What was originally billed as an event to encourage Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to vote against the Iran nuclear deal turned into an evening of disappointment and determination after Booker announced earlier in the day that he would support the agreement.
Less than five hours before the Sept. 3 rally in Livingston, Booker announced he would vote for the deal that lifts international sanctions against Iran in exchange for scaling back its nuclear activities.
In a lengthy statement, Booker was deeply critical of the deal, saying it leaves “our nation to choose between two imperfect, dangerous and uncertain options” — meaning a flawed deal versus a “debilitated sanctions regime.”
However, he said, “left with these two choices, I nonetheless believe it is better to support a deeply flawed deal, for the alternative is worse. Thus, I will vote in support of the deal. But the United States must recognize that to make this deal work, we must be more vigilant than ever in fighting Iranian aggression.”
Among the several hundred people gathered that night at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, for a rally sponsored by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, were many who clearly disagreed .
“My reaction was disappointment,” said Ferne Hassan of Union, associate director of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, which has been lobbying Booker’s offices for several weeks. “We so respect Cory Booker for the inroads he has made to the Jewish community. But where is he? Did he put party politics ahead of what is good for America? What is the status of Cory’s relationship with the Jewish people moving forward? I think it is going to be problematic.”
Booker, a first-term senator, was under intense pressure from opponents of the deal, who hoped he would follow New Jersey’s senior senator, Robert Menendez, a fellow Democrat, in voting against it. New Jersey, where 6 percent of residents are Jews, is tied with New York in terms of Jewish population per capita.
Len Glaser of West Orange said, “I am very disappointed with anybody who doesn’t support Israel and the United States against the Iranian nuclear moves. I support Robert Menendez, a good friend of Israel. But I don’t think it will hurt Booker’s political career.”
Lori Klinghoffer of Short Hills, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, said she was “disappointed but not surprised” at Booker’s decision.
“It took him a long time to come out and support the deal, and I did not have a lot of confidence he would support AIPAC’s position,” said Klinghoffer. The federation’s board of trustees also came out against the deal.
But, she said, “it’s hard to say” whether it will hurt his support in the Jewish community. “What concerns me most is that this has become an issue of divisiveness within the Jewish community,” she said.
Sarit Catz of Short Hills, Israel advocacy chair of the Greater MetroWest federation’s Community Relations Committee, noted that Booker’s own statement detailed flaws in the deal. According to the statement, the deal “only delayed — not blocked — Iran’s potential nuclear breakout.”
Said Catz: “He recognized the failings of the deal very clearly, so it is disappointing that he ended up supporting it.”
David Dranikoff, a Livingston resident and former CRC Israel advocacy chair, told NJJN he “was not surprised at what Booker did. Many of us called his office with our talking points, but many senators in the Democratic Party are speaking more about what the president’s words are as opposed to facing this very difficult issue, which puts in danger not only Israel but the rest of the Middle East and possibly America.”
Booker’s announcement came a day after Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced support for the deal, providing the votes the White House needs to prevent a veto-proof rejection of the agreement.
At the podium, Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange described himself as both a liberal Democrat and a strong supporter of AIPAC. Despite the near certainty the deal will go through, Cohen said he plans to visit Washington, DC, next week to lobby against it a few days before Rosh Hashana.
“I am a congregational rabbi and this is the busiest time of the year for me,” he told the audience. “But I thought I needed to make the trip.”
Ayalon Berger, 15, a sophomore at Livingston High School who chairs the New Jersey High School Democrats, told the audience that when he wrote his speech 24 hours earlier, “I told Senator Booker, ‘If I had been old enough I would have voted for you because of your moral clarity and your integrity…. It deeply saddens me how you landed on this critical issue.’”
Calling Booker “a friend,” former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the chair of United Against a Nuclear Iran, said Booker “disappointed all of us.”
“When you’re dealing with one of the most radical countries in the world and they are talking about whether they are going to have the most dangerous weapons in the world, you can’t settle for something that you think is better than what we might have gotten,” said Lieberman, the event’s keynote speaker.
Outside of the rally, supporters of the deal praised Booker.
“I'm very proud of Cory Booker for supporting the Iran deal,” said Roberta Elliott of South Orange. “Would I have preferred that he had been among the first 34 senators [to approve it]? Yes. But he nevertheless showed courage and independence in the face of intense lobbying against the deal. Most of all, I appreciate the transparency of his deliberations, reflected in the position paper he released yesterday.”
Gideon Aronoff, a South Orange resident who is CEO of Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization, said he was “very pleased” at Booker’s decision.
“I was impressed at the serious way he went about dealing with the issue,” Aronoff said. “It is possible that it will cost him politically, and he showed impressive courage and leadership when important forces in the NJ Jewish community such as AIPAC and the Orthodox community have come out strongly against the deal.
“I don’t think he made a political decision regarding the Jewish community,” said Aronoff. “His decision reaffirms our confidence in Sen. Booker as a real leader for New Jersey.”
Doni Remba of Westfield, a member of J Street's national board of advisers and its Central Jersey board, said he “applauded Sen. Booker for doing the right thing in supporting the Iran deal…. After talking extensively with many of the players and learning the facts for himself, Sen. Booker endorsed the key arguments that J Street, President Obama, and nearly all Democrats in Congress have made in support of the deal.”
Asked whether he thinks Booker has damaged himself politically with the state’s Jewish community, Remba said, “I was deeply concerned with campaign donations he has received from right-wing, hard-line, pro-Israel political action groups,” said Remba. “I am heartened to see Booker retained independent judgment and did what was best for himself and the American-Jewish community by supporting the deal. Will it hurt him politically? I don’t think so.”
In his statement, Booker reached out to his Jewish constituents, saying, “[S]ome of the most painful, difficult, and influential conversations I have had about this deal have been with valued and trusted friends from the Jewish community who have family members who survived or died in the Holocaust.”
He concurred with Jewish friends, he said, who believe “Iran is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people.”
“While I may differ with many friends on the choice this deal presents us — and I do believe that this deal presents the better path of two options to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — we share precisely the same goal,” said Booker. “I am united with all who are determined to ensure that we never again see genocide in the world. That means not allowing Iran to ever obtain a nuclear weapon, period….”