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Schumer draws criticism from centrist Jewish orgs for saying Netanyahu ‘obstacle’ to peace

American University professor Lauren Strauss told JNS that Schumer’s comments, rather than the ways that Jewish nonprofits responded, was the “surprise element here.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in Israel in February 2023. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in Israel in February 2023. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) drew widespread criticism in Washington and in Israel for saying on the Senate floor on Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an “obstacle” to peace and that Israel should hold unscheduled elections.

The New York Democrat, who often notes that he is the most powerful elected Jewish politician in U.S. history and that, true to his name, he is a “shomer,” or guardian, of the Jewish people, has also drawn critical responses from Jewish nonprofits, even centrist ones that have reputations of being reserved about politics.

“We are deeply troubled by Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s call for new elections in Israel. Israel is a democratic state whose citizens choose their own leaders and decide their own fate,” stated B’nai B’rith International.

“The U.S. should stand behind Israel’s objective, supported by the vast majority of Israelis, of removing Hamas from control of Gaza,” the international nonprofit added. “As long as Hamas remains in power, there can be no peace in the region.”

The Anti-Defamation League released a statement late in the afternoon on Friday. “Majority Leader Schumer’s long history of strong support for the people of Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself continues to be crucial during this moment of crisis,” the ADL stated.

“This is a critical moment for solidarity with Israel, our closest ally and the only independent democracy in the Middle East,” the ADL stated. “It’s vitally important to respect their right as a sovereign, democratic state, one with a long tradition of fair elections and civic participation.”

“As with all our allies, Israel alone should and will decide for itself when to hold its next election and who will lead its government,” it added.

The American Jewish Committee, which also typically avoids wading into politics, released a terse, 116-word statement, noting that it appreciates Schumer’s “continual and passionate defense of Israel and the Jewish people, but we do not believe it is appropriate for U.S. officials to try to dictate the electoral future of any ally.”

“Israel is a sovereign democracy in the midst of a war of self-defense against a terrorist organization bent on massacring Jews and destroying Israel. The Israeli people will decide their own political path,” the AJC said.

The AJC statement struck Lauren Strauss, a professor and director of undergraduate Jewish studies at American University, in Washington, D.C., as “the most carefully crafted.”

“You can even see the wordsmithing happening,” she told JNS, suggesting that the statement reflected AJC’s reluctance to comment. “We’re done. We’re getting out of here,” she told JNS. “We knew we had to put out a statement. This is what we’re saying. We’re not answering our phone after this.”

Other Jewish nonprofits didn’t surprise Strauss by “turning the speech to their own aims and presenting it in the way they see the world.” 

“It’s really quite revealing to hear them comment on the same speech and sort of take different parts of it,” she said.

Strauss told JNS that while the responses of Jewish groups were to be expected, the “universal” surprise was “shock” that Schumer said what he did. “That’s the surprise element here,” she said.

Netanyahu Schumer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office with a group of senators, led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), while Israel Ambassador to the United States Thomas Nides (far left) looks on, Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

‘Dangerous statements’

Schumer’s remarks were “profoundly disappointing and concerning,” stated Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

In a statement, titled “The guardian slumbers,” Hauer noted that Schumer has been “a critical partner” for the OU over the years. “We appreciate this,” he stated. But, he said, Thursday’s speech was “epic but in all the wrong ways.”

“His call for elections to replace Israel’s elected leaders and his threats of intervention should they not be replaced were—in the words of Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leading rival—‘counterproductive and unacceptable,’” Hauer stated. “We can only imagine Leader Schumer’s reaction were Prime Minister Netanyahu to call upon the U.S. Senate to replace its leadership for clearly echoing the talking points, proposals and threats of Senators Van Hollen, Sanders and others who—unlike Senator Schumer—focus virtually all their efforts on criticizing Israel.”

“At a time of great danger to Jews in Israel, the United States and the world, the senator who consistently invokes his role and responsibility as shomer Yisrael—a guardian of the people of Israel—accused Israel of attitudes and behaviors that give ammunition and fuel to the campaigns of our enemies in international forums, his party in Congress, and the streets of New York,” he added.

AIPAC stated that “Israel is an independent democracy that decides for itself when elections are held and chooses its own leaders.”

“America must continue to stand with our ally Israel and ensure it has the time and resources it needs to win this war,” AIPAC added. “Hamas bears sole responsibility for this conflict. The hope for a brighter future for the Middle East begins with Israel’s decisive defeat of Hamas.”

Morton Klein, national president for the Zionist Organization of America, stated that the ZOA had “received numerous calls from American Jews and pro-Israel Americans expressing their shock at Schumer’s dangerous statements, which attacked Israeli democracy and Israel’s fight for her existence against Hamas and other Palestinian Arab terrorists.”

Schumer also committed “unthinkable” and “divisive interference with a foreign government” and interfered “with Israeli democracy, sovereignty and safety,” Klein said. “Schumer insulted every Jew and the Jewish faith itself,” he added. “We hope and pray that Majority Leader Schumer will reconsider and retract his dangerous statements, and live up to being a shomer Israel.”

Netanyahu Schumer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in Israel in February 2023. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

Agudath Israel of America stated that Schumer “has a long and distinguished record of strongly supporting the security and welfare of the State of Israel and its citizens.”

“We are saddened, though, that important aspects of Senator Schumer’s address crossed a line,” it said. “Indeed, it was the wrong message at the wrong time.”

“Putting aside the various policy pronouncements and analyses included in his statement, we are deeply concerned that the senator directly intervened in the internal affairs of a sovereign foreign nation, a robust democracy and a staunch American ally, by explicitly calling for new Israeli elections and more than intimating what he believes the outcome of those elections should be,” Agudah added.

‘Cemented’ in the heart of the Democratic Party

The Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations did not appear to release public statements in response to Schumer’s comments. But William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, shared the statements that AJC and AIPAC released on his social media handle.

“Majority Leader Schumer would better be serving peace if he called for an end to the Iranian regime, the Hamas terrorist mass murdering and mass raping regime in Gaza,  and a Palestinian Authority government that has passed a pay-to-slay-Jews law that financially rewards murder and maiming Israelis,” stated the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Netanyahu Schumer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, stated that Schumer, rather than Netanyahu, has “lost his way” and the senator “is using Netanyahu as a bogeyman for hatred directed against Jews for having the temerity to defend Jewish lives.”

“Every Israeli, and every committed Jew, recognizes the malignant hatred of those calling Israel ‘genocidal’ as it eliminates a genocidal terror organization, or calling for a ‘ceasefire’ to permit the terrorists to regroup, rearm and again murder the innocent,” Schonfeld added. “He should apologize for his counterproductive interference in Israel’s democratic governance and self-defense.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, released a different sort of statement. Schumer “delivered one of the most momentous, heartfelt pro-Israel speeches the Senate has ever seen,” he stated.

“It was a historic turning point for our movement—described by reporters as a ‘stunning development’ and a ‘gloves off’ moment,” he wrote. “The senator—a bellwether for the Jewish community, who has refrained from sharp criticism of the Israeli government—reckoned directly with the ‘significant course corrections’ Israel must make going forward, as well as the failures of leadership on the Palestinian side.”

“I suspect we may look back on this moment as the day our pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy platform cemented itself at the heart of the Democratic party,” he added.

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, also defended the Senate majority leader’s comments. “If you’re arguing that Chuck Schumer (Chuck Schumer!) is now somehow outside the pro-Israel or Jewish tent, you’re telling the majority of Jewish Americans that they are too,” she wrote. “That won’t be good for anyone, most of all Israel and the Jewish people.”

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