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Chuck Schumer, the Highest-Ranking Shoemaker Ever

The Senate majority leader’s name doesn’t mean what he thinks it does

Elliott Abrams
March 22, 2024

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Sen. Chuck Schumer’s speech attacking Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and demanding new elections in Israel has caused quite a stir.

My last name is Schumer, which derives from the Hebrew word shomer, or “guardian.” Of course, my first responsibility is to America and New York. But as the first Jewish majority leader of the United States Senate, and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in America ever, I also feel very keenly my responsibility as shomer Yisroel—a guardian of the People of Israel … [T]his is the position in which I find myself now—at a time of great difficulty for the State of Israel, for the Jewish people, and for non-Jewish friends of Israel. So I feel an immense obligation to speak and act.

The Schumer/shomer/guardian bit is one Sen. Schumer has used for years. A good example is back in 2015, when he told an audience “You know, my name comes from the word shomer: guardian, watcher.”

Nice story, but it is—to say the least—unproven. Oxford Reference gives this explanation: “North German (Schümer): nickname from Middle Low German schumer ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘vagabond’. ...” The iGENEA website says, “The last name Schumer is of Jewish-German origin. It is derived from the Middle High German term ‘schuoch wurhte’, which translates to ‘shoemaker’. Therefore, like many surnames that date back to the Middle Ages, Schumer is an occupational surname, representing the profession of the family’s original bearer. So, someone with the name Schumer might have had ancestors who were shoemakers.” House of Names also says Schumer means “cobbler.” Better a cobbler than good-for-nothing, I suppose.

But Schumer makes another assertion about himself that’s more provably wrong—and more important. Every news story refers to Schumer in just the way he seems to prefer: “the highest-ranking elected Jewish politician in American history.” That was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. CNN was more circumspect, calling him “the highest-ranking Jewish American in the US Government.” NBC was over the top, calling him “the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S. ever” (words they took directly from Schumer’s speech). Every story seems to have some version of this “fact.”

But is it a fact? What is the “rank” of the Senate majority leader? One good way of judging is to look at the line of presidential succession. It goes to the vice president, then the speaker of the House, then the president pro tempore of the Senate, and finally to the Cabinet—starting with the secretary of state. Why isn’t the majority leader in that line of succession at all? Because the posts of speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore originate in Article II of the Constitution. Majority or minority leader is a party post, not a federal government post.

Another way of judging rank is to look at what’s called “The Order of Precedence of the United States of America.” The State Department describes it this way: “The U.S. Order of Precedence is an advisory document maintained by the Ceremonials Division of the Office of the Chief of Protocol ... For purposes of protocol, the U.S. Order of Precedence establishes the order and ranking of the United States leadership for official events at home and abroad …” It starts with the president and vice president, then a state governor when in his home state, then the speaker of the House and the chief justice, then former presidents and vice presidents, the secretary of state, the president of the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. secretary general, foreign ambassadors, then associate justices of the Supreme Court and retired justices, followed by the Cabinet, then the president pro tempore of the Senate, and finally the Senate majority and minority leaders and whips and then the same for the House.

If we give any credence to the rankings of the official list, the “The Order of Precedence of the United States of America,” there are plenty of Jews who have held higher rank than the Senate majority leader—many Cabinet members, for example, and Supreme Court justices.

But they were not elected to their posts (though they may have been elected to previous posts, like Abe Ribicoff or Dan Glickman). So it seems fair to say that according to the Order of Precedence, Schumer is not the highest-ranking Jew ever to serve in the U.S. government, nor the highest ranking today—nor, thinking of Kissinger, is Schumer the most powerful ever. But he is Jewish, elected, and powerful. Does the bit about rank and history matter?

It seems to matter to Schumer, and it seems related to his defense of his attack on the government of Israel. That is, when he made the attack he spoke as a Jew. As The New York Times described him in a long interview, “he insists it was his deep Jewish faith—and the moral imperative he feels to stand up for Jews and for Israel—that led him to speak out against Mr. Netanyahu.” “This is so part of my core, my soul, my neshama,” he told the Times.

What’s the point of all this—of Schumer’s reliance on his being “the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in America ever” and having the very name that means “guardian” of the Jews? These are Schumer’s repeated attempts to say he does not speak merely as a politician but as a historic figure of special rank and responsibility. We would all be better off if he knocked off the rigmarole and said his piece as a highly successful New York politician and the Democratic Leader in the Senate. Even the adulatory New York Times acknowledged that “it is hard to think of Mr. Schumer, the relentless party operator…as someone who ever puts politics aside.” There is no shame in that; Franklin D. Roosevelt would fit that bill, too, as would Mr. Schumer’s predecessors as Democratic leaders and majority leaders Lyndon Johnson, George Mitchell, and Harry Reid.

So let’s hear what New York’s senior senator has to say. But let’s drop the phony “shomer” bit and the claim that his words have special weight because of his religion. Is there any New Yorker, or any American Jew, who would not have paid more attention and given more weight to the words about Jews and Israel of Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, or Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington state? God knows who their ancestors were and what their names meant in the Middle Ages, but they were true shomrim or guardians of Israel.

What Schumer needs to learn is that persuasiveness does not come from etymology or rank—whether true, false, or inflated. If Schumer’s role as Democratic leader has any relevance, it is to raise the suspicion that he is helping the White House cover its left flank by criticizing Israel. As to his religion and his name, they should be irrelevant to his role in the Senate—and they are certainly no defense of his interference in the internal politics of a democratic ally.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the Vandenberg Coalition.