back to top
Politics

Chuck Schumer Avoids The Cameras After Snubbing White House On The Iran Deal

Caught between the White House and his self-described role as Israel's guardian in the Senate, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer goes uncommonly quiet after coming out in opposition to the Iran deal.

Posted on

Coney Island sunshine, a ribbon to be cut, and television cameras with their lens caps pulled off. It was the kind of Friday event ripe for New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to drop his r's and strut his egg-creams-and-stickball Brooklyn roots as he toasted the opening of a new brewery on the boardwalk.

But Schumer never showed on the beach. At his apartment building later, he also declined a request to speak after the doorman called up. ("Charles? A reporter is here.") Excuses for this uncharacteristic bout of shyness varied, but it all seemed linked to the New York Democrat's newly announced opposition to the Obama administration's deal aiming to curb Iran's nuclear power — a pact President Obama intends to be one of the great legacies of his presidency.

The night before, Schumer's opposition also emerged with rare restraint. He merely posted a memo, hitting send just as the political world was halfway through the first Republican presidential debate, and just before they would change the channel for Jon Stewart's Daily Show goodbye.

In sum, it was one of the rarest sights in politics: Chuck Schumer running away from the microphones.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is political. Schumer is in a well-reported fight with the White House. Sources close to Schumer say he informed Obama Thursday that he would be voting against the deal. Under this account, livid that Schumer wouldn't wait to give other Democrats time to mull, Obama leaked the story to the Huffington Post, jamming up the choreography of Schumer's announcement.

The White House denies it, but it is drawing attention to Schumer's support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and questioning whether Senate Democrats will support Schumer as their leader after current majority leader Harry Reid retires.

But there's another way to view all this, and I found it driving around Brooklyn Friday, from the Coney Island boardwalk where Schumer was a no-show, to the Park Slope apartment building where he was apparently holed up, to, finally, the Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, and the apartment of famed New York consultant Ezra Friedlander.

"Look, he's in a no-win position," said Friedlander, a well-connected lobbyist who introduces much of the Orthodox world to their political leaders.

"He did something very daring, but when you scratch beneath the surface, it's not surprising," Friedlander continued. "When someone positions themselves as he did as being the protector, that sets the bar very high for him."

By Schumer being a protector, Friedlander was talking about Israel, and he wasn't speaking metaphorically. Among certain company at least, Schumer points to the linguistics of his last name, which is derived from the Hebrew word for guard, or protector.

"My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov [a town in present-day Ukraine]. And I believe Hashem [God] actually gave me that name," Schumer once said in an interview. "One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer — to be a or the shomer Yisrael. And I will continue to be that with every bone in my body."

What precisely it means for Schumer to be a shomer for Israel, though, isn't so clear.

Everyone knows that Benjamin Netanyahu believes the Iran deal jeopardizes Israel. Stateside, groups like AIPAC and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox coalition, are pressing that position, to say nothing of Republicans running for president.

But even the Israeli president, who is of the same political party as Netanyahu, said Friday that this deal is "not a disaster," though, to be sure, he is critical of the pact.

More broadly, according to at least one poll from the more dovish group J Street, more American Jews support Obama's plan than don't.

"Jews are certainly not monolithic. I mean, Jews couldn't even agree what Moses told them to do," Friedlander said while foisting meat stew and seltzer on me.

"The important thing is that the American Jewish community is much more diverse than the ultra-Zionist right and AIPAC would have us believe," adds Mark Oppenheimer, editor-at-large for Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish arts, politics, and culture and host of the podcast Unorthodox. "The interesting thing about a topic like this treaty is it matters more in numbers to Evangelical Christian Zionists than Jews."

The New York delegation is mixed, too. Shortly before Schumer announced his opposition to the deal, fellow New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came out in support of the deal, although she called it "imperfect."

"Without a deal, our options will be limited to insufficient unilateral sanctions, an invasion with yet another massive and costly land war in the Middle East, or a bombing campaign that offers nothing more than short-term gain under the best-case scenario," Gillibrand wrote.

Barely a word of protest emerged. That's a function of two things: First, Gillibrand's position isn't unpopular, even among New York Jews. Second, Gillibrand defused the opposition by meeting with them, including with a group Friedlander coordinated.

Perhaps to compensate for their diverging positions, Israel figures differently in both Schumer and Gillibrand's statements: seven times for her, including in the first paragraph.

Schumer notes Israel just once, deep in his press release. (Questions about whether Schumer and Gillibrand coordinated their votes to split the difference were met with a resolute no.)

Friedlander believes Schumer's opposition stems from a blend of politics and conscience. Politically, Schumer's acceptance of the plan would have unleashed howls from those used to seeing him as the self-proclaimed "Shomer Yisrael." Instead, his opposition is drawing rage from progressive groups like MoveOn.

Explaining the nuance of his opposition will require the nuance needed of a senator who wants to be majority leader. Perhaps in the summer broil of this debate, Schumer doesn't see the space for nuance. He'd rather let it die down and lie low for a while, avoiding the cameras at Coney Island and the reporters waiting in his lobby.

But eventually, Schumer will have to clarify this to his constituents, and more than a statement, even one that's almost 1,700 words. He will have to answer questions.

Schumer will have to do the thing he knows how to do best: talk.

Josh Robin is a political reporter and anchor for NY1, New York City's all-news station. He can be reached on Twitter @joshrobin.

Contact Josh Robin at joshrobintv@gmail.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.