Why Schumer spoke out against Netanyahu as Israel wages war

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By journalsofus.com


On Sunday afternoon, in the library at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Senator Chuck Schumer took stock of the uproar he had caused a few days earlier. In a speech in the Senate, he called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel a major impediment to peace in the Middle East and called for elections to replace him when the war ends.

It was here, he recalled, inside this huge red brick school in southern Brooklyn, where at age 16 he was glued to his transistor radio listening to the latest news on the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. It was where he idolized Sandy Koufax, the Jewish pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers who refused to play on Yom Kippur and learned it was cool to be proud of his heritage.

And on Sunday, Schumer, the New York Democrat, majority leader and highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States, again explained how his upbringing in Jewish Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Holocaust, prompted him to give a speech politically risky that caused a turning point in the politics of US-Israeli relations.

“This is part of my core, my soul, my neshama,” Schumer said in an interview, using the Hebrew word for soul. “I said to myself: ‘This could hurt me politically; This can help me politically.’ “I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t.”

His main goal, he said, “was to say that you can still love Israel and feel strongly about Israel and totally disagree with Bibi Netanyahu and Israel’s policies.”

The Republicans’ response has been swift and cruel. Mr. Schumer’s speech was still echoing Monday night, when the former President Donald J. Trump cited him in an interview., saying that “any Jewish person who votes Democrat hates their religion. They hate everything related to Israel and should be ashamed of themselves, because Israel will be destroyed.”

Mr. Schumer was not entirely surprised by the reaction. “I knew I would be in the maelstrom,” he said Sunday, before Trump’s comments. But the reaction was greater than he had anticipated.

Republicans and even some Democrats accused him of inappropriately interfering in another country’s elections. The Republican Jewish Coalition said “the most powerful Democrat in Congress stabbed the Jewish state in the back.” And some on the left said he had not gone far enough in condemning Israel’s conduct in the war against Hamas in Gaza.

It’s hard to think of Schumer, the relentless party operative who always uses his flip phone and somehow never runs out of power, as anyone who will ever put politics aside. There is something almost comical about the childlike delight he feels at how far he has come through dogged work, from these humble streets of Midwood to the top of American politics.

But he insists that it was his deep Jewish faith – and the moral imperative he feels to defend Jews and Israel – that led him to speak out against Netanyahu.

“It came from here,” he said, pointing to his stomach.

Still, his speech came at a time of deep political division within his party over the war in Gaza, which has created vulnerabilities for President Biden and Democrats that are impossible to ignore.

Democratic leaders have been under extreme pressure from progressives over Israel’s offensive against Hamas, which has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza, where the population could soon face famine. In the Michigan Democratic primary, More than 100,000 voters chose “not committed” to express discontent with Biden’s support for Israel and pressure him to call for an unconditional ceasefire.

Schumer said he spent hours after his speech talking to conservative Jewish constituents whose members were enraged. On Tuesday he was scheduled to address a broad spectrum of American Jewish leaders, facilitated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, via Zoom.

In the interview, Schumer was characteristically more eager to recount the praise he received. “Did you see Nancy today?” said of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, who in an appearance on CNN on Sunday called her speech an “act of courage.” He asked an aide to share a letter he received from Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister, that called him “honest and ready to step forward and say what needs to be said.”

It took a long time to arrive. Schumer said he spent about two months and 10 drafts trying to perfect a 44-minute speech that he knew he would have to walk a delicate line. He did not want to simply push for political changes in Israel’s Gaza offensive without criticizing Netanyahu, whom he called “the source of the problems.”

“I thought just proposing policy changes wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t do anything,” he said.

Worried that Netanyahu’s leadership was risking Israel’s global reputation and its US support, Schumer wondered how far he could go.

“I fought with myself; maybe I should say Bibi should resign,” Schumer said. But he quickly concluded that would cross a line. “That’s telling Israel what to do, and it’s in the middle of a war.” He later added that when the idea of ​​asking for resignation came up, “I always said no.”

Instead, Schumer called for new elections and, as he said in his speech, letting “the chips fall where they may.”

“Bibi could prevent any election until 2026,” he said. “I am concerned that under his leadership Israel will become a pariah in the world and even in the United States, because I look at the numbers and they are declining rapidly. I had to speak out before it eroded.”

Without American support, he added, Israel’s “future could well be over.”

