Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in happier times./ISRAEL GPO

Schumer’s shot across the bow of the Israeli government

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Schumer’s shot across the bow of the Israeli government

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in happier times./ISRAEL GPO

For nearly a half-century, Charles Schumer has served on Capitol Hill. For nearly all that time he has been a reliable barometer not only of public opinion but also of American Jewish opinion. He has special street cred among the Jews of Brooklyn and beyond; the Times of Israel has said that he is “never afraid to reference his Yiddishkeit.” When the New York Democrat became the highest ranking Jewish elected official in American history, he said that his ascension was “awesome in the Biblical sense, as the angels that trembled in awe before God.”

He is the E.F. Hutton of Congress: When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talks, people listen. And what he said in recent days should have made all Israel tremble: Big changes must occur in the Jewish state, and Benjamin Netanyahu must go.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Schumer said that the Israeli prime minister “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.”

That speech was a shot across the bow of the Israeli government. It also was a shot heard round the world. The full text of his remarks was published throughout Israel. No one missed this passage:

“My last name is Schumer, which derives from the Hebrew word Shomer, or guardian. Of course, my first responsibility is to America and New York. But as the first Jewish Majority Leader of the United States Senate, and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in America ever, I also feel very keenly my responsibility as Shomer Yisroel – a guardian of the People of Israel.”

It was a message that military people would identity as coming from FNF, for Mr. Schumer – who often has spoken of how, in 1941, SS stormtroopers killed 17 members of his family in one burst of Holocaust-era gunfire – spoke as Israel’s friend not foe.

But throughout the United States – where, as Matthew Brooks, chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, put it, the Schumer remarks were a “seismic event” – the senator’s speech was taken as much as a symbol as a demand. It was not a suggestion.

America’s patience with Mr. Netanyahu is running thin. More Americans (47 percent) view Mr. Netanyahu negatively than positively (33 percent), according to the Gallup Poll’s January soundings. That is a huge change in the past five years. In 2019, Americans, by a 40-27 percentage-point margin, viewed him favorably.

Schumer’s words seemed to resonate at a Tel Aviv rally this past Saturday night.

The Korean and Vietnam wars illuminated how impatient Americans are with war. They may have supported U.S. combat troops for four years in World War II, but after that, their support has had a limited shelf life; it’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of contemporary democracies. Now that notion can be applied to other nations’ wars.

That is evident in the difficulty the Biden Administration is having in winning support for continued aid to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia. Now Israel is facing the same phenomenon.

For better or for worse, in sickness as in health, Israel has depended on strong, reliable American support. But Gallup’s March poll contained a stunning finding. It is true that 58 percent of those surveyed still held a favorable view of Israel, ordinarily a cause for contentment in any land. But here is the warning sign: That figure, though still a majority, is 10 percentage points below the support level that Israel enjoyed only a year ago. It is the lowest figure in two decades.

Now consider this: The American support level – about six in ten, according to the survey – is the only net positive rating that Israel gets in the developed world.

The Capitol’s E.F. Hutton is speaking. But he is speaking more like Theodore Roosevelt than like Harry Truman. He is speaking softly but carrying a big stick.

Here is the soft-talk, with Mr. Schumer speaking of the Jews of his neighborhood and of Jews his age, Jews who grew up reading World Over, the Jewish children’s magazine published by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, and hearing of how Israel made the desert bloom, the phrase that inevitably and often tumbled off the lips of Hebrew School teachers in the 1960s:

“We love Israel in our bones. What Israel has meant to my generation, within living memory of the Holocaust, is impossible to measure. The flowering of the Jewish people in the desert from the ashes of the Holocaust, and the fulfillment of the dream of a Jewish homeland – after nearly two thousand years of praying and waiting – represents one of the most heartfelt causes of my life.”

Now for the stick:

“If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war begins to wind down, and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing U.S. standards for assistance, then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

Mr. Schumer’s own rabbi said that her congregant “said what most of us think.” Rabbi Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim, told the Politico news website that there has been “a real fear in the American Jewish community of criticizing Israel,” adding, “He did something so great in breaking that silence.”

Mr. Schumer is no philosopher king. He is a practical politician, steeped in the ways of the capital, unusually attentive to shifts in public opinion, especially conscious of his role not only as a leader who is Jewish but also as a Jewish leader.

He knows that, much like air in a punctured tire, support for Israel is seeping away. The United States was horrified on October 7, 2023, much the way the world was horrified on September 11, 2001. But what followed that horrifying Tuesday at the beginning of the century was replicated by what followed on that horrific Saturday almost a quarter-century later.

In both cases, the reaction to the terror defied the political physics as set forth by Isaac Newton. The reaction was not equal but stoutly opposite. World opinion, and the opinion of many Americans (and a significant slice of American Jewry) shifted. In Book of Exodus terms, the initial Israeli “eyes” for Hamas “eyes” – the early Israeli counterattack – had full American support, a view generally replicated across the globe. But the world’s eyes swiftly saw massive civilian deaths as a result of Israel’s attacks, just as the United States forfeited its moral high ground with the invasion in Iraq. Now the figure 30,000, the generally accepted number designating the toll of deaths in Gaza, is ricocheting throughout the American Jewish community. It is causing immense disruption, and in some quarters, revulsion.

Mr. Schumer spoke softly, and carried a big stick. He also had a big message embedded in his soft words:

“What horrifies so many Jews especially is our sense that Israel is falling short of upholding these distinctly Jewish values that we hold so dear,” he said. “We must be better than our enemies, lest we become them,” he said. “Israel has a fundamental right to defend itself, but as I have said from the beginning of this war – how it exercises that right matters.” Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

2 Responses

  1. Shame on him! Schumer is a disgrace to Israel and the Jewish people! Knocking down Bibi in the midst of Israel fighting for its survival is incomprehensible! The irony is that everything Schumer accuses Netanyahu of is exactly what Schumer is doing! Prioritizing his political power over moral clarity and caving to his radical progressive left in order to keep his position is shameful! Schumer is no friend to Israel and to our people! We need to stick together in times of crisis and Schumer is not helping!
    Btw the Rabbi at his synagogue is know for her anti Israel views!

    1. I concur 100 & 10%. Schumer is wreaking havoc on this country, and now he wants to do the same thing to Israel.

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