Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his friend Mayor Cory Booker address a 2008 AIPAC Nation Summit.
If Newark Mayor Cory Booker succeeds in his bid for the Senate, and there is little reason to believe he will not, he could become one of the most outspokenly pro-Israel members of Congress. While Booker has benefitted handsomely from the support of wealthy pro-Israel donors, according to a longtime associate named Ben Karp, the candidate’s politics on Israel derive more from his religiously inspired philo-Semitism than any gratitude to his funders.
“I’m 100 percent sure that Cory Booker’s Zionism is genuine,” Karp told me. “I don’t think these are talking points for Cory. I think he genuinely believes it. He’s more likely to generate hasbara than to recite it. It doesn’t seem strategic with him. And when he talks about Israel he gets a kind of mystical look in his eye.”
Karp added, “The idea of Israel and the Jews as a people that wrestle with God is really appealing to [Booker]. And he’s a Baptist with a fundamentalist belief that the Jews are the Chosen People. I really believe he thinks the Jews are the Chosen People.”
Now an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies in Tokyo, Karp has known Booker since they both attended Yale University. In 1996, Karp formed the Chai Society with Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law; Michael Alexander, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside; and Shmully Hecht, a Chabad rabbi known for his hardline pro-Israel views. Booker, who had just completed a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, signed on as one of the Jewish club’s founding members.
Chai, which has since been renamed the Eliezer Society, started out by hosting influential figures for lively Shabbat dinner discussions at apartments around New Haven, but eventually moved its operations into a stately brownstone purchased by the club. In recent years, Eliezer guests have included Alan Dershowitz, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Mona Eltahawy, according to Seth Berkman of The Forward. Philip Weiss also spoke to the club at Ben Karp’s invitation last year. During the time he taught at Yale, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren lived in Chai’s brownstone.
Booker’s charisma enabled the club to expand its recognition on campus. “His thing was to focus on the Jews who weren’t interested in Judaism at all,” Karp told me. “Cory was a feel good guy, a schmoozer, and he was able to get anyone to come [to our events]; it was like a salon and he was one of the guys behind it.”
Karp said he was introduced to Booker through Shmuley Boteach, a charismatic, infamously temperamental Orthodox rabbi who ran Oxford’s Chabad house while Booker was completing his Rhodes Scholarship. At an AIPAC conference in Chicago on October 26, 2008, Booker described his first meeting with Boteach as beshert, or preordained.
“By the end of the night, as Shmuley says, I was dancing around on tables, holding the Torah, I had my kippa on, and then he told me if I dropped that Torah he’d have to fast after 40 days,” Booker told his audience, flashing a big grin. “I never fumbled in football but I had to hand that book off.”
Under Boteach’s guidance, Booker became the co-president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, which functioned much like the Chai Society at Yale. “This experience planted a seed that changed my life,” Booker said at AIPAC.
Booker waxed nostalgic about his first trip to Israel, arranged by Boteach when he was 22-years old. “Only when I saw Israel did it really become a part of my being and did I understand that the nation’s security really is about land,” Booker told the AIPAC crowd. After visiting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and hearing from his guide about the danger of Syrian missiles raining down on Israeli cities, he concluded, “We cannot allow the valley to be saturated with the blood of Jews.”
By the time Booker arrived at Yale, he was fully immersed in Jewish culture and politics. Karp recalled the first time he saw Booker address a mostly Jewish audience on campus. “I was sort of shocked,” he remarked. “It sounded like he was addressing the United Jewish Appeal — it was so genuine. He’s really in there. He seems to feel in Judaism a magical power.”
When Booker graduated and launched his political career, Karp said, “he had a natural constituency and it made sense that when he ran for office he would begin raising money from the people we knew.”
In April, the pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC raised $100,000 for Booker. And as soon as he announced his campaign for the Senate, NORPAC endorsed Booker, scheduling another fundraiser for June 16.
Hearing voices, blessings from God
Booker vaulted onto the Newark political scene in 1999 when he launched a 10-day hunger strike outside a crime-ridden public housing complex, generating sustained media coverage and eventually prompting city officials to ramp up the police presence in the area.
Booker told the AIPAC crowd that he had begun “hearing voices” by the end of the hunger strike. One of them, he claimed, was that of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who intoned to him, “Jews together are strong, but Jews with other people are invincible.” Booker has cited the Meir quote as a source of inspiration before a variety of audiences over the years, including in a 2010 interview with a Fortune magazine editor.
While in the mayor’s office, Booker drew increasingly on his relationship with Boteach, perhaps the most well known rabbi in America, a frequent guest on Oprah, and the host of a relationship advice show on TLC called “Shalom in the Home.” Away from the limelight, Boteach hosted Booker for Shabbat dinners at his Englewood, New Jersey mansion. A non-Jewish Shabbat guest who accompanied Booker to one of the dinners told me that Boteach once attempted to assign him with random household chores. “I realized he was trying to use me as his shabbos goy and I was like, ‘No way!’” the guest recalled.
Booker and Boteach took their friendship on the road, teaming up for a series of speaking engagements before Jewish audiences around the country, and hiring the Greater Talent Bureau to represent them. In his official bio, Booker promoted his friendship with Boteach as “a powerful example of Booker’s strong belief in the strength of diversity and the tremendous possibilities that result when people move beyond simple racial, ethnic and religious tolerance.”
Booker and Boteach larded their public chats with Tony Robbins-style platitudes and weekly Torah readings, rarely touching on hot button political issues. In his own free time, however, Boteach pumped out one inflammatory commentary after another, assailing Israel’s critics as dangerous and deranged anti-Semites. In a column for the Huffington Post, he accused Thomas Friedman of a “straightforward blood libel.” In another, he claimed Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan was responsible for “an unbelievable blood libel” when he accused Israeli forces of killing innocent Palestinians in Gaza. Then, Boteach defended Sarah Palin for accusing her own critics of a “blood libel.”
With a $500,000 donation from Sheldon Adelson, Boteach embarked on a long-shot bid for Congress in 2012, taking on incumbent Democratic Rep. Steve Pascrell. “I have tried, argued, even threatened bodily harm to try to convince [Boteach] not to get into the world of politics,” Booker remarked at the time. “I think it, in many ways, diminishes the universality of his message.”
Boteach did his best to make Israel the friction point of the campaign, accusing his opponent of “slander” for signing a letter calling on the US to pressure Israel to ease the siege of Gaza. During the final weeks of the campaign, Boteach demanded Pascrell end his relationship with Mohammad Qatanani, a widely respected Muslim imam from Paterson, New Jersey, accusing Qatanani of supporting Hamas.
But New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie countered Boteach’s attacks with praise for the embattled imam, neutralizing the desperate, last-ditch tactic. Pascrell stood on the verge of a landslide victory, while Booker found himself in an awkward position. He endorsed his fellow Democrat, but also felt compelled to deliver a long statement reaffirming his friendship with Boteach, which he described as “difficult” but nevertheless “a blessing for which I am grateful to God.”
With the scrutiny his senate campaign is certain to invite, Booker’s gratitude may be tested all over again.