Embattled democracy, social media, conspiracy theories: Bret Stephens speaks at JCC

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PROVIDENCE – On May 19, New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens helped reopen the JCC to in-person programming for the first time in more than two years when he spoke on “A Changing World: The Impact on Jewish Communities.”

Close to 150 people gathered in the social hall at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center to hear Stephens speak, while others watched the livestream of the rescheduled Annual Campaign event.

During the program, Stephens discussed a range of issues that have led to the United States’ current position on the global stage, and the implications for Jews.

Among his points:

Misplaced mission in the developing world?:  “In the ’90s, our role was to help China develop. We simply assumed that as China became richer, it would move in the direction of becoming a freer country. So we moved toward helping a dictatorship become richer.”

Stephens said we did the same thing with Russia. “Anyone who knew where [Vladimir] Putin came from should have known something was amiss.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: He has crystalized the concepts of freedom and self-determination, some of the core ideas of Judaism. And he has galvanized public opinion.

Also, “We admire the courage of an underdog,” Stephens said.

Conspiracy theories: After 9/11, it was a stunning fact that a majority of the population was willing to believe the conspiracy theory that it was an inside job, he said. Social media turned out to be the perfect way to spread conspiracy theories.

“We thought it was a tool of democracy, but it was being used as an algorithm of outrage, radicalizing people’s ideas and creating coalitions of extremism,”  he said.

This was all happening almost without us noticing. Suddenly, out of the blue came a politician who nobody took seriously, but he was able to seize the reins of democracy – while many bewildered Americans wondered how that was possible.

“When conspiracy theories are the way people think about the world, then that is very concerning,” Stephens said: If people believe conspiracy theories about other groups, they are more likely to believe them about Jews too.

He explained that there is a conspiracy theory right now, identical to one 150 years ago, that Jews are swindlers and imposters. It’s called antisemitism because Jews weren’t considered European – they were Semites and they were swindlers.

Stephens said anti-Zionism is a conspiracy theory, too, one that states that Jews aren’t from Israel and are swindling Palestinians out of their land.

Israel and the United States: “The best decision the United States has made about Israel has been to stand up for a small embattled democracy that shared our values and is our only reliable ally in the region, and that stands with us when we need them,” Stephens said.

The Jewish community: “Threats to Jews in this country remain profound and serious,” he said.

When you see students focus their outrage on Israel rather than on what’s happening in Ukraine or elsewhere, it’s a problem for democracy, he said.

Our young people “have to be courageous” when they face antisemitism or anti-Zionism, he said.

“You have to be willing to speak out. You have to be able to name things for what they are. Stand up. It’s still a free country. Don’t be afraid.”

There was a spirited question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, which was moderated by Torey Malatia, president, CEO and general manager of The Public’s Radio.

The evening began with a reception at the Providence home of DeeDee Witman, chair of the campaign event host committee. At the reception, close to 60 Alliance major donors and board members, along with community leaders, had the opportunity to mingle with Stephens and ask him questions ahead of his presentation.

The event had originally been scheduled for October 2021, but concerns over COVID-19 forced it to be rescheduled.

A recording of the presentation is available online until June 19. Go to https://www.jewishallianceri.org/did-you-miss-the-bret-stephens-event.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.