Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a fine speech on anti-Semitism today, expanding on a New York Times op-ed calling attention to the “normalization and intensifying of this rise in hate.” Many of the Americans calling for the destruction of the Jewish state “aren’t neo-Nazis or card-carrying Klan members or Islamist extremists,” Schumer said on the Senate floor this morning. “They’re in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”
Schumer’s speech contained the very important point that “from the river to the sea” is the most famous eliminationist slogan from Hamas’s charter. That can and should be seen as a rebuttal to Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has echoed this call for genocide and then tried to lie about its meaning. Schumer also talked about the way anti-Semites call attention to Jewish success in society and then use that very success to turn others against the Jews. He did not shy away from Holocaust comparisons.
He told a meaningful story about taking a radio with him to class in 1967 so he could listen to news updates during the Six-Day War, a time when he didn’t know if Israel would survive. And he correctly stated that holding Israel to a double standard is one definition of anti-Semitism—and that the world’s condemnation of the IDF for civilian casualties that are actually caused by Hamas is one such manifestation of that double standard.
The words are powerful, and Schumer should be congratulated for them. But there are words and then there’s action. On the action front, a few of Schumer’s fellow Democratic senators are talking about taking demonstrable steps—against Israel. And therein lies a problem that has been brewing for years, long before Hamas was planning its Oct. 7 slaughter. Schumer is calling on his fellow Americans to stop attacking Jews. But he has members of his own caucus calling on the rest of Congress to join them in tying one of Israel’s hands behind its back.
It is uncomfortable when anti-Semitism comes from your political allies, so Schumer deserves genuine credit for getting over his fear of the Squad and pointing out the existence of Jew-hate in his caucus. The problem is that his words are a preamble to… what, exactly? The awkwardness of progressive anti-Semitism for Democratic Party leaders has resulted in such things as panels, commissions, and the occasional task force. President Biden’s big Strategy to Combat Anti-Semitism, released earlier this year, was an extremely long list of nothing.
What does it look like to take action against the dominant form of anti-Semitism in America today, which Schumer describes? A Texas bill passed and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June eliminated DEI bureaucracies, the ideological administrative zealots of identity politics, at public colleges. The state investigated the sources of anti-Semitism in public institutions, talked to Jewish members of those institutions about how best to move forward, and then did so.
A month earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed similar legislation in Florida, which followed his signing of a bill that toughened state laws against various acts of anti-Semitic intimidation that were being used against Jewish people and institutions. All of these moves came after Donald Trump’s presidential executive order applying a bipartisan reading of civil rights law to Jewish students on campus.
The Biden administration and Schumer himself could follow suit. So far they have not. That said, Biden’s moral steadfastness in support of Israel’s right to defend itself is hugely important, and his record should not be underappreciated. Still it is on progressive anti-Semitism specifically that he and his party struggle to buttress words with actions, and sometimes don’t even find the words in the first place.
And they must contend with the actions of their fellow lawmakers. Senate Democrats have begun debating whether to “condition” aid to Israel during its defensive war. “We want the president to secure express assurances from the Netanyahu government regarding a plan to reduce the unacceptable level of civilian casualties, and we want the Netanyahu coalition to commit to full cooperation with our efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said. He was joined in that demand by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee in 2016: “Those are goals that I think everyone shares, and we’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it.”
Israel has always made more of an effort to protect civilians than any other country at war, but Hamas’s practice of using Palestinians as human shields and fabricating casualty counts and refusing to distinguish between fighters and civilians can make it look, to the easy-living outsider, as if that is not the case.
This is a crucial fight. Israel is planning to resume its mission in Gaza’s south, which is now more densely populated because of the number of evacuees from the north and which Hamas soldiers and commanders have had mostly to themselves while Israeli troops carefully cleared out Hamas bases in the north. Israeli soldiers are going to go out of their way to target Hamas, and thus Israeli casualties will likely increase. But so will Palestinian civilian casualties because of the circumstances. What Senate Democrats are talking about here is simply making it harder for Israel to win the war. Are there specific numbers of casualties Democrats will accept? How did they arrive at that number, or that formula? How do they plan on assessing Israel’s compliance given Hamas’s proven tactic of inflating casualties and conflating soldiers and civilians?
They don’t. They have, to be very clear, no idea what they’re doing. They are reacting to pressure from constituents, and that is how electoral politics works. But their only idea, it seems, is to give Hamas a veto over Israeli actions.
That will not so easily pass the Senate, but the debate alone is legitimizing the tactic among Schumer’s party. That threatens to have deleterious effects on U.S. foreign policy for generations to come, if it is not soundly and speedily squashed. Schumer’s task was not fulfilled by his speech today. That task is just beginning.