He says his words have already had the desired effect, citing a Netanyahu’s appearance on CNN on Sunday when he was asked if he would commit to calling new elections after the war. (The Prime Minister avoided the question.)

Schumer kept his own advice as he prepared the speech, alerting the White House of his plans to deliver it just a day earlier; The only answer he wanted was to see if he would interfere with negotiations to release the hostages held in Gaza. They told him no.

The senator did not share the content of his comments with anyone outside a small circle of staff members and his wife, Iris Weinshall.

“When he’s Jewish, he does it himself,” Stu Loeser, a former aide, said of Schumer. “In this matter, he is his best advisor. In many ways, he is the embodiment of postwar American Jewry.”

But Schumer credited a conversation with Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who leads Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, where she attends synagogue and has officiated at many of her family’s milestones, for influencing her thinking.

“We share the belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas, but we talked about the desperate need to bring the hostages home and end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza through an agreement,” he said. “I said that even if we only care about Israel’s security, this war was actually harming Israel on the world stage and its relationship with the United States.”

The rabbi said he told Schumer that right-wing extremists in Netanyahu’s government were “putting us all in danger, because their agenda aims to dehumanize Palestinians and is undermining democracy and Israel’s most cherished values.”

Of Mr. Schumer’s speech, he said: “This was him trying to discern the moral path and trying to move forward in a way that he knew was risky for him, to do something that he felt deeply was right.”

Critics told him he was wrong.

Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which has long had a good relationship with Schumer, said he was stunned by the comments.

“The speech was surprising, precisely because of his position and his record as a prominent supporter of Israel for decades in a very high-ranking position,” Diament said. He said he found it inappropriate that Schumer had not only called new elections but had named Netanyahu and Hamas on the same list of what he called the four biggest impediments to peace.

When asked how the speech would affect his relationship with Schumer going forward, Diament said, “I don’t think I know the answer to that yet.”

While driving through his old neighborhood, Schumer kept stopping to point out local landmarks from his childhood. Here was the house where Dr. Isabel Berkelheimer, his childhood dentist, lived. That street was where Gil Hodges, former first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, handed out candy on Halloween.

He recalled his amazement upon visiting Israel for the first time when he was 20, for his brother’s bar mitzvah. “I remember saying, ‘There are Jewish garbage dumps; We don’t have Jewish garbage dumps in America!’” he said. “We have school teachers, we have employees, but in Israel you can be anything.”

On October 7, Schumer was leading a bipartisan Senate delegation to China and Korea when he learned of Hamas’ attack on defenseless Israeli military bases and civilians. He cut his trip short and began to explore how quickly he could reach Israel.

Schumer at his bar mitzvah in 1963.Credit…via Chuck Schumer

“He said, ‘I have to go, I’m sorry, I have to be there,’” recalled his wife, Mrs. Weinshall, who was traveling with him at the time. “What she saw was just devastating to him.”

Schumer became emotional as he recalled his encounter with families of hostages, including Ruby Chen, the Brooklyn-born father of 19-year-old Itay Chen. Israeli authorities recently announced that Chen was killed during the October 7 Hamas attack and that his body was being held in Gaza.

“Now they’re asking me, ‘Do me a favor: get his body back so we can have a shiva,’” he said, referring to the Jewish mourning ritual. “So we’re working on that.”

Schumer blames Netanyahu and Trump for the erosion of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, which he fears could threaten Israel’s future.

“Making Israel a partisan issue only hurts Israel and the US-Israel relationship,” he wrote on social media Monday, calling Trump’s response to his speech “hateful.”

Schumer said he still believes his Republican colleagues love Israel, “but some of them love to bash Democrats more.” As an example, he cited President Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana,’s decision last fall to tie aid to Israel to cutting funding for the Internal Revenue Service, a poison pill for Democrats. He The bill passed the House largely along partisan lines. but it has gone nowhere in the Senate.

As he drove through Brooklyn to his daughter’s house for the weekly Sunday family dinner, Schumer said he would have more to say on the subject. He gave a important speech on anti-Semitism delivered on the Senate floor last fall (he is now considering writing a book on the subject) and has been looking for an opportunity to do the same in Europe.

“I care about Jews,” he said. “It’s not the only thing that matters to me. “I worry about America, I worry about New York, I worry about my family, but I worry about the Jews.”

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