My introduction to Cory Booker came on a cool October evening in 2009. Booker, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz had gathered at Central Synagogue in New York City for a roundtable discussion on Jewish values.
What started as a promising conversation between a diverse group of intelligent, experienced public figures devolved into absurdity when the first question from the audience came from reality TV star Jon Gosselin, who was in the midst of a very public divorce, and a forced exile from his own television show, “Jon and Kate Plus 8.” His question, about how Jewish values could help him raise his children, seemed orchestrated in advance by Boteach, who had recently taken Gosselin under his wing.
After the program, as I left the synagogue, I was annoyed at the rabbi’s attempt to garner free publicity and saddened that someone of Elie Wiesel’s stature had to respond to Gosselin, who was using the forum as a means to rehabilitate his image. But most of all, I was impressed with Booker, then the mayor of Newark, who seemed worldly, polished, and relatable.
Until that night, I knew Booker only by his reputation, which was stellar, at least from afar. I was living in Boston at the time. My impression of the Newark mayor was that he had made inroads in cleaning up the embattled city by improving living conditions, investing in infrastructure, increasing the number of housing complexes, and standing up for Newark’s poor. Upon seeing Booker in action that night almost nine years ago, it was obvious that the then 40-year-old was a rising star in the Democratic Party.
So I find it hard to believe someone with the New Jersey senator’s intelligence and talent could have been unaware that he was holding a sign that read “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go,” during a photo op at the progressive Netroots Nation conference earlier this month in New Orleans.
Shortly before he was to address the conference, Booker became caught up in a wave of people asking for photos, according to his spokesperson, Jeff Giertz. “In one instance, amid the rush, he was posing for a photo and was passed a sign to hold — he didn’t have time to read the sign, and from his cursory glance, he thought it was talking about Mexico and didn’t realize it had anything to do with Israel,” Giertz told JTA.
That’s a hard sell — the word “Palestine” was clearly written — given Booker’s savvy ways. Especially troubling is that the sign compares a proposed wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States to a security fence that has made suicide bombings in Israel virtually nonexistent. Booker’s credibility on this issue is further stretched by a statement from the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), whose members stood with the senator in the picture. They wrote that “…our contingent had the opportunity to meet Sen. Cory Booker briefly and discuss our work for freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people before posing for a photo with him.”
Subsequently, I’ve heard some in the know who question the USCPR’s assertion that its members met with Booker before taking the photo. Calls to Booker’s media relations department were not returned by press time.
What is more clear is that the senator has been positioning himself of late toward the liberal wing of his party — which has become far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause — an indication that he has designs on the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Until recently, Booker was consistently a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, an AIPAC regular, a highly-sought-after speaker on the Jewish circuit nationally, and one of the brave Democratic voices to come to Israel’s defense in the wake of its 2014 war in Gaza. He is also extremely well versed in Jewish tradition and rituals and can speak about the weekly Torah portion like a rabbi, in part because of his long friendship with Boteach — which came to a dramatic end over their differences on the Iran nuclear deal, which Booker supported.
That 2015 decision, followed by a vote last year against federal anti-BDS legislation and not appearing as a speaker this year at the annual AIPAC conference, has led to worry in the Jewish community that Booker was moving away from his steadfast commitment to the pro-Israel agenda.
I can forgive Booker for these decisions: Most American Jews, like Booker, supported the Iran deal. While the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is inherently immoral, dishonest, and anti-Semitic, I wrote in a column last year that one can legitimately argue that anti-BDS legislation is flawed, and opposing it does not necessarily indicate that one also opposes Israel. Regarding AIPAC, maybe the senator had a busy week and hoped the crowd would give him a pass for skipping it this time around.
The photo incident notwithstanding, I still believe Booker is firmly in Israel’s corner. We’ll know more with time as election interest swells. For his sake — and for Jews everywhere — I hope the senator wears his contacts the next time he agrees to take a selfie with someone.
Gabe Kahn can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.