Ex-ADL Chief Defends Bret Stephens in Bedbug Brouhaha
A veteran arbiter of antisemitism says New York Times columnist Bret Stephens was not overreacting when he objected to being likened to a “bedbug” by a professor on Twitter, an insult that was subsequently echoed by President Donald Trump.
The national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, now director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, which is based at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, told The Algemeiner that he did not think Stephens had been too sensitive in response to a tweet by an associate professor at George Washington University, David Karpf.
After a report that The New York Times headquarters had been infested with bedbugs, Karpf tweeted on Monday, “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
On Monday night, Stephens wrote to Karpf, copying the George Washington University provost. “I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to use for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face. That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part. I promise to be courteous no matter what you have to say,” Stephens said, according to an image of the email posted to Twitter by Karpf.
On Tuesday, Stephens publicly quit Twitter, explaining, “Twitter is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity. I sincerely apologize for any part I played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt. Thanks to all of my followers, but I am deactivating this account.”
In an appearance Tuesday on MSNBC, Stephens said, “There is a bad history of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes.”
That is entirely accurate; as the Holocaust Encyclopedia on the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum puts it, “A recurrent theme in Nazi antisemitic propaganda was that Jews spread diseases.” The encyclopedia features an antisemitic poster with words that say, “Jews are lice.”
On Wednesday, President Trump weighed in with a tweet mocking Stephens along the same lines as Karpf: “The infestation of bedbugs at The New York Times office’ @OANN was perhaps brought in by lightweight journalist Bret Stephens, a Conservative who does anything that his bosses at the paper tell him to do! He is now quitting Twitter after being called a ‘bedbug.’ Tough guy!”
Foxman said, in response to a question from The Algemeiner, “The comment by the professor was not a criticism — it was an insult. I don’t think that either Professor or POTUS intended it to be anti-Semitic, but unfortunately words come with history — and calling someone a bug who infests a place has historic connotations, especially to Jewish people.”
Stephens is a former editor of The Jerusalem Post whose hiring by the Times in 2017 was hailed as having the potential to fill the pro-Israel columnist slot that had been empty at the paper since the retirement of William Safire in 2005.
Some of the Times’ left-leaning readers reportedly canceled their subscriptions in protest of his hiring, but as recently as this past February, Stephens’ editor, James Bennet, publicly defended him, saying, “I think he’s a great columnist and he’s done amazing work for The New York Times.”
In October 2018, the paper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, also defended Stephens.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.