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Why Chuck Schumer’s Speech Matters

Our Zoom call this week will be at a special time: Thursday at Noon EST.

Our guest will be Avner Gvaryahu, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans who oppose the occupation. We’ll discuss his recent essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Myth of Israel’s ‘Moral Army’” as part of a broader discussion about the way Israel is fighting in Gaza and why it is wreaking such devastation there.

Paid subscribers will get the link this Tuesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Rashid Khalidi, Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.


Sources Cited in this Video

Chuck Schumer’s speech last week on the Senate floor.

When Harry Reid repudiated Barack Obama in 2011.

Things to Read

(Maybe this should be obvious, but I link to articles and videos I find provocative and significant, not necessarily ones I entirely agree with.)

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Emma Saltzberg talks to Professor Geoffrey Levin about the hidden history of American Jewish dissent about Israel.

Every few days I get a Go Fund Me request from a relative of someone trapped in Gaza. Although the analogy is inexact, I always think the same thing: What if this was my family in Europe in the 1930s or 1940s? So I give, although I know it’s never enough. Here are three requests I hope you’ll consider. Abir Elzowidi is trying to evacuate the family of her brother, Tamer, whose entire building and neighborhood were destroyed by Israeli bombs. Khalil Sayegh is trying to evacuate his family, including his brother Fadi, “who has chronic kidney failure, has been struggling for his life since the war started due to his need for weekly dialysis at the local hospital.” Dima (she doesn’t include her last name) is trying to leave Gaza with her family for Canada.

For the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Occupied Thoughts podcast, I interviewed Gaza-born writer and activist Ahmed Moor about the consequences, human, moral and political, of this war.

I discussed American Jewish politics on the Makdisi Street Podcast.

Naomi Klein on the meaning of the film “Zone of Interest.”

I’ll be speaking on March 27 at Quinnipiac College, March 28 at Hofstra University, April 5 at City University of New York, and April 7 at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC.

See you on Thursday at Noon,



So, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer gave a speech last week that got a lot of attention. And I think it is actually a pretty big deal, but not really for the reasons that people are suggesting it is. I want to pick up on something that actually Norman Finkelstein said in our Zoom call on Friday for paid subscribers that I think was correct, and I want to try to elaborate on it in explaining why it matters. Now, the headline was that that Schumer called for new elections in Israel. I don’t know whether that will increase the likelihood of new elections in Israel. Certainly, Schumer’s speech was not, by my lights, a kind of commensurate moral response to the destruction of Gaza. He didn’t call for an end to military aid to Israel’s war. He didn’t call for an immediate ceasefire and hostage release. But he did say other things that I think suggest how much the discourse inside the Democratic Party, even in Washington now, has changed in a very short period of time.

To illustrate that, I want to go back to a speech that his predecessor, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, gave in 2011. In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama gave a speech calling for a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines with land swaps. And he had previously, over the past couple of years—Obama—pushed for a settlement freeze, which had put him in conflict with Netanyahu. And so, Harry Reid went to AIPAC, and he completely threw Obama under the bus. And he said, ‘no one’—this is Harry Reid—he said, ‘no one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else.’ Building. That refers to settlements. Harry Reid was saying basically no US policy of restriction on settlement growth.

To fast forward to Schumer’s speech, two things about it that I think suggest how much the discourse has changed. The first is that he says in a slightly oblique way, but he says it, that if Netanyahu doesn’t begin to wind down the war and ‘continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing US standards for assistance, then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.’ Now, that’s a little euphemistic. But when he talks about ‘existing US standards for assistance,’ it seems to me he’s referenced something called the Leahy Law. The Leahy Law says the US cannot give military aid to units of foreign militaries that commit gross human rights violations. We do apply that to plenty of countries. We don’t apply it to Israel. It’s not enforced. We don’t even collect the data that would allow us to determine if certain units of the US military had committed gross human rights violations.

Schumer is referencing that. That’s a big deal. Prior to October 7th and the war in Gaza, there was, as far as I know, one US Senator, Bernie Sanders, who was open to the idea in a meaningful way of conditioning US aid. Now, Chuck Schumer is talking about it. And Chuck Schumer is not on the left edge of the Democratic Party in Congress. He’s on the center right edge when it comes to foreign policy. Let’s remember, this is the guy who opposed Barack Obama’s nuclear deal in 2015, and he’s putting the idea of conditioning military aid to Israel on the table. The US has not conditioned aid to Israel since the early 1990s under George H. W. Bush. The fact that Chuck Schumer is now talking about it suggests how dramatic a transformation there has been inside the Democratic Party in Congress in a relatively short time.

The second thing that Schumer said that I thought was quite remarkable is he refers to the debate between one equal state and two states. Now, two states is his position. But he says, ‘I can understand the idealism that inspires so many young people, in particular, to support a one-state solution. Why can’t we all live side by side and house by house in peace?’ Now, then Schumer goes on to say he disagrees with that. He doesn’t think Jews would be safe. Those are very familiar rebuttals. But the fact that Schumer has to engage this argument at all is really new. A Democratic leader in the Congress would not have had to even acknowledge this as a topic that he needed to discuss. And it’s worth remembering that the establishment Jewish organizations like the Anti-defamation League, which equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, view this position—the position that I hold, one equal binational democratic state—as antisemitism. And which is their way of saying it shouldn’t be discussed, as part of the policy debate. But Schumer is discussing it! He’s disagreeing with it, but he’s discussing it, and he’s acknowledged that he’s calling it an idealistic position that many young people share.

This would not have happened up until very recently. And it suggests that Schumer understands the transformation that’s underway at the grassroots of his party, especially along generational lines. He’s trying to forestall it in a way, but he’s recognizing it is essentially a legitimate part of the discourse, which is something that establishment American Jewish organizations have been trying to forestall, make sure that it can’t be a legitimate part of the discourse by equating it with antisemitism. And Schumer is actually doing something very different here. It suggests to me he’s someone who knows that things in his party are really shifting. He may not be so happy about it, but he recognizes that. That is a big deal. And so, while there’s so many reasons for despair in this nightmarish moment, I think Schumer’s speech is a kind of backhanded compliment to those people in the activist community at the base of the Democratic Party who have been organizing in these hellish last few months for a change. And it’s a sign that that change, although far too slow and fragmentary, that there is evidence that that change is coming.

The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
A conversation about American foreign policy, Palestinian freedom and the Jewish people.