Chuck Schumer’s greater point supersedes Israeli elections

The U.S. Senator's call for new elections in Israel — because Netanyahu has ‘lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel,’  is shared by many Israelis — American Jews and other Americans.



March 20, 2024 - 3:08 PM

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the highest-ranking elected U.S. official of Jewish faith, departs from the Senate Chambers Thursday, March 14, 2024. During a Senate Floor speech on the Israel-Hamas war, Schumer called for Israel to hold new elections and criticized Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/TNS)

Something momentous just surfaced in the evolving relationship between the U.S. and Israel: a credible attempt to reintroduce nuance into one of the many debates corrupted by hyper-partisan polarization in both countries. More than just that, it was a cri de coeur to all of us to feel empathy not just for the Jewish victims of Hamas since Oct. 7, nor just for the innocent Palestinians civilians who have died in the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, but for all humans suffering in this conflict. It was an appeal to sanity.

The occasion was a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The orator was Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking elected U.S. official of Jewish faith and a man whose pedigree and biography make his devotion to Zionism unimpeachable. His very name, as he pointed out, comes from Hebrew shomer, guardian, and marks him as looking out for the true and long-term interests of Israel, which “cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.”

Unsurprisingly in today’s political climes, that conscientious message risked getting lost in the ensuing news cycle. Instead, the headlines focused on just one of the suggestions that Schumer made in his 45-minute speech, his call for new elections in Israel, because its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.” That view, as it happens, is shared by many Israelis, American Jews and other Americans, including me.

Not by Netanyahu, of course, who feigned indignation at such American interference and demonstratively reminded Schumer that Israel is “not a Banana Republic.” On cue, Republicans in the US Senate and House lined up behind Netanyahu and against Schumer. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, called his Democratic colleague’s suggestion “grotesque.”

All those reflexes in fact manifest the pathology that Schumer felt he had to call out. US debates about Israel and Palestine have become victims of America’s culture wars, as have discussions about guns, abortion or even, these days, democracy and truth. Among far-right Republicans, Israel nowadays can do no wrong, even when it bombs civilians in Gaza or allows Jewish settlers to abuse Palestinians in the West Bank. Among far-left Democrats, Israel can do no right, even when it defends itself against unspeakably sadistic acts of terrorism.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout roughly the first half of Israel’s modern existence since 1948, the American public and Congress broadly supported the country irrespective of party lines. As Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American scholar at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, told me, Americans generally viewed Israel as a David facing hostile Goliaths all around. This is how older Americans, including President Joe Biden, still remember Israel.

In recent decades, however, the American left and right have diverged on Israel. On the evangelical fringe of the Republican party, Christian Zionism took hold. It views the return of the Jews to Israel — including the West Bank under its biblical names Judea and Samaria — as prologue to the Second Coming of Christ and the end of time. That vision ends well for Christians (who enter rapture) but not for Jews (who go to hell), although that twist never stopped politicians like Netanyahu from cultivating American evangelicals as political confederates. The rise of nationalism, under former president Donald Trump in the US and Netanyahu in Israel, further consolidated this alliance between the Republican right and Israeli hardliners.

The American left went to the other extreme. In particular, younger voters increasingly see Israel not as David but as the Middle East’s Goliath, with its nukes and tanks and West Bank settlers. To many progressives, Israel looks like a perennial bully, says Munayyer, and a neo-colonial overlord oppressing its Palestinian victims.

Washington’s lobbyists reflect this bifurcation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Zionist organization on K Street, used to hover above the partisan fray, befriending politicians in both parties, including Schumer and McConnell. In recent years, however, AIPAC has increasingly raised money from right-leaning donors in order to spend it in Democratic primaries against left-leaning politicians whom it views as insufficiently pro-Israel.

In response, a group of smaller lobbies this month formed an alliance called Reject AIPAC. Its goal is to spend money in the other direction, for candidates that AIPAC is opposing. Usamah Andrabi, one of Reject AIPAC’s spokespeople, told me that AIPAC is the new National Rifle Association — another once palatable interest group that’s morphed into a hyper-partisan attack machine.

Many Americans, Jewish or gentile, feel left out in this shouting match. “I like polls with a third option,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a lobby that’s both pro-Israel and pro-peace and smaller than AIPAC. And that space is what Schumer is trying to re-occupy, he told me. It’s a zone where empathy, nuance and responsibility become possible, and with them, also solutions. It’s a frame of mind that Schumer urged on Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and Americans alike.

Whether Schumer’s appeal leads to change in US policy toward Israel or the situation in Gaza remains to be be seen. Biden said he liked the speech but didn’t elaborate. But it could give the president political cover if he feels that he needs to withdraw diplomatic, financial or military support from Netanyahu. As Netanyahu appears ready to cross Biden’s “red line” by invading the Gazan city of Rafah and risking another humanitarian disaster, that moment may indeed be nigh.