Rabbi Shmuley Boteach shares his thoughts on US-Israel ties, gay marriage, the conversion battle and his run for Congress as a Republican candidate in New Jersey.
You’re running for Congress in New Jersey - why Republican and not Democrat?
There are certain values within the Republican Party that speak to me, that I endorse. For example, I believe that there’s an adversely proportionate relationship between the individual and government such that the more of the former, the less of the latter.
I believe in smaller government and bigger people. I believe that the United States has a responsibility to promote freedom, protect the rights of the innocent. I believe the strong has to protect the weak, not always, not every time… but when the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power [they saved] the lives of tens of thousands of children.
There’s a number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean I endorse every party policy, it doesn’t mean I believe the Democrats don’t have some outstanding ideas, some outstanding policies, some outstanding people, so I don’t live in China and I don’t live in Russia, I believe in a two-party state, it has to be a two-party state and I like to see two strong parties, but I find myself a Republican candidate.
In light of President Obama’s AIPAC speech, are you convinced that he is truly a friend of Israel, who would stand by her in times of need?
The other day, in Newsweek magazine, I made it clear that I consider President Obama a friend of the Jewish people - that’s clear from many of the appointments he’s made. He has an Orthodox Jew as his chief of staff and Dan Shapiro - the man he chose to be the ambassador to Israel - is probably the best ambassador we’ve ever had from the United States to Israel; he’s an incredible ambassador, an incredible American and an incredible Jew, and that all speaks for President Obama. But while President Obama is undoubtedly a friend of the Jewish people, that doesn’t always translate into friendly policy to the Jewish state.
Sometimes friends think they’re doing Israel a favor by putting enormous pressure on it to make peace, where that peace is not really going to lead to peace, or friends can think that snubbing and treating a democracy with a little bit of contempt can be the impetus to show that them, “you guys want to have friends, you’ve going to bend a little bit”.
President Obama’s record on Israel is mixed. I think any non-partisan sober assessment of Obama’s record on Israel is that it’s mixed – he has done good things and he has done things that are not good at all. When first he became president, he declared Israel’s settlement policy to be illegal, and he demanded a complete freeze. Israel capitulated and this was bad because it showed the Palestinians that there was unilateral pressure on one only party; you don’t treat Jews like that.
I believe that Jews should be allowed to live anywhere in Judea and Samaria, and just as I believe Arabs should be allowed to live anywhere. I don’t believe in discriminatory policy in either direction, and I don’t believe that we should be making any parts of Israel - or the ancient lands associated with Israel - judenrein. And then President Obama treated Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu disrespectfully in March 2010. Having said that, he’s done a lot of good. He supported Israel tremendously when the Palestinians attempted unilateral statehood at the UN last September. According to all the experts, he has upgraded cooperation between the United States [and Israel] in military and intelligence cooperation. He said himself at AIPAC, “judge me by my actions.” And that is what we should do, we should not judge his speeches.
Last year at March this time, President Obama was giving his first ever speech, a major policy address on the Arab Spring, and he ruined the speech by throwing in the 1967 lines, albeit with land swaps at the end. Why bring in Israel? What was the connection between the Arab Spring and Israel? The rhetoric he used was deeply inflammatory and there was a tremendous, very negative Jewish reaction to the speech, and he largely climbed down from the speech at AIPAC.
The question is, why even bring it up? I thought, don’t the Arabs who have lived under tyranny for so long, brutalized and slaughtered by their tyrants and now standing up to them courageously and dying, don’t they deserve a speech to focus entirely on them? The president has a mixed record on Israel, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a friend. I’m sure he’s doing it with the best intentions - he’s putting pressure on Israel, he’s going to make things better for them by giving them peace. He probably finds Netanyahu intransigent, and I think that the president probably believes that Israeli intransigence is one of the principle reasons why there isn’t peace. I disagree. I don’t think that pressuring Israel whatever your motives, whatever your intentions, is anything but unhelpful, and I think it compromises Israel’s security.
