Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the highest ranking Jewish congressional leader in American history, on Wednesday confronted members of his own party and the progressive movement, such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), over what he called the historic increase in antisemitism since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli civilians.
The powerful speech, which drew the praise of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), put a spotlight on the alarm and isolation felt among the Jewish community amid the spike in hatred against it.
Schumer did not mention anyone by name, but he clearly alluded to liberal-leaning activists and protesters who have vocally embraced the Palestinian cause since the attacks within Israel that killed more than 1,000 people.
Schumer warned that Americans who, like Tlaib, use slogans such as “from the River to the Sea” and who equate the actions of Hamas and Israel Defense Forces risk sliding down a slippery slope into antisemitism.
He warned that statements of solidarity with the Palestinian people can tumble into extreme rhetoric that “gives license to darker ideas that have always lurked below the surface of every question involving the Jewish people.”
“Antisemites have always trafficked in coded language and action to define Jewish people as unworthy of the rights and privileges afforded to other groups,” he said.
And while Schumer said he believes that many activists and demonstrators who chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” because they support a better future for Palestinians and not because they hate the Jewish people, he argued they need to be aware of the broader context.
“There is no question that Hamas and other terrorist organizations have used this slogan to represent their intention to eliminate Jewish people not only from Israel, but from every corner of the Earth,” he warned.
Tlaib, who was censured by the House last month because of her statements about Israel, has defended here use of the “from the river to the sea” slogan as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.”
Schumer took issue with other liberals who have criticized Israelis as colonizers or oppressors, noting that liberal Jews marched alongside them in support of the Black Lives Matter movement or against anti-Asian prejudice.
“Many of the people who have expressed [antisemitic] statement in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members or Islamic extremists. They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers,” he said.
“Not long ago, 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,” he said.
“But apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people,” he lamented.
He said that antisemites are now “taking advantage of the pro-Palestinian movement to espouse hatred and bigotry towards Jewish people” and that “friends and fellow citizens” on the left, especially “young people who yearn for justice” are “unknowingly aiding and abetting their cause.”
“Worse, many of our friends and allies whose support we need now more than ever during this moment of immense Jewish pain have brushed aside these concerns. Suddenly, they do not want to hear about antisemitism, or the ultimate goal of Hamas. When I have asked some of the marchers what they would do about Hamas, they don’t have an answer. Many don’t seem to care,” he said.
Schumer cited the rise in antisemitic behavior since the Hamas attack, which was followed by a bombardment and invasion of Gaza by Israel Defense Forces in an effort to root out Hamas militants. He noted that antisemitic incidents have increased 300 percent, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and that the New York Police Department has recorded a 214-percent increase of such incidents in New York City.
He pointed out boycotts of Jewish businesses in Philadelphia, swastikas scrawled on Jewish delis on the Upper East Side of New York and protesters in California who shouted “Hitler should’ve smashed you” at Jewish Americans, all of which happened after Oct. 7.
“After October 7th, Jewish Americans are feeling singled out, targeted, and isolated. In many ways, we feel alone,” Schumer said.
“The solidarity that Jewish Americans initially received from many of our fellow citizens was quickly drowned out by other voices,” he added.
Schumer said he was shocked to see, in some cases, people celebrating the attacks on Israeli civilians as the “deserved fate of ‘colonizers.’”
And he was surprised to see expressions of support for Hamas at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the U.S. and even at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in Manhattan.
He said that while “many of those marching here in the U.S.” in support of Palestinians “do not have evil intent,” he warned that when Jewish people hear chants like “from the river to the sea,” they become alarmed.
“When we see signs in the crowd that read ‘By Any Means Necessary,’ after the most violent attack ever against Israeli civilians, we are appalled at the casual invocation of such savagery,” he said. “When we see protesters at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade compare the genocide of the Holocaust equivalently to the Israeli army’s actions to defeat Hamas in self-defense of their people, we are shocked.”
He explained those feelings of alarm and anxiety among Jewish Americans come from knowing the long and ugly thread of antisemitism throughout history which culminated most violently in the Holocaust that killed millions of European Jews during World War II.
He spoke about the murder of his great-grandmother and more than 30 members of his family at the hands of Nazi troops in Ukraine in 1941.
“When the Nazis told my great-grandmother, ‘You are coming with us,’ she refused — and they machine-gunned down every last one of them. The babies, the elderly and everybody in-between,” he recalled.
He said that has created an insecurity among Jewish people that lasts until this day.
“For many Jewish Americans, any strength and security that we enjoy always feels tenuous. No matter how well we’re doing, it can all be taken away in an instant,” he said. “That’s just how it is. We only have to look back a century, a few generations, to see how this can happen.”
He concluded by reminding fellow members of Congress and the rest of the nation that Americans are “stewards of the flames of liberty, tolerance and equality.”
“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? I believe the answer can and must be a resounding, ‘Yes,’” he said.
He pledged to do “everything in my power” as Senate majority leader “to defy” the historical reoccurrence of anti-Jewish persecution and hate and stop it from rearing its head in the United States.
The speech elicited the praise of McConnell, who stood up on the floor immediately after Schumer spoke, to associate himself with the Democratic leader’s remarks.
“I want to compliment him for providing a history lesson for Americans about the history of the Jewish people and putting it in context with the conflict that’s under way,” he said, referring to the war in Gaza.