For the last week or so, since New York Senator Chuck Schumer decided to abandon his party, his president, his principles (or at least what should have been his principles) and announced his decision to vote against the Iran agreement, I have been thinking about the poem “Ichabod” (1850) by the 19th century American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). Nowadays Whittier is clinging to a tenuous place in the literary canon by his fingernails, but at his best he was quite a memorable poet, and one of his best poems is “Ichabod.”
Here’s the set-up: Whittier, a Massachusetts native, a Quaker and ardent abolitionist wrote “Ichabod” to protest the decision of US Senator Daniel Webster to vote in support of the Fugitive Slave Act. Webster, a distinguished orator, leading member of the Whig Party, with a long anti-slavery record, voted for the bill which greatly strengthened the ability of southern slave owners to capture escaped slaves in northern states without the inconveniences of civil trials and other standard legal procedures. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of a parcel of bills known as the “Compromise of 1850,” cobbled together to prevent the white South from seceding from the United States over the issue of slavery, basically by passing bills that were mutually unpalatable to both sides. As I am sure you know, the Compromise of 1850, which only papered over deep and basically irreconcilable differences, did not work.
(“Ichabod” is reprinted at the bottom of this post. If you are not terminally allergic to poetry, please scroll down to read it now.) I love the invective in “Ichabod,” berating a political soul “so fallen! so lost!” with his “dishonored brow” and his “dead fame,” a person who has been become so odious that all we can do is avert our gaze. Whittier is perhaps laying it on a little thick, since Webster, despite a legendarily sonorous speaking voice—if only there was a recording!—was never that much of an anti-slavery man, never saw a railroad board of directors he didn’t like, and was not that much of a person of principle.
And so one can say the same of Chuck Schumer. It’s not that he ever was one of my political heroes. But back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I lived in Park Slope, about a block away from Schumer’s house, I would see him frequently glad-handling and waving in Prospect Park and other local venues. I was delighted when he defeated the horrible Alphonse D’amato for the US Senate. When I lived in Rochester I was happy that unlike other NYC politicians in state-wide office, he seemed genuinely interested what happened north of the Bronx. And now that I live in South Carolina, I only wish I was still represented by someone like Schumer.
Like Daniel Webster, Schumer has sort of made himself available to the highest bidder, which has meant he has always been a reliable doer of Wall Street’s bidding, and his positions on Israel were always far to the right of my own, and God knows, unlike Daniel Webster, he is no orator, but as a moderately liberal Democrat, he is easy enough to tolerate, even like, in his insistently spotlight grabbing way. New York voters could have done far worse. But I expected far more of him on the Iran deal vote.
As for the deal itself. I have read volumes of commentary about the Iran deal. I confess I still don’t understand why anyone would think that the United States or Israel is better off without the deal. If it is blocked by Congress, the almost certain consequence will be that Iran, without any sanction regime in place, will develop a nuclear weapon almost immediately. The deal is the best chance to prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb, and Schumer, whatever he says in public, surely knows this.
But now Chuck Schumer is Ichabod Schumer. Whittier, like most 19th century Americans, knew his Old Testament, and Ichabod, most familiar as the first name of the hapless Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) is a biblical name.
It comes from the first book of Samuel, chapter 4 when the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant. Pinchas, one of the leaders of the Israelites, is killed, and his father, Eli, the High Priest, dies after hearing the news about the Ark and his son. Pinchas’s wife (unnamed) went into labor when she heard the news. She named her new-born son Ichabod, a name meaning “no glory—Ich-Kavod” because “the glory has departed from Israel.”
And yes, the moral of this story is that with Benjamin Netanyahu the glory has departed from Israel. The glory of Israel is an Israel at peace with its neighbors, an Israel in which every person under its political domain is treated with justice, equality, and fairness under their own fig tree and vine, an Israel that recognizes the limits of its power in its own region and in the halls of Congress, an Israel that understands that sometimes the best defense is compromise and negotiation.
Politicians like Schumer have never before faced a basic choice between American and Israeli interests, and one can understand why the choice is painful, but like Daniel Webster in the Compromise of 1850, he is trying to hold together something which no longer adheres. Within a few years of the Compromise of 1850 the Whig Party, in which Webster had so long been a stalwart, fell apart, and the Republican Party was born. I don’t expect anything quite so dramatic here, but the Iran deal is demonstrating that AIPAC’s efforts to keep US policy towards Israel bi-partisan is faltering. Schumer’s vote and the widespread opposition to it is just a symbol of how US-Israeli relations is changing. What happens in the future is of course unclear and uncertain. But Americans need to support the Iran deal. And Jews world-wide need to work to restore Israel’s lost and exiled glory. If you don’t want to write a poem, at least sign a petition and call your members of Congress. In any event, no more Ichabod Schumers.
“Ichabod, “ by John Greenleaf Whittier
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore!
The glory from his gray hairs gone
Revile him not, the Tempter hath
A snare for all;
And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath,
Befit his fall!
Oh, dumb be passion’s stormy rage,
When he who might
Have lighted up and led his age,
Falls back in night.
Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark
A bright soul driven,
Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark,
From hope and heaven!
Let not the land once proud of him
Insult him now,
Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
But let its humbled sons, instead,
From sea to lake,
A long lament, as for the dead,
In sadness make.
Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
This post was originally published in a slightly different version at The Jewish Pluralist website (click here for that version).