Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, on Wednesday warned that some liberals and young people were “unknowingly aiding and abetting” antisemitism in the name of social justice, fueling a dangerous rise in bigotry against Jews amid Israel’s war against Hamas.
In a deeply personal speech from the Senate floor aimed largely at members of his own party, Mr. Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, issued a more than 40-minute explanation and condemnation of antisemitism in America that has flared since Israel began retaliating against Hamas for its Oct. 7 terrorist attack against defenseless Israeli civilians.
In the wake of the attack, he said, many Americans had skipped over any expression of sympathy for the victims and instead attacked the past actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinians.
“Can anybody imagine a horrific terrorist attack in another country receiving such a reception?” he asked, noting that the long arc of history had taught Jews a painful lesson: “ultimately, that we are alone.”
Mr. Schumer’s warning came as antisemitic hate crimes have skyrocketed and pro-Palestinian protests, some featuring antisemitic signs and slogans, have swelled across the country as the civilian death toll in Gaza has soared. Those events have fueled a bitter debate over the war and exposed a sharp divide in the Democratic Party.
Many progressives have taken up the Palestinian cause as an extension of the racial and social justice movements that have recently dominated Democratic politics, while more mainstream members of the party have continued to offer unequivocal backing for Israel’s actions and response to Hamas’s attack.
But the vitriol against Israel in the United States, Mr. Schumer said, has crossed into widespread antisemitism, “the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations in this country — if ever.”
“Antisemites are taking advantage of the pro-Palestinian movement to espouse hatred and bigotry toward Jewish people,” Mr. Schumer said. “But rather than call out this dangerous behavior for what it is, we see so many of our friends and fellow citizens — particularly young people who yearn for justice — unknowingly aiding and abetting their cause.”
He spoke about the deep sense of betrayal, isolation and fear that he and many Jews have felt in witnessing the reaction of the left, people who he said “most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”
“Not long ago, many of us marched together for Black and brown lives,” Mr. Schumer said. “We stood against anti-Asian hatred. We protested bigotry against the L.G.B.T.Q. community. We fought for reproductive justice, out of the recognition that injustice against one oppressed group is injustice against all.”
But, he added, “apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people.”
In an interview after his speech, Mr. Schumer said he had been eager to speak out on the issue for weeks because he felt he was in a unique position to deliver a pointed message to his party.
“I’m a progressive; I’ve had lots of good relationships with all the people who are protesting, but I also feel the urgency — the Jewish people are anguished,” he said. “I had an obligation to many places: to the Jewish people, to my fellow progressives.”
Of the liberals he was addressing, he said: “I had to say it, because I don’t think they know it. I don’t think they’re of bad will.”
He noted the delicacy of the message he was delivering, which he began with a careful disclaimer that he was not attempting to brand all criticism of Israel as antisemitism or to direct hate toward any group. But Mr. Schumer also made clear that he felt compelled to highlight it, pointing out during the interview that his surname is derived from the Hebrew word for “guardian.”
In the speech, Mr. Schumer implored Americans, particularly younger people, to “learn the history of the Jewish people,” who he said for generations have been left “isolated and alone to combat antisemitism.”
“Can you blame us for feeling vulnerable only 80 years after Hitler wiped out half of the Jewish population across the world while many countries turned their back?” he said. “Can you appreciate the deep fear we have about what Hamas might do if left to their own devices?”
He explained the visceral reaction of many Jews to the loaded phrase “from the river to the sea,” a pro-Palestinian slogan embraced by Hamas that many regard as a call for the eradication of the Jewish state, which lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It has become a mainstay of pro-Palestinian protests around the country over the past two months and was featured in a video circulated by Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only Palestinian member of Congress, who was censured by the House this month for using it.
Mr. Schumer said “plenty of people” chant it “not because they hate Jewish people, but because they support a better future for Palestinians,” but he added that Hamas and terrorist groups have used it to call for wiping out Jews.
“Given the history of oppression, expulsion and state violence that is practically embedded in Jewish DNA, can you blame Jewish people for hearing a violently antisemitic message, loud and clear, any time we hear that chant?” he asked.
Mr. Schumer argued that the rise of such language stemmed in part from many Americans, particularly younger ones, not having a full understanding of how the Jewish people have been persecuted throughout history.
“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,” he said. “All Jewish Americans carry in them the scar tissue of this generational trauma, and that directly informs how we are experiencing and processing the rhetoric of today.”
For his family, Mr. Schumer said, that included the story of a great-grandmother in what is now Ukraine who was gunned down on her front porch by Nazis, along with about 30 family members, aged 3 months to 85 years old — a chilling parallel to accounts of what happened during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Mr. Schumer said that Americans, especially young people, must understand why Jewish people defend Israel — “not because we wish harm on Palestinians,” he said, “but because we fear a world where Israel is forced to tolerate the existence of groups like Hamas that want to wipe out all Jewish people from the planet.”
He pleaded with Americans, no matter where they stood on the war in Gaza, to “condemn antisemitism with full-throated clarity whenever we see it before it metastasizes into something even worse.”
Jews, he said, regard the rise of antisemitism “a crisis, a five-alarm fire that must be extinguished,” while many of his non-Jewish friends consider it “merely a problem, a matter of concern.”