Bret Stephens Was Justly Outraged When He Was Called an Insect
After a report that the New York Times headquarters had been infested with bedbugs, George Washington University Professor David Karpf tweeted last Monday, “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
Nice. On the same exact week that commemorates the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II and, effectively, the Holocaust, a professor at one of America’s leading universities calls one of America’s most famous public intellectuals an insect.
This disgusting reference was not just a potshot at one of the country’s most respected columnists — a Pulitzer Prize winner — but a calumny reminiscent of the worst Nazi propaganda. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum says in its online encyclopedia, “A recurrent theme in Nazi antisemitic propaganda was that Jews spread diseases.”
In the book Hitler by Joachim Fest, the author quotes Hitler saying, “Nature is cruel; therefore we are also entitled to be cruel. When I send the flower of German youth into the steel hail of the next war without feeling the slightest regret over the precious German blood that is being spilled, should I not also have the right to eliminate millions of an inferior race that multiplies like vermin?”
Bret was doubly abused when he was attacked for having the temerity to respond to Karpf by emailing him, with a copy to the provost of GW: “I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard.”
“I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face,” he said. “That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”
Stephens later went on MSNBC to say Karpf’s remark was “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable.”
Some critics have made fun of his challenge to Karpf to come and insult him to his face, but that is more a commentary on the critics than Stephens. Bret is one of my closest friends. He is a man of morality and decency. He is a family man who is intimately involved in the lives of his children. And he is someone who tries to do the right thing.
We disagree on many things, most notably on what degree of support President Trump deserves from the Jewish community to honor his unprecedented support for Israel. But as a man in the public eye, Bret Stephens is quite simply one of the finest men I know. And if people feel that he overreacted to being called a bedbug, that’s probably because Jewish public figures like Bret are getting sick of disgusting antisemitic slurs that we’re told we have to take, just because we’re public and we’re Jewish.
One of Bret’s former colleagues, Sohrab Ahmari, condemned those now ridiculing Stephens. He said this “is as repellent and wrong as it is routine in our age of online mobs.”
People today have become accustomed to the freedom to say what they want from a distance on the Internet no matter who it harms. This is why we hear so much about kids being bullied by their peers online and the proliferation of hate on social media.
One of the members of the mob is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who mocked Stephens in a tweet: “Imagine being on Twitter and having the worst thing you’re called in a given day is ‘bedbug.’ My own friends roast me harder.”
This is the same person who outrageously compared the detention centers on our Southern border to Nazi-era concentration camps. Why isn’t she criticizing one of the most high-profile Jews in the country being called a bug? Would she have had the same reaction if the professor had referred to Hispanics in the same way?
Stephens is a big boy, so he can take it, but that does not mean Karpf, AOC, or anyone else should be given a pass. As Bret said, Jews have a “bad history” of “being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes.”
He knows because he is a student of history and because his family suffered from that “bad history.” As Ahmari wrote in The New York Post, “the Nazi Holocaust deeply scarred his Jewish forebears in Europe; it shattered them. I remember him telling me once about how in a single day, the Nazis, in cahoots with Lithuanian locals, massacred 10,000 Jewish men, women, and children in his mother’s ancestral town. So I can see why the prof’s likely innocent analogization to bedbugs got under Stephens’ skin in a way that others may not understand.”
I agree with former ADL head Abe Foxman who said, “The comment by the professor was not a criticism — it was an insult. … Unfortunately, words come with history — and calling someone a bug who infests a place has historic connotations, especially to Jewish people.”
In October of 2017, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a notorious Jew-hater, called Jews termites. In a tweet that Twitter has since deleted he said, “I’m not an antisemite. I’m anti-termite.” The tweet linked to the video of a speech he delivered commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the Million Man March in 1995.
There was universal outrage for his disgusting comparison of Jews to insects. The next day I wrote on Twitter: “Louis Farrakhan calling Jews termites is a virtual call to genocide. The Nazis regularly referred to Jews as roaches and pests who needed to be exterminated. I call on African-American leaders like my close friend @CoryBooker to immediately condemn this vile and loathsome attack.”
But then in June of this year, rather than condemn his remarks, Cory said he would continue to meet with Farrakhan. “I have met — I live in Newark so we have famous Mosque 25, we have Nation of Islam there. … As mayor I met with lots of folks talking to him. I have heard Minister Farrakhan’s speeches for a lot of my life, so I don’t feel like I need to do that, but I’m not one of these people that says I wouldn’t sit down with anybody to hear what they have to say. But I live on a neighborhood where I’m getting guys on the streets offering and selling his works. I am very familiar with Minister Louis Farrakhan and his beliefs and his values.”
When people expressed absolute shock that Cory said he would continue to meet with a man who calls Jews bugs and praised Hitler as a great man, Cory retreated a month later and said he would now not meet with Farrakhan. It would have been nice if such moral conviction had not been forced by a public outcry.
Bret Stephens being called a bedbug and Farrakhan calling Jews termites is just the most recent example of how attacks on Jews have become normalized. We see it in the antisemitic BDS movement and in the remarks by Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
Have we really fallen so low that a difference of opinion merits such abuse of the people with whom we disagree?
This is unacceptable in all cases. Jews, in particular, know what happens when we are dehumanized and compared to bugs. Antisemites, Islamists and white supremacists feel emboldened to try to exterminate the pests and we get massacres at the Tree of Life and Poway synagogues.
It is appalling that public officials and, especially, Stephens’ journalist colleagues, have failed to defend Stephens and react with the revulsion the attack on him deserves. And what is truly upsetting is to see such an incredible and eloquent champion of Israel like Bret Stephens not be defended by a pro-Israel community which should stand with those who stand with the Jewish state.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.