The Provocative, Polarizing Prose of 2023 Class Day Speaker Bret Stephens

Stephens (A.B. ’95), a New York Times opinion columnist, addressed the criticism he has faced for his columns on Israeli-Arab relations, Jewish intelligence, and the Iraq War in a conversation with The Maroon.


Jason Smith

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens was announced as the speaker for the 2023 Class Day ceremony in a press release on February 22.

By Austin Zeglis

New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens (A.B. ’95) is used to criticism. “I’ve been a contrarian all my life, for as long as I can remember,” he told The Maroon.

That criticism now echoes throughout the University of Chicago campus. As was announced in a University press release on February 22, Stephens will return to campus in June as the speaker for the 2023 Class Day ceremony. His invitation has angered, among others, student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, who have accused him of expressing anti-Arab sentiments in some of his published writing.

Stephens has written for The Wall Street Journal and served as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, “for his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.”

Stephens, who graduated from the College in 1995 with a degree in Fundamentals, credits the University with influencing his worldview to this day.

“I think for most people, the college experience recedes as they get older. And for me, in a sense, it’s become more important in that the way in which I think about political and social problems is shaped by the way I learned to think about problems at Chicago. And I think that’s a different experience from many other universities,” he said in an interview with The Maroon.

The pivotal role of the University in Stephens’ life inspired him to accept the invitation to speak at Class Day.

“It was very moving to me,” Stephens said of his invitation, “because the University means something to me personally that goes beyond simply the honor of giving a speech to a prestigious university and an accomplished graduating class.”

After graduating, Stephens worked at The Wall Street Journal. In 2002, he left the Journal to become the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

Stephens worked at The Jerusalem Post for three years until the paper entered the process of being sold. He then got an offer to return to The Wall Street Journal, where he stayed from 2004 to 2017 before joining The New York Times’ opinion staff. Stephens has been a columnist at The New York Times for the past six years.

From his decades of work in journalism, Stephens believes intellectual debates are crucial for a healthy democracy.

“The need for high quality, accurate, thoughtful reportage and analysis are as great now as ever—and in fact maybe even greater—because what I’ve learned is that societies don’t function without a common fact set,” Stephens said. “And from my vantage, which is opinion journalism, I think the opportunity to persuade, argue, contradict are maybe more important now than before.”

“I feel that as a society we’ve moved too far into different ideological silos, so having the opportunity to show what it means to live in a society with plural viewpoints and plural perspectives is really important for the health of democracy.”

Throughout his time at The Post and The Times, Stephens has been lauded as one of the most influential columnists on foreign policy. But some of Stephens’ columns have also faced intense scrutiny and backlash.

“The Meaning of an Olympic Snub”

In August 2016, Stephens wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal titled “The Meaning of an Olympic Snub” about Egyptian martial artist Islam El Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands with the Israeli athlete Or Sasson after a judo match.

“So long as an Arab athlete can’t pay his Israeli opposite the courtesy of a handshake, the disease of the Arab mind and the misfortunes of its world will continue. For Israel, this is a pity. For the Arabs, it’s a calamity. The hater always suffers more than the object of his hatred,” Stephens wrote in the column.

Readers, including New York Times columnist Max Fisher, claimed that the phrase “disease of the Arab mind” implied that Stephens was making a racist generalization about all Arab people. In a tweet that has since been deleted, Fisher responded to Stephens’ column, “I guess we just all have to agree to disagree as to whether it is acceptable or correct to call racial groups pathologically diseased.”

Stephens reflected about the backlash in conversation with The Maroon. “I do not suggest that antisemitism is a disease of all Arab minds,” he said. “If I had known that the line would read that way to so many people, in part because it’s so often taken out of context, I would have written it differently.

“The reason I wrote it that way is that if you look at extensive survey data, and the ADL produces a lot of this, you’ll find that antisemitic attitudes are extraordinarily pervasive—I don’t mean universal, but pervasive—in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries.” The ADL, or Anti-Defamation League, is a non-governmental organization with the stated mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

Stephens continued, “People think I was making some biological argument—that’s completely false. It was a metaphorical turn of phrase. If I said, ‘racism was the disease of the white Southern mind in the Jim Crow South’, I’m guessing you wouldn’t object to the statement. Now, it doesn’t mean that every white Southerner was a racist by any stretch. It simply means that it was way too pervasive and that it warped white Southern thinking in all kinds of ways—obviously above all with respect to their views about Black Americans. That was the sense in which I was trying to put that.”

“I’m sorry it was read the way that it was, but it was written without malice and certainly without trying to cast aspersions on all Arab people by any stretch.”

The Maroon spoke to representatives from the UChicago chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) regarding Stephens’ columns.

“This is not the only time that he’s used heavily racialized language to devalue Palestinian life in particular and Arab life more generally,” an anonymous SJP organizer said. “He’s conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It’s been brought up to him that the Egyptian player refused to shake hands from a stance of anti-Zionism, and he essentially conflates the two and says that any form of anti-Zionism is antisemitism. It’s another example of propaganda used against anti-Zionists to make their valid critiques of Israel antisemitic in origin.”

