Photo: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images
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Chuck Schumer and the Sycophantic Style of American Politics

The Senate’s ranking Democrat sees himself as a guardian of the Jews. So why does he insist on palling around with their detractors on the left and the right alike?

by
Liel Leibovitz
December 09, 2016
Photo: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images
Photo: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

Here’s a single-question Rorschach Test that tells you everything you need to know about the mind-set of any Jew in America these days: Of all the menacing black spots blotting our political horizon, which is the most dangerous?

To some, the answer is Donald Trump and his delegation of deplorables, led by Stephen Bannon, alt-rightist in chief and purveyor of hateful bile. To others, the real perils lie leftward, with the contender for Democratic leadership, Keith Ellison, and his long record as an apologist for the noxious Louis Farrakhan and a sympathizer with all sorts of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic devils. A few particularly jittery Jews, like yours truly, look at the two camps and see evil lurking in both. And one prominent American Jewish leader, bless his rosy soul, finds fault with neither.

Such are the perks of being Charles Schumer, ranking Democrat and perennial pragmatist. When asked by Tablet’s Armin Rosen how the senator, a supporter of Israel, can also support the objectionable Ellison, his deputy communications director, Marisa Kaufman, urged us to trust Schumer with deciding just what constitutes standing with the Jewish State.

“Congressman Ellison showed Sen. Schumer he actively supports Israel and will push DNC platform members to also back a strong pro-Israel plank,” Kaufman wrote. “At the DNC, Congressman Ellison understood the need for a pro-Israel platform and helped persuade other members of the platform committee to back it, making it one of the strongest we’ve had.”

Never mind that the honorable gentleman from the fifth district of Minnesota was one of only a handful of lawmakers who voted to deny Israel the funds it needed to repair the Iron Dome defense system that protects it from Hamas’ missiles, a measure that was thankfully approved by an overwhelming majority of 395 to 8. According to Schumer, when it comes to deciding who’s kosher, it’s Schumer’s own word, not observable reality, that matters most.

Schumer applies the same attitude to Trump. Despite having expressed some early concerns about Bannon’s appointment, the senator seems to have corrected his course these past few weeks and is now in the midst of what some commentators are calling a “bromance” with the president-elect. Ever the transactional lover, Trump is showing his affection for the veteran liberal by deed, reappointing Preet Bharara—Schumer’s former chief counsel and a man that judges presiding over several high-profile cases have called “sadistic” and “sleazy”—as the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, a move that has sent many in the financial industry straight to the liquor cabinet. In case you wonder whether this move may be a sheer coincidence—Trump, after all, is far from a disciplined conservative, and is perfectly capable of making ideologically incoherent decisions all on his own—you may want to read this jaunty account in The New York Times. “Mr. Trump,” reads the report, “asked Mr. Schumer how best to reach Mr. Bharara, and the senator provided Mr. Trump with Mr. Bharara’s direct line.” Jot that down as another easy victory for the ambidextrous senator.

Of course, such flexibility isn’t in and of itself bad. Schumer is a politician, and adult politicians, a rare breed these days, spend their days stretching this way and that, finding workable solutions and small compromises where others find nothing but sound and fury. That’s a commendable approach, but it isn’t Schumer’s; stretch as he may, the senator from New York rarely succeeds in reaching out to anyone, or anything, good. You could see this principle at play as negotiations over the Iran deal unfurled: Schumer slouched into the fray, opposed President Obama and the agreement, failed to win over any of his fellow Democrats, and sat by quivering as his stature and his stance both took a major hit. The same logic repeated itself during the presidential campaign when an enthusiastic Schumer predicted that for every blue-collar voter Hillary Clinton loses in Pennsylvania she’ll pick up two in the suburbs of Wisconsin.

The problem here isn’t that Schumer was wrong about the election—many people were—or that he couldn’t stop a deal that a popular sitting president perceived as the backbone of his foreign-policy legacy. The problem, in other words, isn’t that Schumer so often fails, but how he fails and why. It’s too easy to accuse him, as some on the rigid left do, of being a spineless politician who is moved by nothing but the sound of coins filling his own coffers. That may or may not be true, but it doesn’t seem to be the force driving Schumer to action; that force has more to do with Jewish psychology than American politics.

In an interview with radio host Nachum Segal in 2010, Schumer mused on his last name, which he said was derived from the Hebrew word shomer, or guardian. “My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov,” he said, “and I believe Hashem, actually, gave me my name, as one of my roles that is very important in the United States Senate is to be a shomer, a shomer for Israel, and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.”

There’s no reason to doubt the senator’s sincerity. There’s plenty reason to question his understanding of his divinely inspired task. Historically, it’s a mission that American Jews have interpreted in one of two ways, some seeing it as a call to battle while others as an exhortation to keep the peace. You needn’t look for a better embodiment of this centuries-old conflict than the response of the American Jewish community to the Roosevelt administration’s failure to intervene more forcefully and save the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide. Some shomrim, like the influential rabbi Stephen Wise, stood firmly with the president and argued sotto voce for some action, thinking that any demand too bold and any note too loud might anger the masters of the land. Other shomrim thought different. American Jewish leaders, wrote one such firebrand in 1944, “cannot claim, with a clear conscience, to have done everything within their power to save those condemned people. They have been too cautious, too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of sympathy that were issued from high places.” The author was the historian Benzion Netanyahu, Benjamin’s father.

Whether or not you believe that 2016 is in any way parallel to 1939—I, personally, do not—it’s hard not to notice the same drama playing out again. Schumer is merely the latest in a long line of Jewish leaders who have argued—in a perfectly logical, perfectly plausible, and perfectly wrong manner—that the path forward for Jews lies in trying to keep all haters at bay, all powerful and potentially powerful players content, and all fires smoldering. If only that worked. History is a wild beast, and it has shown us again and again that when it’s hungry, it feasts first on the Jews. It’s getting hungry again, and we need a guardian on our side who has a sword and isn’t afraid to use it.

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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.