Heather Cox Richardson comment on Chuck Schumer's speech
On Wednesday, November 29, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) delivered a landmark speech on American antisemitism, inspired by the fact that protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza after the October 7 attack by Hamas have descended into an embrace of Hamas’s stated goal of the complete destruction of Israel. From there it has, for some people, been a short step to attacking Jewish people in general.
“I feel compelled to speak because I am the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in America; in fact, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official ever in American history,” Schumer said. “And I have noticed a significant disparity between how Jewish people regard the rise of antisemitism, and how many of my non-Jewish friends regard it. To us, the Jewish people, the rise of antisemitism is a crisis—a five-alarm fire that must be extinguished. For so many other people of good will, it is merely a problem, a matter of concern. Today, I want to use my platform to explain why so many Jewish people see this problem as a crisis.”
Schumer anchored his speech in the long history of civil rights advocacy on the part of American Jews. In 1909, New York Jew Henry Moskowitz was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Jack Greenberg, whose family fled pogroms in Europe, served 23 years at the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund after its founder, famous Black jurist Thurgood Marshall, stepped down.
In 1958, in a speech to the American Jewish Congress, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
Five years later, the president of the American Jewish Congress, New Jersey rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, spoke before King at the March on Washington. “I speak to you as an American Jew,” he told the crowd. “As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience—one of the spirit and one of our history…. It…is not merely sympathy and compassion for the Black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”
It was that painful historic experience and an attempt to make oppression impossible that led Jewish activists to support the civil rights movement. In the Freedom Summer of 1964, half the civil rights workers who traveled to Mississippi were Jewish, including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered alongside Black activist James Chaney outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
That history of Jewish support for civil rights is written across the landscape of our country: the main bridge dominating the Boston skyline is named for civil rights worker Leonard P. Zakim in memory of his work to “build bridges of understanding between different ethnic, racial, and religious groups,” as his wife said at the bridge’s dedication.
In his speech, Schumer tied into that history, saying that “bigotry against one group of Americans is bigotry against all” and noting that he had worked to protect Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans, as well as to protect houses of worship for all religions from extremists. He also noted, at some length, that it is possible both to abhor Hamas and to deplore the destruction that has rained down on the Palestinian people.
But Schumer expressed dismay that as hatred toward American Jews is rising dangerously—the Anti-Defamation League estimates that antisemitic incidents have increased nearly 300 percent since October 7—some Americans, people that Jews believed were “ideological fellow travelers,” are celebrating the October 7 attack as an assault on “colonizers.”
“Not long ago,” Schumer said, “many of us marched together for Black and Brown lives, we stood against anti-Asian hatred, we protested bigotry against the LGBTQ community, we fought for reproductive justice out of the recognition that injustice against one oppressed group is injustice against all. But apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people.”
“Many, if not most, Jewish Americans, including myself, support a two-state solution,” he said, “We disagree with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and his administration’s encouragement of militant settlers in the West Bank, which has become a considerable obstacle to a two-state solution.” But “the most extreme rhetoric against Israel has emboldened antisemites who are attacking Jewish people simply because they are Jewish.”
These attacks, Schumer said, conjure up the history of millennia in which Jews were slaughtered. “[W]hen Jewish people hear chants like ‘From the river to the sea,’ a founding slogan of Hamas, a terrorist group that is not shy about their goal to eradicate the Jewish people, in Israel and around the globe, we are alarmed.”
“More than anything, we are worried—quite naturally, given the twists and turns of history—about where these actions and sentiments could eventually lead. Now, this is no intellectual exercise for us. For many Jewish people, it feels like a matter of survival, informed once again by history.”
“Can you understand why Jewish people feel isolated when we hear some praise Hamas and chant its vicious slogan?” Schumer asked. “Can you blame us for feeling vulnerable only 80 years after Hitler wiped out half of the Jewish population across the world while many countries turned their back? Can you appreciate the deep fear we have about what Hamas might do if left to their own devices? Because the long arc of Jewish history teaches us a lesson that is hard to forget: ultimately, that we are alone.”
Schumer begged the American people “of all creeds and backgrounds” to defend the “pluralistic, multiethnic democracy” that has enabled Jewish people in the United States “to flourish alongside so many other immigrant groups.”
He asked them to “learn the history of the Jewish people, who have been abandoned repeatedly by their fellow countrymen—left isolated and alone to combat antisemitism—with disastrous results,” and to “reject the illogical and antisemitic double standard that is once again being applied to the plight of Jewish victims and hostages, to some of the actions of the Israeli government, and even to the very existence of a Jewish state.”
Schumer asked all Americans “to understand why Jewish people defend Israel.” They do not “wish harm on Palestinians,” he said, but instead “fear a world where Israel is forced to tolerate the existence of groups like Hamas that want to wipe out all Jewish people from the planet. We fear a world where Israel, the place of refuge for Jewish people, will no longer exist. If there is no Israel,” he said, “there will be no place, no place for the Jewish people to go when they are persecuted in other countries.”
In view of history and of rising antisemitism, Jewish Americans are afraid of what the future might bring, Schumer said. “And perhaps worst of all,” he said, “many Jewish Americans feel alone to face all of this, abandoned by too many of our friends and allies in our greatest time of need.”
He implored “every person and every community and every institution to stand with Jewish Americans and denounce antisemitism in all of its forms.”
“We are stewards of the flames of liberty, tolerance, and equality that warm our American melting pot, and make it possible for Jewish Americans to prosper alongside Palestinian Americans, and every other immigrant group from all over the world,” he concluded.
“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 asked. Then he answered his own question: “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 Y-hi Ratzon,” he concluded. “May it be his will.”