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Schumer delivers landmark Senate speech on rising antisemitism

The Jewish Senate majority leader denounced anti-Israel protesters, young people, the media, erstwhile allies and others whom he said were helping to propagate antisemitism

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on October 31, 2023 in Washington, DC.

In a Senate floor speech that lasted for nearly an hour on Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called out the wave of antisemitism that has followed the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, denouncing anti-Israel protesters, young people, the media, erstwhile allies and others whom he said had were helping to propagate antisemitism, and who have abandoned or failed to grasp the scope and severity of the crisis Jewish Americans are experiencing.

“Vitriol against Israel in the wake of Oct. 7 is all too often crossing into brazen and widespread antisemitism, the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations in this country, if ever,” Schumer, who is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, said. “I want to explain through the lens of history, why this is so dangerous: The normalization and exacerbation of this rise in hate is the danger many Jewish people fear most.”

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, Schumer lamented, “the solidarity that Jewish Americans initially received from any of our fellow citizens was quickly drowned out by other voices.” He lambasted anti-Israel demonstrators who have supported, justified, excused or denied the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7. 

Some, he added, “skipped over expressing sympathy” for the victims of the attack, “in their haste to blame the attack on the past actions of the Israeli government.”

The current wave of antisemitism, he emphasized, isn’t coming primarily from the far right, but from “people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers” — people whom Jewish Americans had joined in protests against other forms of hatred and discrimination — ”but apparently… in the eyes of some, this principle does not extend to Jewish people.”

He called out slogans adopted by anti-Israel protesters such as “From the river to the sea” — echoed by a Democratic House member — which he noted is a founding slogan of Hamas, and said efforts to draw equivalencies between Hamas’ attack and Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas have “alarmed” and “shocked” the Jewish community.

“Can you understand why the 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 the Jewish population across the world?”

Schumer’s speech focused in significant part on the long history — both recent and further in the past — of persecution and violence that Jewish people have faced around the world, arguing that framings, adopted by left-wing activists, of Jews and Israel as powerful oppressors play into long-standing antisemitic narratives. 

“Antisemitic conspiracy theories throughout the generations often theorize, often weaponize this very dynamic, by pitting what successes the Jewish people have achieved against them and against their fellow countrymen,” Schumer said. “That’s been throughout history and it’s happening now.”

Schumer said he’s confronted anti-Israel marchers about what should be done about Hamas, and he said they don’t have answers or “don’t seem to care.”

“And when we see many people in news organizations remain neutral about the basic absurdity of these claims and actions, we are deeply disappointed,” he said. “More than anything, we’re worried, quite naturally, given the twists and turns of history, about whether these actions and sentiments could eventually lead.”

Even outside of those who’ve intentionally or unintentionally supported antisemitism, Schumer said that many outside of the Jewish community have failed to grasp the severity of the current wave of antisemitism and the threat it poses to the Jewish community.

“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,” Schumer said. “To us, Jewish people, the rise of antisemitism is a crisis, a five-alarm fire that must be extinguished. To some of the other people of good will it is merely a problem, a matter of concern.”

The Senate majority leader noted a series of incidents, including attacks on Jewish people and Jewish-owned businesses and harassment of and violence against Jewish college students, as those where anti-Israel activity had crossed into antisemitism.

He highlighted the story of a Queens high school teacher who earlier this month hid in an office for hours as students rioted over her participation in a pro-Israel rally, and said he’d invited that teacher into the Senate chamber to watch his speech.

The New York senator described fighting this current wave of antisemitism as a basic test of the “future of the American experiment.”

Referencing at multiple points his own family’s history before and during the Holocaust, and fleeing from Europe to the United States, as well as his own experiences dealing with previous waves of anti-Israel sentiment, Schumer highlighted that, for Jewish Americans, “any strength and security that we enjoy always feels tenuous.”

“On top of feeling alone, the second dominant feeling of Jewish people who have endured throughout history has been the sting of the double standard, which is the way the world has practiced antisemitism over and over again,” Schumer continued. “And in recent decades, this double standard has manifested itself in the way much of the world treats Israel differently than anybody else.”

He highlighted how those double standards have led people to excuse the Hamas attacks, and ignore Hamas’ own practices that deliberately endanger Palestinian civilian lives.

“Why does the criticism for any civilian deaths seem to fall exclusively on Israel and not at all on Hamas?” Schumer asked. “Hamas has knowingly invited an immense civilian toll, an immense civilian toll during the war, exploiting the double standard that so much of the world applies to Israel.”

He also spoke about why “Jewish people defend Israel,” given its role as a safe haven for the Jewish people.

“We 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,” Schumer said. “We fear a world where Israel, the place of refuge for Jewish people, will no longer exist. If there is no Israel, there will be no place, no place for the Jewish people to go when they are persecuted in other countries. “

He again referred to his own family history, recounting that his grandfather, who survived the Holocaust, had broken down with emotion on his first visit to Israel.

“This had nothing to do with politics, or with money, or with racism, or with oppressive colonial power. It was deeply human,” Schumer said.

In the introduction to his speech, Schumer also took pains to emphasize that he was not seeking to characterize all criticism of Israel and its government as antisemitic, or to downplay Islamophobia, highlighting his own history of working on that issue.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praised Schumer for the “extraordinary” speech.

“I want to compliment him for providing a history lesson for Americans about the history of the Jewish people, putting it in context with the conflict that’s underway,” McConnell said in his own remarks.

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