Speaking at the Pine Brook Jewish Center last year, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was asked about his friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s run for Congress. In reply, Booker demonstrated the gifts that have made him a rising star in the Democratic Party.
“Politics — I do not think it’s his calling. Obviously I am going to be with” Rep. Bill Pascrell, the Democratic incumbent. “I think [Boteach] diminishes his brand in one way by entering the fractious, partisan world of politics. But there is a saying that some of you might know, gam ze l’tova, which means in everything there could be some good, so I now lean on the faith of God that from this wrong decision, he will create some greater right.”
Booker artfully distanced himself from Boteach the politician, while embracing him in his role as spiritual mentor. The Hebrew “gam ze l’tova,” hardly a common phrase in most Jewish households, was the master stroke. Jewish audiences swoon when Booker, an African-American Baptist, fluently quotes Hebrew texts. I’ve heard a number of Booker’s speeches to Jewish groups, and they are remarkable — the kind of erudite, soul-stirring divrei Torah you expect from the most talented rabbis.
Booker’s outreach to the Jewish community, which precedes his political career, fascinates the general media as well. A recent Wall Street Journal article notes Booker’s campaign contributions from the pro-Israel NORPAC and endorsements from various Jewish figures. “The U.S. Senate candidate has immersed himself in Jewish culture and serious Judaic study for two decades, ever since he had an accidental meeting with [Boteach,] an ultraorthodox Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi,” according to the article. “And now, Mr. Booker has tapped those Jewish connections in his campaign to fill the seat of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.”
What it doesn’t describe is anything tangible Booker has done for the Jewish community or Israel. Booker’s lack of a track record on Jewish issues is understandable: Newark has few Jews, and no foreign policy. The Jewish support for the African-American prodigy and Senate hopeful seems to be based almost entirely on his affinity for Judaism.
The obvious contrast is with another African-American political prodigy: Barack Obama. When he was trying to make the leap from Senate floor to the White House, Obama actually had a typical pro-Israel voting record on defense aid, Iran sanctions, and branding Hizbullah a terrorist organization. He too had longtime Jewish friends and advisers. Yet even when he said all the right things on the campaign trail, Obama struggled to gain the trust of the pro-Israel camp — and never won over its right wing.
In part this goes back to what I called the “Kishkes Factor.” While Obama could point to a pro-Israel record, he couldn’t prove he felt it in his kishkes. Booker is the opposite — no real record on Israel or Jewish causes, but many voters assume he “gets it” at a gut level.
In Tablet this week, Yair Rosenberg also compares and contrasts the “Jewish” sides of Obama and Booker. Rosenberg doesn’t address their divergent receptions among pro-Israel groups. But there’s enough in his piece for you to draw your own conclusions. “When Obama addresses Jewish audiences, he comes across as a liberal rabbi,” writes Rosenberg. “He presents Jewish values as synonymous with progressive politics and draws heavily upon American-Jewish history, name-dropping noted civil rights rabbinic activists like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz. The American story, he seems to say, is the Jewish story — an ever-advancing universalistic ethic.”
By contrast, writes Rosenberg, Booker, “though committed to similarly liberal ends, presents more like his Orthodox mentors. He leans on traditional texts, from the weekly Torah portion to the Pirkei Avot, and is more likely to reference Hillel than Heschel…. And like his Chabad companions, Booker does not conflate Judaism with one particular political platform but rather plays up its spiritual uniqueness.”
Similarly, Booker’s closest Jewish adviser is Boteach, a Republican. Obama was close with Jewish progressives like Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Bettylu Saltzman, David Axelrod, Abner Mikva, and Newt Minow.
It’s a canny analysis. Their contrasts, however, say less about either man than they do about the Jewish community at large. The last two elections demonstrated a wide gap between many in the pro-Israel establishment and the average Jewish voter. While the media (including our newspaper) suggested the Jewish community was ambivalent about Obama, the polls and the elections told a different story: A Jewish majority shared Obama’s liberalism, and either agreed with or could live with his Israel agenda. The pro-Israel organizations that explicitly or implicitly opposed Obama spoke for a more conservative minority within a minority.
It’s possible that Booker has observed Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community and has learned some lessons. On paper, there’s not much difference between what the two believe about Israel. (Booker told NJJN recently that the “United States should continue to facilitate direct negotiations that seek a two-state solution.”) But while he may share Obama’s policies on Israel, Booker hasn’t been seen hanging around with figures like the pro-Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi. He too is a liberal, but is more likely to boast of his ties with Wall Street donors than with activist rabbis.
Perhaps Booker has hit on a new formula for uniting the Jewish vote: Talk Orthodox, vote Reform.