WASHINGTON — Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, sharply criticized President Trump at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, now taking place in the nation’s capital. His remarks were a stark departure from a procession of vigorous praise for Trump, and a reminder that most American Jews do not support Trump, even if the majority of Israelis do.
“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some ‘very fine people’ among its company, we must call it out,” Schumer thundered while discussing the recent rise of anti-Semitism around the globe, his right fist waving in the air.
This was an unmistakable reference to Trump’s defense of the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, many of them chanting, “Jews will not replace us” as they did so. Three died in the ensuing violence, but in subsequent remarks at Trump Tower, the president seemed to excuse, if not defend, the white nationalists. “I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump said at the time, arguing that there “were very fine people on both sides.” The phrase has been invoked since then by Trump’s critics to suggest that the president’s true sympathies lie with white nationalists.
Schumer then took to task Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whose provocative tweets about AIPAC and Israel were seen by many as anti-Semitic. “When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out. When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you are not loyal to America, we must call it out,” he said.
Schumer’s barb appeared to be met with widespread approval from the audience, though it was difficult to precisely judge the reaction in an enormous hotel conference room where thousands were seated. But at the end of a long day of speeches that praised Trump for all he has done for Israel — moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and, just days ago, declaring that the United States would recognize Israel’s claims on the Golan Heights — Schumer seemed to offer what was for some a refreshing corrective.
Schumer has never been shy about speaking out against Trump. However, as a Democrat appearing at an event that has become increasingly associated with the Republican Party, he was effectively doing so on hostile terrain. In recognition of that very fact, he made sure to remind that his own party was hardly the foe to Israel some have been zealously suggesting it has become.
“I’m proud that the overwhelming majority of Democrats are pro-Israel, and have always been,” Schumer said.
“Plain and simple,” he added later, “the Democratic Party supports Israel, and we will continue to do so.”
Trump has recently moved to accentuate the difference between himself and Democrats when it comes to Israel, going so far as to accuse Democrats of hating Jews. American Jews are, in fact, overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party, and have been for decades. As for Omar, she has apologized for the tweets that were deemed anti-Semitic.
Trump himself did not speak at AIPAC this year, but other high-ranking Republican surrogates made much the same point on his behalf. Speaking that morning, Vice President Mike Pence called Trump “the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office.” He also chastised Omar, as well as the 2020 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, none of whom attended the AIPAC conference this year.
And shortly before Schumer took the stage, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Trump “has made the fight against anti-Semitism a priority,” though some have charged Trump with emboldening the forces of the far-right and potentially making problems like racism and anti-Semitism worse. Pompeo also couched his support for Israel with reference to “religious liberty,” a phrase popular with conservative Christians.
Pompeo also said that “some politicians think anti-Semitism can actually win votes,” in what appeared to be an allusion to Omar, one of several during his remarks, all of them indirect.
None of these genuflections evidently left Schumer impressed. He warned against trying to drive a wedge between American Jews and their longtime political home. “Those who seek to use Israel as a means to scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States,” he chided, while also calling on politicians to cease using anti-Semitism as weapon to bludgeon political opponents.
“It has become too prevalent in our politics to identify anti-Semitism only when it comes from political opponents,” he bemoaned. “If you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism.”
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