Despite many years of close association and mutual support, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach does not appear in Senator Cory Booker’s recent and highly autobiographical book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good, and the rabbi attributes his excision to a public and increasingly personal campaign against The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, widely known as Obama’s Iran deal.
In recent articles, Boteach reveals his lobbying efforts for Israel and against the deal, such as his frustrated attempt to bring Booker together with another old friend– Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer. He defends the chiding tone of a full-page advertisement placed in the New York Times, and stands by his efforts to expose the Iranian regime’s danger to Israel and Jews, and to remind Booker of his longstanding support by America’s Jewish community. Claiming biblical and historical precedent, Rabbi Boteach considers facing Iran’s alleged intentions “to murder innocents around the globe” as having been worth risking the good will of his “soul friend.” “Public figures have to understand that criticism comes with the territory,” he observes, “It’s nothing personal. But genocide is deadly serious.”
The dynamics of their teetering friendship wouldn’t be interesting without the larger social and political context for Boteach’s complaint about Bookers actions, in particular the rabbi’s appeal to the reciprocal bonds he thinks the senator forsook, not just as a former “student” and friend, but as an enthusiastic and plentiful recipient of campaign donations from the Jewish community. Booker, he claims, “promised eternal friendship to a community that made him the foremost recipient of contributions from Jewish supporters of any candidate in the United States”
In “No Holds Barred: The Vanishing Jews of Cory Booker’s Memoir,” Boteach develops the theme of Booker’s alleged abandonment, wondering: “How could Cory have written a memoir that barely acknowledges the vast Jewish contribution to his life and career, if at all?”
These claims are troubling. Consider the toxicity of Boteach’s repeated suggestion that a United States senator should pledge obligation to any subset of the body electorate beyond his constituency, especially in return for generous donations. Booker joined his fellow Democrats and in fact a –majority- of Jewish legislators in supporting their president’s efforts for a peaceful resolution with Iran.
And Cory’s memoir is in fact filled with Jews, such as individuals who helped his family integrate their suburban New Jersey neighborhood and who were involved generally in Civil Rights, a lasting inspiration. Jews, for example Einstein, are also found among quoted luminaries, and the book’s acknowledgement page not only includes Jewish individuals, but more than a few who have also been friends, political mentors and supporters from Booker’s first campaign for Newark city council.
However much his contact with Jews and Judaism widened and enriched his knowledge, the implication that this experience set his moral compass is even more pernicious than the fragile claim that his book erases them, as if young Booker was a moral blank slate before his careful molding during, by Boteach’s estimate, their “thousands of hours” of Torah study. In fact a pattern emerges from the many articles written in the Jewish press over the years about the pair, often presented as a kind of symbol of black-Jewish relations. Boteach constantly refers to “my student,” “my president” (of Boteach’s L’Chaim Society), while Booker always expresses the mutuality of their bond. The hierarchical perspective may be the cause of Boteach misremembering Booker’s actual position at the Yale Jewish Society. He was not, as the rabbi recalls, a chosen student president serving a rabbi; he was in fact a founder and a partner.
Shmuley might genuinely believe that he schooled Cory in American politics while inculcating the Seven Laws of Noah, and is therefore perpetually owed, along with his particular Jewish religious and political community. In fact both assumptions; his right to demand political quid-pro-quo, and that of Cory’s foundational tutelage, are incorrect and inappropriate, and the self-referential overreach is almost certainly the actual cause of the rabbi’s banishment.
Jews, except one, haven’t vanished from United. Cory’s narrative, however, starts with his family tree and roots itself in his own authentic and worthy African, European and Native American and Christian heritages. This shouldn’t surprise or offend anyone who respects Booker as his own person.