach: “The answer to antisemitism is education,” many Jews will respond, “the answer is somehow telling the people that hate us that they’re wrong.” This approach, particularly concerning Holocaust education, has been counterproductive, Stephens argued. 

Stephens instead recommends an alternative approach: “The answer to antisemitism isn’t education,” he said, “the answer to antisemitism is Jewish knowledge and pride.” This pride includes pride in the State of Israel. He also warned against promoting a victim narrative of Israel, which he asserted “did not come into existence to showcase Jewish victimisation. Israel came into existence to end Jewish victimisation.”

Mentioning the “thought-obliterating words” used by anti-Israel activists, such as “colonialism”, Stephens said, “the single oldest anti-colonial struggle in history is Zionism.” 

Western views of Israel’s exercise of its sovereign power to defend itself, Stephens argued, often come from projecting the American and Western experience over the last several decades of wars of choice, mostly lost without many consequences to the homeland. “When Americans often look at Israeli behaviour, they look at it through the lens of recent American experience [such as Vietnam and Afghanistan], which is ‘well, why can’t you afford to leave Hamas in place?’”

The answer, as Stephens said, is that, unlike the US, “Israel is not fighting a war of choice. Israelis do not see themselves as fighting a war of choice. They are fighting a war for their very existence.” And when the US and its allies had to fight wars for survival, as in World War II, they understood the necessity of overwhelming force. 

“Free countries, when they are fighting wars that they believe are existential, take severe measures to prosecute those wars successfully and bring them swiftly to a close, because to end horror is better than having a horror without end. Israel is fighting such a war,” Stephens said. “There can be no good outcome for Israel, and there can also be no good outcome for Palestinians, unless Hamas is defeated.”

“Stephens continued. “Our job isn’t to deny that [Palestinian] civilians are suffering. Our job is to assign blame where it belongs… every single death in this war is ultimately the responsibility of Hamas.” 

The actual October 7 invasion, Stephens emphasised, whatever other tactical or strategic goals it may have potentially accomplished – such as disrupting Israel’s normalisation with Saudi Arabia – happened because “Hamas is theologically committed, not just to the destruction of the state of Israel, but the killing or enslavement of Jews.” 

As for the way the war should end, Stephens said it needed to end with the full defeat of Hamas and the eventual establishment of a security force overseen by Israel’s Arab partners, primarily the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, those now recognising or deliberating about whether to recognise a Palestinian state should also donate $US 5-7 billion annually in reconstruction aid, he argued, “because otherwise it’s an absolutely feckless and meaningless gesture” and whatever Palestinian state eventuates would be more likely to look like Yemen rather than the UAE. 

Addressing the role and credibility of the United Nations, Stephens was succinct: “[The UN] never had credibility to shred in the first place, and I think the most important way of delegitimising it is by paying it much less attention… We should abolish UNRWA, we should abolish the UN Human Rights Council. The entire effort is just this machine that would have made George Orwell blush.”

Aside from Hamas and the Jewish predicament globally, the other primary topic of conversation related to Iran, and Stephens pointed out, “the Gaza war is merely one front in a multi-tiered war that involves Lebanon, involves other forces and involves, much more seriously, the long-term conflict with Iran. And this is just a piece of that struggle.”

As dangerous and as destructive as a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon would be, given its massive and sophisticated arsenal, he said, “like cancer, you’d sooner fight it earlier than later.” Barring an extremely unlikely diplomatic outcome, a war will have to be fought with Hezbollah, not only to return tens of thousands of Israelis displaced since October 7 to their homes in the North, but to remove the escalating threat, Stephens said. 

Stephens asserted that “There will never be any long-term peace in the region so long as the Islamic Republic rules Persia. And it’s important to distinguish the two, because Iran itself is not a natural enemy of the Jewish State,” with long historical connections and even an alliance in the 20th century until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

Furthermore, Iran is not an isolated enemy, but part of a three-headed hydra facing the West and its allies consisting of Iran, Russia and China as they work together to try to overturn the US-led international order.

Stephens worries, however, that “the Biden Administration doesn’t seem to have a policy on Iran,” having failed to convince Iran to re-enter the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which Stephens refers to as a “completely insane agreement”. Iran’s nuclear program is currently advancing at an alarming pace. “The only correct agreement the West could have made is to say to the Iranians, ‘you can have your regime, or you can have nuclear weapons, but you can’t have both’” Stephens insisted.

“We have one extraordinary ally in that fight. It’s not the United States. It’s not the Arab States. It’s the Iranian people,” Stephens argued, noting the progressively more common uprisings against the regime in the last decade due to its cruelty and oppression. “The great question is, are there ways in which the United States or Israel or other people can do more to help the Iranians successfully overthrow their rulers? And that’s, I think, the likeliest and most lasting solution we can reach for.” 


This placard expresses the ultimate purpose of the anti-Zionist movement – a world without the collective Jew (Image: X/Twitter)

Essay: The Placard Strategy

Jul 4, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
A far-right graphic makes caricatured Jews responsible for everything the far-right hates

Deconstruction Zone: The conspiracy trap

Jul 4, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
The “encampment” at the University of Sydney (Image: X/Twitter)

The Last Word: What is a university?

Jul 4, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: Threatening not only Cyprus but all maritime activity in the Eastern Mediterranean (Image: X/Twitter)

Cyprus and the Hezbollah maritime threat

Jul 4, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
IDF Lt. Col. Dotan Razili, a home front brigade commander, guarding the evacuated northern community of Kibbutz Eilon (Image: Charlotte Lawson)

On the frontlines in Israel’s north

Jul 4, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Israeli PM Netanyahu: US-Israel agreement on the essential parameters for post-war Gaza remains indispensible (Image: GPO/Flickr)

How to End the War in Gaza

Jul 3, 2024 | Australia/Israel Review