WASHINGTON — In a press conference this morning that left the political establishment reeling, Senator Chuck Schumer joined a growing number of Democrats in Congress in openly supporting an end to military aid to Israel. The Senator cited the events in Gaza last summer, the recent escalation in violence in the occupied West Bank, and discussions with the Palestinian and solidarity community in his constituency as he spoke of an “urgent need to restore the United States’ moral standing on the international stage.”
As the “war on terror” escalates throughout the Middle East, Schumer stressed the urgency of a drastic change in foreign policy. “My previous statements come uncomfortably close to a one-sided bias,” he said outside the Capitol, “that has no place in politics: not in Syria, not in Israel or Palestine, and certainly not in the halls of Congress.”
The turnaround is one of the most dramatic policy shifts in congressional history. Until this morning Schumer’s legacy was destined to be defined by a fiercely hawkish Zionism that some critics characterized as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. As recently as last year, Schumer mentioned that the Hebrew translation of his name was shomer, meaning “guardian” or “watcher” and that his role in the U.S. Senate was to protect the State of Israel. He also famously became one of the only Democrats to oppose President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and, after the Paris terrorist bombings, called for a “pause” in allowing Syrian immigrants to enter the United States.
In another interview, in 2010, Schumer defended the blockade of Gaza because “Palestinians don’t believe in the Torah; they don’t believe in King David.” This morning, however, Schumer retracted these earlier statements. “Israeli justifications for war are eerily similar to the anti-Semitic policies under which Jews have suffered for centuries,” Schumer said. “The Torah and King David are no justification for a U.S. foreign policy that supports extrajudicial killings, bombings and displacement of thousands of civilians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
In a statement emailed to supporters after the press conference, Schumer reiterated support for the Leahy Law, a United States human rights law that prohibits State and Defense Department funding of foreign security, military and police units that have committed serious human rights violations.
“The arbitrary raids, arrests and detentions of Palestinians without trial, the lack of access to water, the impediment of freedom of movement, the mass confiscation of lands and home demolitions — what can we call the activities of the Israeli military if not gross violations of human rights? The United States simply cannot support it any longer,” he said.
The Senator’s shift is likely to anger many of his pro-Israel supporters. “Now it is more important than ever for the United States to show support for our closest allies. What Schumer has done is not only anti-Israel, it is also anti-American,” said Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby commonly known as Aipac.
But many of his supporters were pleasantly surprised. Echoing the growing unease among America’s liberal Jewish communities over the Israeli government’s increasingly militaristic and jingoistic policies, 73-year-old Sheldon Bronstein, for example, remarked outside Zabar’s yesterday morning, “I was raised in a religious Jewish household, but I never understood how those in my community could support the occupation. Schumer’s been our senator forever and, for the most part, he’s been no worse than the rest of them. I’m thrilled that he’s finally seen the light.”