After a tense call, Jewish umbrella group says it remains ‘distressed’ with Chuck Schumer’s call for elections in Israel


WASHINGTON (JTA) — An umbrella group for large Jewish organizations said it remained “distressed” after a call with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who sought to explain his bombshell speech last week calling for new elections in Israel and saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “lost his way.”

Schumer, the majority leader and most senior Jewish elected official in U.S. history, asked for the call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations after a flurry of pushback from some Jewish groups. The backlash also came from Republicans and Netanyahu, who said Schumer’s speech on the Senate floor last week was “totally inappropriate.”

A number of questions Schumer fielded were supportive of his remarks, and one participant said the meeting was not tense and was a good conversation. A number of liberal-leaning groups said the day after the call that the Conference of Presidents had erred in putting out a condemnatory statement.

But many questions were contentious, people on the call shared with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The exchange captured the establishment Jewish community’s stunned reaction to anguished criticism of Israel from one its longest-standing stalwarts. Schumer’s speech made tangible the growing alienation between Israel and the Democrats, which serves as the political home for most American Jews. The party — and President Joe Biden — have grown increasingly critical of Israel’s war effort in Gaza nearly six months after Hamas launched the conflict with its Oct. 7 invasion. Biden is also facing pressure, ahead of the November election, from progressive voters who oppose his support of Israel. 

A key concern on the call, the Conference of Presidents’ leadership said in a statement, was Schumer’s warning that the United States may use “leverage” to change Israel’s course.

“Our member organizations, representing the broad swath of American Jewry, remain distressed that an American official would tell a sovereign, democratic ally when to conduct its electoral process and assert that the U.S. should possibly ‘play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change present course,'” said the statement from Chairwoman Harriet Schleifer and CEO William Daroff. “In actuality, what is really needed is U.S. leverage to bolster and support the Jewish state in this time of need.”

The statement was quoting Schumer’s speech, in which he said, “If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war begins to wind down, and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing U.S. standards for assistance, then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

Schumer emphatically told the callers he did not want to place conditions on defense assistance to Israel, as some Democrats have demanded. He did not explain what “leverage” would otherwise mean, except to note that Biden has an open line to Netanyahu’s government. Some listeners took that as an insinuation that Biden could give Netanyahu a cold diplomatic shoulder, as he did for a period of months last year, prior to Oct. 7, when he did not invite the prime minister to the White House.

Multiple participants in the call echoed the statement by Schleifer and Daroff, saying Schumer’s explanation of why he used the term “leverage” was not persuasive or clear. 

Eighty-three people joined the 45-minute call, which Schleifer moderated. A number of participants visibly grimaced when Schumer defended himself, participants said. Multiple people asked Schumer why he listed Hamas and Netanyahu as two of four obstacles to peace laid out in his speech, saying the comparison between a theocratic terrorist dictatorship and the leader of a democracy was uncalled for. (The other two obstacles Schumer listed were Israel’s far right, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.)

“There is no way I suggested Netanyahu is in the same category as Hamas,” Schumer shot back, according to a participant’s notes. “The speech makes clear that Hamas is the primary problem.” Schumer’s office did not return requests for comment.

The Conference of Presidents’ statement said the group felt Schumer was not persuasive on that front. 

“​​We find it most unfortunate that Senator Schumer’s stated barriers to peace included the Hamas Terror Army and the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel in the same breath. Hamas’ unwillingness to release the hostages, lay down its arms, and surrender are the actual barriers to peace,” it said, referring to the more than 100 Israeli hostages Hamas holds in Gaza. 

The call was off the record, and participants said they did not want to be named when describing its particulars, but agreed to speak in general terms.

The Reform movement spearheaded a statement issued Wednesday saying that the Conference of Presidents statement, signed by Schleifer and Daroff,  did not reflect the views of the more liberal groups on the call.

“Their statement does not reflect the views of several member entities who support much of the important content of Sen. Schumer’s speech, or even those who disagreed with some of what he said but understood that this speech was a constructive critique made by one of the U.S. Congress’ most passionate champions of a strong and safe Israel,” said the release.

The Reform-led statement called for a review of a longstanding practice by which the Presidents’ Conference sometimes issues statement without consulting with the 50 or so constituent members.

Some participants on the call with Schumer were supportive, asking questions that ridiculed the notion that Schumer, one of the most prominent defenders of Israel over the years, had somehow become anti-Israel. 

Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the progressive community relations body, said that Schumer’s speech reflected the complex range of feelings in the American Jewish community following Hamas’ Oct. 7 slaughter of more than 1,000 Israelis and then the devastation of the war, which has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians.

“There’s no one who is more pro-Israel than Chuck Schumer,” said Spitalnick, who recalled the senator speaking at her high school graduation. “Saying that this guy who has done more, on behalf of the Jewish community, on behalf of Israel, throughout his entire career, is somehow outside the tent. We should be asking ourselves, rather, what the problem is with the tent.”

But others castigated Schumer. 

“I was listening to see if he’ll give me an argument that maybe I don’t agree with but understand better,” said Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a conservative group that has been critical of Biden’s approach. “To see if it makes sense for someone to do what he did even though I disagree with it. But he failed. He just repeated what he said last week, he did not explain it in any effective way.”

A number of participants criticized Schumer for interfering in an ally’s electoral process, and asked him why he did not place similar demands on America’s enemies. Schumer noted his longstanding work to isolate Iran and recalled that he was one of just four Democrats in the Senate to oppose the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Israel and its supporters in the United States bitterly opposed.

Schumer said he made the speech because he felt Israel was in danger of becoming a pariah as a result of Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war. The speech echoed Biden administration concerns that Israel is not doing enough to allow in critical humanitarian assistance at a time when international health organizations say Gaza is on the verge of famine.

“I believe the United States must provide robust humanitarian aid to Gaza, and pressure the Israelis to let more of it get through to the people who need it,” Schumer said in his speech.

Schumer in his exchanges with Schleifer, emphasized his pro-Israel bona fides, repeating his oft-stated claim that his name derives from “shomer,” the Hebrew word for guardian. He said he hoped to see his grandson celebrate his bar mitzvah in Israel (“Are we invited?” Schleifer teased, according to a participant) and recalled that he attended university with Netanyahu’s brother, Yoni, who was killed in 1976 in Israel’s famous hostage rescue operation at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport. 

The Conference statement sought to revive a standard of resolving U.S.-Israel disputes privately, one that has not been honored at least for years. 

“The U.S.-Israel relationship has weathered many disagreements through close and confidential discussion of its leadership, which continues to be the appropriate forum for such conversations,” it said.

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