The last time New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke at a venue attended by Sheldon Adelson, he alienated the Republican Party mega-donor and other hawkish pro-Israel Jews by referring to the West Bank as “the occupied territories.”
On Sunday night at a gala awards program in Manhattan honoring Adelson and hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Christie avoided mentioning Israel altogether.
But Sean Penn didn’t.
Held in the cathedral-like Cipriani restaurant, the dinner for Boteach’s This World: The Values Network featured an unusual lineup of big-name guests. Among those joining Christie, Penn, and Adelson were Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; Israel’s U.S. ambassador Ron Dermer; the Somali-born women’s rights activist and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali; human rights activist and author John Prendergast; Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt; and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
The dinner, at $750 per person, seemed to serve a mix of purposes: part awards ceremony, part fund-raiser, and part pro-Israel rally. It was also very much a celebration of The Values Network and its founder, the well-connected and media-loving Boteach.
A one-time congressional candidate who describes himself as “America’s Rabbi,” Boteach was celebrating 25 years as an Orthodox rabbi and promoting his latest book, Kosher Lust. Boteach said he had dedicated the book, which he described as a modern-day “Song of Solomon,” to Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
Based in Boteach’s hometown of Englewood, The Values Network describes itself as an “international organization focusing on bringing the universality of Jewish values and wisdom to the media, the culture, the family, and national affairs,” and “supporting, defending, and promoting the State of Israel as the supreme embodiment of universal Jewish values.”
It appears to be as much a vehicle for supporting and promoting Boteach. Photos of the rabbi dominate its website, and the two subheads of its “About This World” tab are “About Shmuley” and “FAQ.”
Christie’s speech, which The Values Network’s PR firm had promised would be a “‘major speech’ on Israel and the Middle East, according to insiders,” was notable for the absence of a direct reference to Israel, even as the presumed Republican presidential hopeful criticized President Obama’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Syria, Iran, and Russia.
“America is no longer sending clear signals to the world. Consistent signals,” Christie said in the 16-minute speech. “Signals like the ones Ronald Reagan sent when he was president as to who our friends are, and we will stand with them without a doubt, and who our enemies are, who we will oppose regardless of the cost.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, criticized Christie in the Jerusalem Post. “For Christie not to mention Israel, is not only surprising and disappointing, it’s actually shocking,” complained Klein. “I thought for sure he was going to come here tonight to make amends [for his occupied territories comment] and say some nice things about Israel.”
In a news release the next day, Boteach defended the governor. “Governor Christie articulated the need for an American foreign policy whose bedrock is the Jewish emphasis on the infinite value of life and the eternal call to justice,” said Boteach. “Simply stated, promoting universal Jewish values is one of the most direct ways to promote and protect the Jewish state.”
In the lineup of pro-Israel activists and Republicans, Penn stood out not just for his Hollywood credentials but for his left-wing politics. Penn said his ties to Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez helped him secure the freedom of Jacob Ostreicher, an American-Jewish businessman imprisoned in Bolivia for 18 months. Ostreicher, who was accused of money laundering but never formally charged — he has maintained his innocence — presented the film star with the Champion of Jewish Justice award, thanking Penn for, among other things, giving him an all-night back rub and stocking his refrigerator with kosher food.
Penn was the evening’s only speaker to mention the Palestinians. He referred to the West Bank as “undeclared territories,” noted that the ranks of those unjustly imprisoned around the world include Palestinians, and said that the label of anti-Semitism is “too often used to discredit dialogue.”