‘Part of My Core’: How Schumer Decided to Speak Out Against Netanyahu

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In the library of James Madison High School in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon, Senator Chuck Schumer took stock of the splash he made a few days before. In a speech on the Senate floor, he had branded 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 winds down.

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

And on Sunday, Mr. Schumer, the New York Democrat, majority leader and highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States, returned to explain how his upbringing in Jewish Brooklyn in the shadow of the Holocaust prompted him to deliver a politically risky speech that brought about a watershed moment in the politics of U.S.-Israeli relations.

“This is so part of my core, my soul, my neshama,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview, using the Hebrew word for soul. “I said to myself, ‘This may hurt me politically; this may help me politically.’ I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I didn’t do it.”

His main purpose, he said, “was to say you can still love Israel and feel strongly about Israel and totally disagree with Bibi Netanyahu and the policies of Israel.”

The blowback from Republicans has been swift and vicious. Mr. Schumer’s speech was still reverberating Monday night, when former President Donald J. Trump cited it in an interview, saying that “any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves, because Israel will be destroyed.”

Mr. Schumer has not been completely surprised by the reaction. “I knew I’d be in the maelstrom,” he said on Sunday, before Mr. Trump’s remarks. But the reaction was bigger than what he had anticipated.

Republicans and even some Democrats accused him of inappropriately interfering in another country’s elections. The Republican Jewish Coalition said that “the most powerful Democrat in Congress knifed 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 is hard to think of Mr. Schumer, the relentless party operator always working his flip phone and somehow never out of juice, as someone who ever puts politics aside. There is something almost comical about the childlike delight he takes in how far he has risen through dogged work, from these humble streets of Midwood to the pinnacle of American politics.

But he insists it was his deep Jewish faith — and the moral imperative he feels to stand up for Jews and for Israel — that led him to speak out against Mr. Netanyahu.

“It came from here,” he said, pointing at his gut.

Still, his speech came at a moment of deep political divide 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 be facing famine. In the Michigan Democratic primary, more than 100,000 voters chose “uncommitted” to express their dissatisfaction with Mr. Biden’s support for Israel and prod him to call for an unconditional cease-fire.

Mr. Schumer said he spent hours after his speech talking with conservative Jewish constituencies whose members were enraged. On Tuesday, he addressed a broad spectrum of Jewish American leaders, facilitated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, by Zoom. In a statement after the meeting, the group said “our membership continue to have deep reservations about Senator Schumer’s speech.”

In the interview, Mr. Schumer was characteristically more eager to recount the kudos he received. “Did you see Nancy today?” he said of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, who in a CNN appearance on Sunday called his speech an “act of courage.” He directed 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 was a long time coming. Mr. Schumer said he spent about two months and 10 drafts trying to perfect a 44-minute address he knew would have to toe a delicate line. He did not merely want to push for policy changes in Israel’s offensive in Gaza without calling out Mr. Netanyahu, whom he called “the fount of the problems.”

“To just go for policy changes — I thought it wouldn’t pierce, it wouldn’t do anything,” he said.

Worried that Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership was risking Israel’s global reputation and its backing from the United States, Mr. Schumer pondered how far he could go.

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

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

“Bibi could prevent any election until 2026,” he said. “I worry under his leadership, Israel would become such a pariah in the world and even in the United States, because I look at the numbers and they’re rapidly decreasing. I had to speak out before it erodes.”

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

He says his words have already had their intended effect, citing an appearance Mr. Netanyahu made on CNN on Sunday in which he was asked whether he would commit to calling for new elections after the war. (The prime minister sidestepped the question.)

Mr. Schumer kept his own counsel while preparing the speech, alerting the White House of his plans to deliver it only a day before — the only feedback he wanted was to check whether it would interfere with negotiations to free hostages held in Gaza. He was told it would not.

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

“When it’s Jewish, he does it himself,” Stu Loeser, a former aide, said of Mr. Schumer. “On this stuff, he is his own best adviser. He is in many ways postwar American Jewry incarnate.”

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

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

The rabbi said she told Mr. Schumer that the right-wing extremists in Mr. Netanyahu’s government were “endangering all of us, because their agenda is about dehumanizing Palestinians and it’s undermining Israel’s democracy and dearest values.”

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

Critics told him he was wrong.

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

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

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

Driving around his old neighborhood, Mr. Schumer constantly interrupted himself to point out local landmarks of his childhood. Here was the house where Dr. Isabel Berkelheimer, his childhood dentist, used to live. Down that street was where Gil Hodges, a former first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, handed out candy on Halloween.

He recalled his amazement at visiting Israel for the first time when he was 20, for his brother’s bar mitzvah. “I remember saying, ‘There are Jewish garbagemen; we don’t have Jewish garbagemen in America!’” he said. “We have schoolteachers, we have clerks, but you could be anything in Israel.”

On Oct. 7, Mr. Schumer was leading a bipartisan Senate delegation to China and Korea when he got word of the Hamas attack against army bases and defenseless Israeli civilians. He cut short his trip and began exploring how quickly he could get to Israel.

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

“He said to me, ‘I have to go — I feel it, I have to be there,’” his wife, Ms. Weinshall, who was traveling with him at the time, recalled. “What he saw was just devastating for him.”

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

“Now they’re asking me, ‘Do me one 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.”

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

“To make Israel a partisan issue only hurts Israel and the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” he wrote on social media on Monday, calling Mr. Trump’s response to his speech “hateful.”

Mr. Schumer said he still believes his Republican colleagues love Israel, “but some of them love beating up on the Democrats more.” As an example, he cited the decision by Speaker Mike Johnson, the Louisiana Republican, last fall to tie aid to Israel to cutting funding for the Internal Revenue Service, a poison pill for Democrats. The bill passed the House mostly along party lines but has gone nowhere in the Senate.

As he drove through Brooklyn to his daughter’s house for their weekly Sunday family dinner, Mr. Schumer said he would have more to say on the subject. He delivered a major speech on antisemitism from the Senate floor last fall — he is now considering 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 I care about. I care about America, I care about New York, I care about my family, but I care about Jews.”


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