All eyes are on Senator Charles Schumer. He has emerged as the key senator in the congressional Iran nuclear debate. If he opposes it, chances are it will be defeated.
Whenever I’ve heard him speak, he always plays on his name, and its relationship to the Hebrew term “shomer” – guardian. Over and over he’d say he will always be a guardian of Israel.
By and large, he’s been true to his word. He was a leading figure in the movement to free Soviet Jews and throughout the years a great advocate for Israel.
In fact, in my recent book on the Soviet Jewry movement, Open Up the Iron Door, a random picture of a Soviet Jewry rally was chosen for the cover. Only after the book’s publication did we realize that right there, in the middle of that picture, raising a voice for beleaguered Soviet Jews was a young Chuck Schumer.
Not that Mr. Schumer has always been easy. He is so intent to help that at rallies I’ve led he has been amongst the most aggressive politicians, insisting that he be the first to speak.
But now he faces one of the biggest decisions of his political life. He’s hoping to be named Majority Leader if the Democrats retake the Senate. It’s likely, however, that if he votes against the president on the Iran nuclear deal, that dream will wash away.
Senator Schumer’s pending decision reminds me of a story from the Soviet Jewry movement that I record in my memoir. Forty years ago, the Nixon administration, bent on detente with the Soviet Union, strongly opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which tied “most favored nation status” and trade credits from the United States to freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union. Some leading Jewish figures, fearful of a presidential backlash, supported Nixon’s position. Opposing a sitting president touches upon the insecurities and sensitivities that diaspora Jews have acquired over the years.
Other Jewish leaders stood up to the president, recognizing that as economic sanctions could break the apartheid South African regime, it could also break the Soviet Union.
In the end, it looked as if the Jackson-Vanik Amendment would pass when word spread that Jacob Javits, the Senator from New York – who like Mr. Schumer, was Jewish and a strong advocate of Israel – was vacillating.
I was at the meeting between Javits and a Jewish delegation to discuss the matter. Never will I forget the moment when Rabbi Gil Klapperman turned to Senator Javits and recalled the story in the Book of Esther when Queen Esther declines Mordechai’s request to intervene for the Jews.
Mordechai tells her: do not for a moment think you can escape your responsibilities as a Jew. If you intervene and make a difference, you will be blessed. If not, relief will come from elsewhere, and you will have lost your opportunity.
Mr. Javits was deeply moved. He signed on, and Jackson-Vanik passed.
Mr. Schumer is in a similar quandary. He can vote along with the administration – or vote against his personal aspirations and find the strength to say no.
If he buckles, he may realize his dream of becoming Senate Majority Leader. If he stands strong, as Javits did forty years ago, he will forever be remembered as having done the principled thing, spoken truth to power, and as his name attests – been a guardian of Israel.
And for that matter, a guardian of America.
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is the former national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ).