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Schumer Spoke for Diaspora Jews

Schumer was giving voice to what most Democratic officeholders believed but were afraid to say, and he clearly had the blessing of President Biden to go ahead and make that speech. It also showed the divide between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer departs the U.S. Capitol, March 14, 2024, the day of his speech denouncing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.,(Francis Chung/Politico Via AP Images // The American Prospect)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s speech last week excoriating Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his conduct of the Gaza war and calling for him to step down (and not incidentally, raising the specter of conditioning America’s hitherto unconditional aid to Israel) has brought forth a host of assessments: Schumer was giving voice to what most other Democratic officeholders believed but were afraid to say; he was also giving voice to the sentiments of most rank-and-file Democrats and most American Jews; and he clearly had the blessing of President Biden to go ahead and make that speech.

All those assessments are true, but there’s one more that needs to be made: Schumer’s speech also illuminated in dramatic fashion the fundamental differences between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews.

For reasons of self-preservation, diaspora Jews are strong proponents of minority rights—and not just minority rights for themselves. When they’ve been confronted with Hillel’s second question—If I am only for myself, what am I?—the answer they’ve come up with has usually been: politically very weak. Hence, they’ve tended to become strong proponents of minority rights across the board, joining campaigns for equal rights for Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and so on. That’s long positioned them on the left side of the political spectrum, so much so that, in a reciprocal causal relationship impossible to disentangle, being on the left side has kept them as defenders of minority rights.

Israel, of course, is the one nation where Jews constitute the majority. The structural imperatives that lead most diaspora Jews to staunchly defend minority rights no longer pertain when Jews are an empowered majority, most particularly when they view their nation’s (or territory’s) minority population as a latent or very real force contesting for power—and, perhaps, with the possibility of becoming the majority themselves. Most liberal Israeli Jews accept the idea of co-existence, but their number was dwindling even before October 7th.

But wasn’t Israel initially a democratic socialist state, establishing communal institutions for its Jews that were the envy of their leftist diaspora co-religionists? Doesn’t that dispel the notion of an inherent gulf between diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews?

I don’t think it does. For one thing, the Ashkenazi Jews who formulated the Labor Zionism that characterized Israel in its early decades had chiefly become socialists while still in Eastern and Central Europe, where they were a hated and threatened minority. Like those who migrated to Palestine, those who migrated to America were also disproportionately socialist when they arrived at Ellis Island, building institutions and unions here along socialist lines until the New Deal opened a way for them to become a welcomed minority within a powerful majority that had state power. In both Israel and America, that Ashkenazi strain of socialism faded after three or four decades, but the minority status of American Jews persisted, as did their strong inclination to champion minority rights. Despite the prominence and power that American Jews have attained, however provisionally, the muscle memory of minority status and the liberal social democratic tendencies that came with it have anchored most of them on the left side of American politics.

Having a nation of one’s own can tend to erode such politics. That’s not a condition peculiar to Israeli Jews; it’s a condition common to most peoples and nations. In Israel, it’s exacerbated by Palestinians’ claim to land and power, and greatly exacerbated by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, as occupations invariably brutalize not just the occupied but the occupiers, too.

Which returns us to Schumer’s speech, and the events that compelled him to make it. While a longtime champion of Israel, Schumer voiced the revulsion and horror common to most diaspora Jews (AIPAC notwithstanding) at Israel’s war on Palestinian civilians and the ethnic cleansing that Bibi’s government is violently undertaking, whether by bombardment or starvation. He also voiced the exasperation of diaspora Jews at Bibi’s obdurate opposition to a two-state solution.

There are American Jews, of course, who fully support Bibi’s war, just as there are Israeli Jews who’ve long called for a two-state solution. And, to be sure, the kind of rift that’s now opened up between the Israelis and the diasporans, to which Schumer’s speech has given a kind of official imprimatur, hasn’t always or invariably been so acute, or even that visible. But it’s always been there, like a geologic fault that, under sufficient pressure, yields an earthquake.

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[Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.]

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