No Holds Barred: Cory Booker, Hebrew and support for Israel

Even my friendship with him will not allow me to give him a pass while he supports the mullahs of Iran or refuses to vote against BDS.

Cory Booker (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cory Booker
(photo credit: REUTERS)
During a CNN town hall last week, presidential candidate and my former Oxford student president Cory Booker made headlines in the Jewish press by reciting a few words in Hebrew. Asked by a pastor how his faith would influence him as president, Booker said “Christ is the center of my life,” and added “I studied the Torah, too.” He then referred to a song sung during the High Holy Days: “Ki veiti beit t’fila yikarei l’chol ha’amim” – “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”
Many media outlets commented on the fact that I had taught Booker that and other Hebrew phrases when we studied Torah together.
When I was the Chabad rabbi at Oxford, my special friendship with Booker led him ultimately to become president of our pro-Israel Oxford University L’Chaim Society. Booker and I studied hundreds of hours of Torah to deepen his connection to the Jewish people and Israel. So we practiced that phrase together syllable by syllable, word by word, until he memorized it.
We developed a close friendship at Oxford, and so it was only natural that I would offer to help Booker when he entered politics. Raising money and support from the Jewish community was critical to his aspirations in New Jersey, and I was happy to make introductions and sing his praises. We used to prepare a d’var Torah for him to give to Jewish audiences before each speech, and he won them over by speaking about his love for the Jewish people and Israel. It was sincere. Jews were among Booker’s most ardent supporters as his career advanced from mayor of Newark to US senator.
INCREASINGLY, HOWEVER, Booker has used his knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism to evade questions about Israel and the problematic positions he has taken. AIPAC’s current president, Mort Fridman, held a fund-raiser for him a few years ago in his home in New Jersey, and Booker and I prepared a d’var Torah based on the parasha, the weekly Torah reading. What amazed me was that no one asked him a single question about his views on Israel.
I told the AIPAC leadership, with all due respect, you are subverting all the progress I’ve made with Booker because it was not only based on Judaism and the Torah, but on support for Israel.
Last week, Booker did not show up at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference but instead held a closed-door, off-the-record meeting with some of his constituents, which once again allowed him to avoid addressing his increasingly problematic positions on Israel in public. AIPAC praised him rather than challenge him about a series of negative votes related to Israel, including his most recent vote against anti-BDS legislation.
People who aspire to greatness, and now the highest office in the land, must pass tests along the way to fulfill their potential. Sadly, when it counted most to the pro-Israel community, Booker failed repeated tests of principle, as he increasingly sought to court the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party.
President Barack Obama negotiated a catastrophic nuclear deal with the genocidal government of Iran. It was headed for defeat in Congress, but it never came to a vote because Democrats, including Booker, put politics over principle. I was shocked and saddened. Booker betrayed the Jewish community’s trust and cast his lot with Obama on the issue that was the single most vital one to Israel’s security – preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, developing ballistic missiles and sponsoring global terrorism.
Ever since that feeble act, Booker’s support for Israel has cratered, even as President Donald Trump courageously pulled us out of the Iran deal and imposed draconian sanctions needed to cripple Iran so as to prevent the mullahs from achieving their hegemonic goals.
More recently, Booker failed another test of his commitment to Israel, the Jewish community and principle. In February, the Senate voted 77-23 to extend an existing loan guarantee program with Israel, authorize security assistance to Israel over a 10-year period, make it illegal under federal statute to boycott Israel, and grant federal protection to state and local governments that refuse to invest in or contract with companies that boycott Israel. Booker voted with the minority.
He said he voted against the bill because he believed the antiboycott provisions threatened free speech. The truth is the law does not impinge on First Amendment rights. Israel’s detractors can continue to rant against the Jewish state as much as they want. The boycott movement, however, seeks the destruction of Israel. By failing to vote against the effort to eliminate the Jewish state, Booker again gave oxygen to the parties seeking Israel’s complete economic isolation.
Booker faced and failed a third test after Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic remarks. When first asked about them, he refused to comment and abruptly ended a press conference. Later, he said Omar’s comments were “disturbing,” but added that some of the attacks against her had “anti-Islamic sentiment.” Ultimately, Booker joined with his Democratic colleagues in voting for an essentially meaningless resolution that did not specifically condemn Omar’s comments. Omar has become the Voldemort of the Democratic Party – “she who must not be named.”
Like his colleagues, Booker was unwilling to support a simple resolution expressing zero tolerance for antisemitism. Instead, he voted to oppose all forms of bigotry, out of fear of offending the far left of the party.
When he met privately with AIPAC, Booker was still unwilling to call out Omar by name for her antisemitic remarks, saying only that “they” were “absolutely unacceptable.” I am anxious to see if he is willing to even go that far when he speaks to Democratic Party activists.
AMERICAN JEWS are looking for a leader who has courage, passion and vision. They seek a man or woman who understands Israel is our democratic ally and who will stand by it against Iran and the terrorists, who threaten its people. We want someone who recognizes the danger of the normalization of antisemitism occurring as our elected officials protect antisemites in their midst. We need a president who will choose the moral and principled path and not the easy or politically expedient one.
When I taught Booker Hebrew, when I taught him the Torah, it was not meant to be a parlor trick, like a sleight of hand where you can promote Torah and Judaism while abandoning the security of the Jewish people and Israel. You cannot be a politician who looks for support from the Jewish community by just being pro-Jewish and forsaking Israel.
While critics were writing about AIPAC being all-powerful, and referencing decades-old examples of the pro-Israel lobby working to unseat members of Congress hostile to Israel, the AIPAC of today seems at times afraid to call out anyone for voting against Israel. The message is that politicians will not face any consequences from the pro-Israel community in terms of reduced support or challenges to their incumbency.
Booker will always be a soul friend. But even my friendship with him will not allow me to give him a pass while he supports the mullahs of Iran or refuses to vote against BDS.
AIPAC should likewise be holding him accountable and using its vaunted influence to influence Booker to fulfill the promises he made, and continues to make, to support Israel rather than pander to far-left elements of the Democratic Party.
The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom
The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including his most recent, Lust for Love. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.