Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wondered aloud last Thursday evening, “When will Israel be more a state than a cause?”

He told the 12th graduating class of the Write On For Israel program for high schools students, and an audience of several hundred people at Park East Synagogue: “It won’t happen in my lifetime or in my grandchildren’s lifetime.”

In an address to the graduates and, later, in a public forum — both sponsored by The Jewish Week — he asserted that “it will always be necessary to defend Israel, and it is incumbent on us to do so.” He added that “to be pro-Israel is to be decidedly unfashionable” and that his own advocacy is based on “a strong sense of fidelity” to Jews who suffered in past generations and “a profound sense of duty” to honor their memory.

Stephens, 40, encouraged the graduates to think independently and question conventional wisdom, charging that pro-Palestinian advocates “are artful in the use of fake facts,” like saying that Gaza is one of the most crowded places on earth or that the Palestinians accepted the Saudi peace plan of 2000. Neither is true, he assured the young people.

Forty-seven students completed the two-year Write On program, which seeks to educate young people about modern Zionism, providing them with the facts and confidence to speak out for Israel when they get to campus.

Judah Joseph, of the Write On class of 2012, was one of four alumni honored for pro-Israel activities on campus. Based on his leadership role at the University of Southern California, he advised responding to anti-Israel arguments rationally rather than emotionally. “Debate leads to frustration while engagement can lead to progress,” he said.

In the public forum, Write On alum Joshua Fattal, a student leader in several pro-Israel groups at Columbia University, interviewed Stephens, whose caustic criticism of American foreign policy were often greeted by cheers in the audience. The columnist sharply criticized Washington for “playing a game of make-believe” in the Mideast, accepting the unity government of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and for negotiating with leaders of Iran, “masters at playing for time,” on their nuclear program.

gary@jewishweek.org