Like the president, Senate Majority Leader and New York’s senior Senator Chuck Schumer sees a problem. And like the president, Schumer thinks he can thread the needle and worm his way out of the problem. It isn’t working for Biden, and it won’t work for Schumer. Both fail to grasp the nature of the problem.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned this week in a landmark speech that anti-Israel militancy has fomented antisemitism on the American left since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks against the Jewish state. His remarks highlighted the resilience of the Democratic Party’s non-antisemitic majority. But they also showed why a party steeped in identity politics has a limited capacity to contain antisemitism’s spread.
At WaPo, Jason Willick notes appreciatively that Schumer did something few are willing to do: Challenge his own tribe.
Condemning antisemitism and related ideologies on the political right is a decades-old liberal reflex. Schumer boldly focused on the rot in his own side. “Many of the people who have expressed these sentiments in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists,” Schumer said. “They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”
Indeed, these are very much the ideological fellow travelers of the progressive left, a cohort of which many well-intended if not terribly thoughtful Jews count themselves as members. When they agreed with the outcomes, it was fun to march and chant, or rationalize and make excuses, as the case may be. And that’s where Schumer’s “bold” speech went awry.
Schumer’s basic account of left-wing resentment of Jews was concise and accurate: “Because some Jewish people have done well in America, because Israel has increased its power and territory, there are people who feel that Jewish Americans are not vulnerable, that we have the strength and security to overcome prejudice and bigotry, that we have, to quote the language of some, become the ‘oppressors.’”
The “language of some” is the language of the progressive left. Rather than focus on conduct, it focused on identity. Rather than speak to good and evil actions, to the content of our character, it speaks to boxes of oppressors and oppressed. The former can do no good. The latter can do no bad. Whatever they do, it is conclusively defined by the box into which their identity is put, and every effort after is to hate or love the right group, no matter how good or evil, right or wrong, they may be. Instead, Schumer argues that the left put the Jews in the wrong box.
Left-wing antisemites, his speech suggested, are putting Jews in the wrong box. Jews belong in the oppressed box — not the oppressor box. Fix this mistake, caused by a failure of historical literacy, and antisemitism on the left will be ameliorated.
Schumer noted accurately that antisemitism pits “what successes the Jewish people have achieved against them, and against their fellow countrymen.” But resentment of successful groups is inculcated by identity politics in general. Dividing groups of people into categories of oppressed and oppressor is a poisonous way to conduct politics in a liberal multiethnic republic. But it’s precisely the way the progressive vanguard believes politics must be conducted to achieve social justice.
For most of us, this was obvious from the outset. When the simplistic notion of “social justice” demanded outcomes unrelated to input, disconnected from personal responsibility and preferring to cry for failure than applaud success, it was clear there would have to be winners and losers having nothing to do with individuals, but only base identities, whether race, sex, religion or ethnicity. It made it far easier, though not without its pitfalls when “oppressed” identities were in competition, to know who to side with.
If progressive, you side with the oppressed and against in the oppressor. Maybe if the battle in Israel was between Jews and WASPs, the progressives would do as Schumer asks, put the Jews in the relative oppressed box, but only because the WASPS enjoyed greater privilege. When the opposition is Palestinian, the Jews lose. After all, they turned Israel from desert to thriving garden. And in America, the grandchildren of Jews persecuted in Europe have enjoyed enormous success, despite being ostracized from polite society. It doesn’t matter what they overcame to get there, but they got there. And that makes them oppressors.
If progressives were true to their principles, Schumer is arguing, they would show more sympathy with Jewish suffering. Perhaps. But what if the indifference Schumer has observed is because progressives are being true to their principles? Identity politics ideology teaches that group-based power differences are the motor of human affairs. Progressives have identified Jews, at least today, as beneficiaries of power in Israel, in the United States or in both countries. Violence by the “powerless” is quite predictably looked upon more forgivingly as a result, while violence by the powerful is looked upon with more conspiracism and rage.
But Schumer’s category error isn’t just about Jews, even if that’s his only concern at the moment, and even if that’s only because this time it touches his world as a Jew. The same failure of principle that infects this ideological schism at its core, where decisions are made based not on substance, but on identities and which box they’re in. Black people are still very much subject to discrimination. Looting is wrong, even when done by black people. Rape is a heinous crime. Rape is still a heinous crime even when done by Palestinians. Even when done by Palestinians to Jews.
In order to thread the needle, there has to be an eye, a gap within which to put the thread that ties both sides together. There is no principle that enables Schumer, or Biden, or any liberal, to find common ground with people who can make excuses for rape, together with the litany of horrors perpetrated by Hamas.
No amount of higher education rationalization babble is going to produce common ground between people who hate based on identity without regard to conduct or character. Actually, there is far more in common between the progressive left and the Nazis and Klan than there is with a principled liberal, but it would be too much to expect Schumer to say, or even realize, such an unpleasant reality.