The remarks were not made in anger or haste, as were the now infamous, flippant and ill-conceived comments that cost White House reporter Helen Thomas her job, if not her legacy. Instead, they were made quite deliberately, with an air of thoughtfulness, while leaning over a lectern, as if lecturing to a class.
Thomas was forced into retirement for declaring that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine,” but New York Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful politicians in the US, has avoided any criticism or even major press coverage for remarks he made only days later that supported the continued “economic strangulation” of Gaza; in part, because, he essentially argues, the inhabitants of the benighted Strip are not Jewish.
Schumer made his remarks during a brief talk to the Orthodox Union, a well-known politically conservative Jewish educational, outreach and social service organisation.
The talk covered several foreign policy issues, including Iran and Israel/Palestine. When the topic turned to the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla Schumer began by explaining that the “Palestinian people still don’t believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution”. But that is not all, he continued: “They don’t believe in the Torah, in David.”
Because of this, and because they chose to elect Hamas, Schumer went on to argue, Israel is right – and the US should support its desire – “to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go”.
Indeed, whether deliberately or because he does not understand the nature of Israeli policies vis-a-vis Gaza, Schumer did not actually use the word “blockade;” instead describing Israeli actions as a “boycott”.
Only when Palestinians see the light, “when there’s some moderation and cooperation, can [they] have an economic advancement”.
With all due respect to Helen Thomas and her illustrious career, she was merely a columnist, with no political power and a relatively small readership. When she adopted opinions or arguments that contradicted the facts or were morally problematic, they were easily rebutted in the public sphere.
Charles Schumer, however, is an extremely powerful senator who serves on some of that body’s most powerful committees, such as banking and judiciary.
Moreover, through his representation of New York, the state with the largest Jewish population in the US, he is a leading pro-Israel voice in congress who has the ability directly to impact the nature of US policy towards Israel and the Middle East more broadly.
In other words, what Senator Schumer says actually can cost people – Palestinians, Israelis, Americans – their livelihoods and even their lives, not to mention help prolong or alleviate one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. And yet no one in official Washington even blinked.
To consider the implications of these comments, it is worth considering what would happen if any Arab or Muslim, never mind a US senator, explained that because Israelis do not support a two-state solution, and do not believe in the Quran – that is, have not converted to Islam – and have voted in one of the most right-wing governments in their country’s history, the US, or the world more broadly, is justified in trying to “strangle Israel economically” until it moderates its policies.
Imagine the uproar. Consider what would happen to the person – a columnist or congressman – who made such a comment. Yet hardly anyone has even noticed, never mind considered the implications of Schumer’s remarks, which on YouTube have garnered about 1,500 views. Not a single major US newspaper has even written, let alone editorialised, about them, in contrast to the plethora of editorials and op-eds in response to Thomas’ remarks, one clip of which has been viewed well over 1.6 million times.
It is hard to know what to call Schumer’s argument that, because Palestinians “don’t believe in the Torah, in David,” they can be strangled.
He specifically says “there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death,” but he does not quite explain how “strangling” an economy that has already been nearly destroyed during 40 years of occupation can do anything but cause immense suffering to the people living in it, as numerous reports by the UN, Israeli, Palestinian and international aid organisations have documented in great detail.
Indeed, to “strangle” an entire people economically can only mean to try to destroy their ability to survive as a national group, which is a crime against humanity.
These are among the most ethnically and religiously bigoted and even inciteful public remarks by a senior American politician I have heard in a long time.
And the fact Schumer could make them without a hint of anger, as if he was merely stating the obvious, and feel no need to recant them after video of the talk was circulated on the internet (several calls to Schumer’s press secretary asking for clarification were not answered), is as telling as it is worrisome.
It is also worth noting that besides the moral problems associated with his positions, almost every one of his arguments are factually inaccurate. The strong majority of Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution (74 per cent in an April 2009 poll), even thought the process meant to achieve it has delivered little but misery for them for almost two decades. They moderated their ideology and behaviour as part of Oslo and were met with an ever more intensive occupation in response.
Israel has, in fact, been strangling the Palestinian economy since the inception of the occupation, “de-developing” not just Gaza but the West Bank until Oslo, and then closing off the Territories physically while ensuring that they could not develop an autonomous economy as the central component of Oslo’s economic protocols.
