‘Ultimately, we are alone’: Schumer calls out antisemitism on the left in a speech on the Senate floor
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Jewish Democrat who is the majority leader, delivers a speech on antisemitism in the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 29, 2023. (Photo: Senate website/screenshot)

By Ron Kampeas
November 29, 2023

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In a 45-minute speech on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Jewish Americans are “alone” and took some of his political allies to task for rising antisemitism on the left following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. 

“Jewish Americans are left alone at least in our eyes to ponder what this all means, and where it could lead,” Schumer, the Jewish New York Democrat, said in opening Wednesday’s Senate session. “Can you understand why the Jewish people feel isolated when we hear some praise Hamas and chant its vicious slogan?”

The slogan he was referring to, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is one embraced by a member of his own party, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American who advocates for a single Israeli-Palestinian state. She is also among a growing group of progressive lawmakers calling for a permanent ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Schumer started out, as he often does, by proudly noting his status as the most senior Jewish elected official in U.S. history. But he articulated what many Jews — who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats — have said over Thanksgiving meals, Shabbat gatherings and after synagogue services: After years of alarm at the rise of antisemitism on the right, many fear that the left is also becoming inhospitable, with some progressives praising the Hamas attack.

“In some cases, people even celebrated what happened, describing it as the deserved fate of ‘colonizers’ and calling for ‘glory to the martyrs’ who carried out these heinous attacks,” Schumer said.  “Many of the people who have expressed these sentiments in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists. They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”

He also drew a parallel with anti-Muslim actions during the Donald Trump administration, recalling how he stood with Muslims when Trump issued a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries early in his presidency. As a candidate, Trump had called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

“When President Trump called for a Muslim ban during the first weeks of his presidency, I held an emergency press conference to protest the ban,” he said. “It was a deeply distressing moment, and I’m an emotional sort. I began to cry. President Trump saw me crying on TV and gave me a nickname, ‘Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.’ I was — and am — proud of that moniker.”

Schumer’s speech comes as Jewish security groups and law enforcement agencies have reported a spike in antisemitic incidents following Oct. 7. A Jewish man died following a physical altercation at dueling pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies near Los Angeles, and multiple Jewish students have been assaulted on campus. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions across the country have been vandalized with antisemitic and anti-Israel graffiti. 

Schumer delved into the use of the “river to the sea” slogan, which Tlaib and others say simply calls for equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League say the slogan is antisemitic because it calls for Israel’s elimination. 

“I believe there are plenty of people who chant ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ not because they hate Jewish people, but because they support a better future for Palestinians,” Schumer said.

“But there is no question that Hamas and other terrorist organizations have used this slogan to represent their intention to eliminate Jewish people not only from Israel, but from every corner of the Earth,” he said. “Given the history of oppression, expulsion, and state violence that is practically embedded in Jewish DNA, can you blame Jewish people for hearing a violently antisemitic message, loud and clear, any time we hear that chant?”

Schumer often trumpets his Jewish identity and has spoken repeatedly at pro-Israel rallies since Oct. 7. In speeches to Jewish groups, he likes to note his surname’s etymology, which likely derives from the Hebrew word “shomer,” which means guard.

As he has in the past, he expressed deep-seated satisfaction in doing his ancestors proud and praised the American values that he said made his upward mobility possible.

“My father struggled, barely making ends meet,” Schumer said.

“But together with my mother, he provided a stable and loving home in Brooklyn for my siblings and me, where we were able to flourish,” he said. “And because of the tolerance and openness and opportunity that courses through all of American life, I now stand before you as the majority leader of the United States Senate, the highest elected office a Jewish person has ever attained in the history of this country.”

And he sought to conclude on a positive note, inserting a Hebrew phrase from the Jewish prayer book into his speech. 

“Are we a nation that can defy the regular course of human history where the Jewish people have been ostracized, expelled and massacred over and over again?” he said. “I believe, truly believe in my heart, that the answer can and must be a resounding yes. And I will do everything in my power as Senate majority leader, as a Jewish American, as a citizen of a free society, as a human being to make it happen. Ken yihye ratzon, may it be God’s will.”

Yet he walked away from the podium with his face frozen in a grimace, a departure from the avuncular posture he loves to project, and the stark unhappiness that infused his speech lingered on.

“Can you appreciate the deep fear we have about what Hamas might do, if left to their own devices?” he said at another point in the speech. “Because the long arc of Jewish history teaches us a lesson that is hard to forget. Ultimately, we are alone.”

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