A spate of recent articles has wondered whether Newark mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker is "too Jewish" and too conservative in his views on the U.S.-Israel relationship. They analyze and speculate on his friendships with two Orthodox rabbis. In doing so, they reflect all that is wrong with American politics and Jewish life.
We should note at the outset that Booker is a devout Christian. The charge of having right-wing views on Israel comes from Peter Beinart, the vociferous critic of AIPAC and Israeli settlements. In his article, Beinart wonders whether Booker's relationship with Rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht has poisoned his views on Israel. He asks, "How could rabbis so blind to injustice against Palestinians forge such a close bond to a politician who has built his political persona on impassioned pleas for justice?" Beinart attempts to answer his own question, suggesting that Booker and his rabbi-friends do not discuss Israeli politics.
An Unusual Friendship
Beinart focuses in particular on Booker's relationship with Boteach, who is more well-known and with whom Booker is particularly close. He surmises that Booker was attracted to the joy and beauty of Sabbath meals and intellectual conversation and remained ignorant about the theology underlying Boteach's orthodoxy. He also concludes they rarely discuss Israel. How Beinart arrived at these conclusions remains a mystery.
What a missed opportunity. Rather than critique a friendship and lament the way it may have shaped a liberal politician's view on Israel, we should celebrate it. Here is an Orthodox Rabbi who ran for Congress as a Republican, and a liberal African-America Democrat sharing a deep friendship and mutual respect. They formed a friendship before either was famous. It continued as their careers blossomed, and each seems to have genuinely been transformed and deepened through it. Where is the celebration of this relationship? Where is the expression of hope that it may be a model for moving past the partisan gridlock and cultural polarization in America?
Why the Haters?
I suspect two factors explain the criticism and lack of positive attention. The first is personality. Rabbi Shmuley is a cultural force, a charismatic and prolific author and speaker who garners vocal supporters and detractors. He courts media attention, and some deride him for that. I suspect that beneath the derision is a hint of awe. Shmuley has achieved what few American rabbis have achieved: a recognizable name and "brand" in American cultural life. He has written best-selling books and has deep friendships with young political leaders on the rise. He is open and even self-depracating about his attention to the media, and in an age where we have to market ourselves to gain any attention, why should such attention bother us? We can love or hate the message, but we need not criticize one for promoting it.
The second and more dangerous factor is the hijacking of Jewish dialogue on Israel. For some extreme liberals and conservatives in the American Jewish community, a person's views on Israel have become a litmus test for political acceptability. Beinart seems to think it is inconceivable that a liberal Democrat like Booker would actually share AIPAC's views! He must simply have not thought hard enough about the issue.
But perhaps Booker genuinely believes Israel is struggling to find peace. Perhaps he, like Boteach, believes an end to violence is a necessary condition to two states living side-by-side in peace. To assume that all good liberals need to think the same thing is neither Jewish nor democratic.