Another SJP representative, Christopher Iacovetti, also commented on the column.

“The part about the ‘hater’ and the ‘hated’ fits into a wider pattern of constant victim-blaming of Palestinians—blaming them for being militarily occupied, blaming them for having their land stolen, blaming them for every misfortune that’s been visited upon them by the Zionist project,” Iacovetti said.

“The Secret to Jewish Genius”

In December 2019, Stephens wrote a column titled “The Secret to Jewish Genius” for The New York Times. He cited statistics from a 2005 paper titled “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” that put forth a genetic hypothesis for why Jews exhibited higher IQs on average. That paper was co-authored by former University of Utah professor Henry Harpending, a white nationalist and eugenicist who has a long track record of advancing racist, anti-Black theories and rhetoric, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Shortly after publishing, the references to Harpending’s paper were deleted from the column and an editors’ note was added saying that Stephens “was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views” and that it was “a mistake to cite it uncritically.”

“I objected to the changes at the time because I thought that readers deserved to see what I had actually written. But that’s water under the bridge,” Stephens said. “I had no idea who Henry Harpending was when I cited what was fairly common data from a paper whose thesis I otherwise rejected. The data that I cited was data that I could have cited from any number of other sources not tainted by Harpending’s odious racial views. The issue was that the hyperlink was inserted in the column, which I really regret.”

“20 Years On, I Don’t Regret Supporting the Iraq War”

This March, Stephens had a column published in The New York Times titled “20 Years On, I Don’t Regret Supporting the Iraq War,” in which he argued that the intelligence leading up to the war was sound and that “Iraq, the Middle East and the world are better off for having gotten rid of a dangerous tyrant,” referring to the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The column faced backlash on social media, with many pointing to the war’s death toll, which ranges from 151,000 to 600,000 depending on the source, the environmental harm, and the resulting political instability as evidence against the region improving.

“I think there are powerful arguments to be made against the Iraq War, particularly with the benefit of hindsight,” Stephens said. “But the suggestion that America invaded Iraq on some kind of flippant motive, I think, is mistaken. The purpose of a column of mine is to hopefully make people a little less comfortable in their assumptions.”

Iacovetti also responded to The Maroon about Stephens’ column on the Iraq War. He criticized Stephens for ignoring “the suffering that the US inflicted on the Iraqi people” and for praising the United States for fighting against ISIS despite, according to Iacovetti, the group’s originating from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“It is absolutely not for him or the US or Israel or anyone else to say whether Iraq or the region is better off as a result of the invasion that was a war of aggression they never asked for and actively opposed,” he said. “It’s for the people themselves. Bret Stephens is not interested in what Arabs think or feel or experience—he’s interested in what furthers the interests of his preferred Euro-American imperial projects.”

Reactions to Stephens’ Invitation to Campus

The same anonymous SJP organizer commented on the University’s decision to bring Bret Stephens to Chicago for Class Day.

“This is nothing new,” they said. “It’s once again an example of the fact that this campus has always been hostile to Palestinians—there’s a strong Zionist presence and Palestinians are constantly harassed and persecuted for any statement of support for Palestine. Bringing Bret Stephens in is a reaffirmation that this place is not for us.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Yossi Brackman of Rohr Chabad, one of UChicago’s Jewish student organizations, wrote in an emailed statement to The Maroon that he had cast his support behind Stephens’ engagement on campus and hoped students will engage with and grow from his ideas.

“As a rabbi, I am concerned about the frightening rise of antisemitic attacks and sometimes violence toward our communities. As an American, I am concerned for all minorities that are victims of hate crimes and discrimination. Unfortunately, this is a symptom of the fact that people are not talking and listening to those with whom they think they may disagree,” he wrote.

“So, while it seems that some people find Bret Stephens’ writing to be controversial at times, I hope that the Class of 2023 will take the Chicago Principles with them into the world and engage with others and their views, instead of cherry-picking one-liners and casting away the substance and ignoring the issues.”

Stephens views his journalistic career, and the resulting criticism he has faced, through the lens of what he learned while at UChicago—lessons that he hopes to impart upon its next class of graduates.

“Being confronted with ideas you’re either not familiar with or that you have reasons to oppose is the way in which you sharpen your thinking. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to change your mind, but it means you’re going to think more clearly about what’s at stake,” he said.

“And this brings me back to the ultimate connection between my time at Chicago and my professional life, which is that Chicago taught me—and hopefully everyone reading this piece—never to be satisfied with a first, second, third, or even a fourth opinion. Learning and thinking and progress take place through a continual process of intellectual challenge, and that’s what Chicago for me was all about. And I hope it’s what it has been all about for the graduates to whom I’m going to speak,” he continued. “I’ve never asked anyone to agree with me in my columns. I’ve only asked them to try to think twice. And if I can succeed just at that, I’m succeeding as a columnist.”