Indeed, it is precisely the intensification of the occupation that led to the breakdown of negotiations, the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, the massive violence of Israel’s response, and the election of Hamas in response to these dynamics. Even senior Israeli generals have admitted that their harsh actions have only strengthened Hamas.
Schumer also fails to realise that by advocating the “economic strangulation” of Gaza he is calling for collective punishment of a civilian population in order to change its political beliefs or views.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he should know that this is essentially the definition of terrorism used by the US government, which in several federal statutes, including the Patriot Act, define terrorism as involving acts that “appear to be intended … to intimidate or coerce a civilian population … to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion [or] affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping …” (USA Patriot Act, Title VIII, Sec. 802).
Israel’s policies of economic strangulation have clearly – and admittedly – been intended to force a change in behaviour, and are inseparable from its policies of assassination and kidnappings which have also been practiced by the US under the guise of drone strikes and renditions (it is also likely not coincidental that Senator Schumer also supported the use of torture by the Bush administration in 2004).
How does Senator Schumer think advocating economic strangulation will actually improve Israel’s security, help moderate Palestinians, or, as should be a major concern for a US senator, improve the US’ position in the eyes of the Muslims world as his party’s president, Barack Obama, has been trying to do since taking office?
Moreover, his comments suggest that if Israel manages to choke Palestinians into compliance, the most he is willing to support is the sort of “economic peace” or development promised by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, as an alternative to actual sovereignty and independence. If so, that would put him in direct confrontation with Obama’s strongly-stated support for Palestinian statehood.
Finally, it might serve Senator Schumer to know that within Islam there is in fact an acceptance of the Torah and David, as the Torah (tawrat in Arabic) is considered one of the Holy Books of God, whose corruption by humans led to subsequent revelations until the final, according to Islamic theology, uncorrupted revelation, that comprised the Quran. Moreover, David is considered a prophet and another set of books, the Zabur, or songs/psalms, is attributed to him.
Perhaps if Schumer understood this basic theological relationship between Judaism and Islam, he might be less predisposed to imagining that Israelis and Palestinians are inevitably at odds, and that the latter will act irrationally and with malice against Israel no matter what Israel does and therefore the safest policy from Israel’s perspective is, if not actual strangulation, at least continuous repression.
If Schumer thinks this way, many if not most of his colleagues, and the majority of the American media and political spheres, do as well.
If this is what he is up against, no wonder Obama is finding it so hard to change US policy towards the conflict.
It would be one thing if Schumer’s views impacted only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his remarks to the Orthodox Union also touched upon Iran, and did so in a way that provide some alarming insight into what is likely the consensus of the senate about the goal of US policies towards the Islamic Republic.
Specifically, Schumer described a bill presently in reconciliation between the house and senate that would prevent any company that sold gasoline directly or indirectly to Iran from selling oil products in the US. If passed, such a bill would significantly impact Iran because while it is a major petroleum exporter, Iran in fact imports a larger share of the gasoline it uses for domestic consumption.
After describing the bill and its potential impact, Schumer added off-handedly, as if it was too obvious really to need mentioning, that “the whole idea is to bring the Iranian regime down”.
He added: “There is a lot of discontent … the people of Iran want economic advancement above all … If we can stop that economic advancement we can hurt the country economically. That might be the spark that brings the people … that brings the regime, which is fundamentally not popular and works by fear, down.”
It seems that to Schumer what is good for Israel in Gaza is good for the US in Iran; engage in blatant attempts at regime change, even if doing so is a violation of international law; hurt or strangle a country economically in order to cause the people to suffer enough that they rise up against the government to whose existence you are opposed; and if none of that works, keep applying more pressure, until, presumably, there is no choice but to take military action.
Senator Schumer’s words seem to represent the mainstream of opinion inside the Washington political establishment. They would seem, thus far, not to be the official policies of the Obama administration, but if the president does not articulate a clear agenda that includes bold action to break the logjams in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Iran and the Western powers, Schumer’s views will likely become the de facto fall-back strategy of whatever administration is in power in two years’ time.
And this will most likely mean a lot more suffering for Palestinians and Iranians, and ultimately, for Israelis and Americans as well.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).