The president’s foreign policy really deserves to be scrutinized, because it’s not just Israel where he’s often come down on the wrong side. This is the president who hugged Hugo Chavez, in the first few months of his presidency, which is unacceptable, because Chavez is a tyrant who dismantled a thriving democracy in Venezuela.
This is the president who curtseyed publically before the king of Saudi Arabia. I know that we have to work with Saudi Arabia; I realize that they have 24 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, but I think we have to do deals with Saudi Arabia holding our nose. They’re not a democratic regime, they oppress women, they’re a deeply misogynistic regime so why give them this deep respect? And I would make the same criticism of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy I found very moral, I thought he had a foreign policy that strongly endorsed, embraced, and promoted human freedom and liberty. But then you have pictures of President Bush holding King Abdullah’s hand at his Crawford ranch. You need to do business with him because that’s the world we live in, but that doesn’t mean you have to show that you have an intimate bond with him, and President Obama did that as well.
President Obama was very late to the table on the Arab Spring - the Egyptian freedom fighters criticized him for giving a speech once the whole thing was over, like “where were you when we were dying in the streets?” Where was President Obama to withdraw our ambassador from Syria as soon as Assad started slaughtering people? I don’t know why we’re not arming some of the rebels in Syria, the United States stands for freedom. I recognize people are saying what if what comes afterward is worse, what could be worse than Assad, who’s just a cold-blooded killer? So it’s not just Israel, I disagree in general with the president’s foreign policy, and I think certainly compared to President Bush he’s not promoting human freedom, which is the raison d’étre of the United States. We are the world’s first modern republic, and we stand for the rights of the people and government of the people, for the people and by the people.
Does a rabbi (or a Minister) have a special role once s/he becomes a legislator?
Of course, I think they do because I think more than anything else, they have to have whole values. I just did a panel discussion with some of the other prospective candidates for Congress at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, and it’s clear as you sit there and we’re all questioned about policy, of course a rabbi who’s running for political office has to know policy and has to know statistics and studies but undercutting all of that has to be strong values and United States’ policies and principle-based policies. I think when you’re a rabbi or a member of the clergy, you cannot cease being that even when you run, and I think people expect you to articulate policies that reflect your full convictions that are not expedient, but are principled. Now they expect that of politicians in general, and they should, but I think that it’s probably more so [for clergy], and I think that when it comes to trying to articulate those values, I will try my best to rise to the challenge.
The principal reason I’m running is because I think America needs a Jewish values voice – universalist Jewish values to be sure, but a Jewish values voice in the political arena. Right now, the American social agenda is being dominated by our evangelical Christian brothers and sisters, especially in the Republican Party who fixate on abortion, pre-marriage and contraception. In Judaism, when was the last time a rabbi got up and said “my sermon this week is about gay marriage, my sermon this week is about abortion?” Whatever your opinion is on gay marriage, whether you’re pro-civil union, whether you’re pro-gay marriage, whether you’re not even pro-civil unions, it’s not something that really comes up because we recognize, 5-7 percent of the population is gay, 50 percent of the population is divorced.
Marriage is falling to pieces, not because of gays, but because we straight people have done a very fine job of destroying marriages ourselves, thank you very much. For example, USA Today ran a cover story about how 40 percent of American women have not been married and will not marry. Then you have a 40-percent white out-of-wedlock birthrate and a 75 percent African-American out-of-wedlock birthrate. So marriage is dying in our time, and what are we doing talking about gay marriage?
One of my first policies would be to make marital conflict resolution tax-deductible, so that couples can have the financial incentive to get the help they need. These are Jewish values, you know, bringing down the divorce rate, strengthening salaries ensuring children are given the love and attention they need by two parents who actually get along, and don’t fight and don’t kill each other and don’t engage in custody battles, and that’s a Jewish value I think that’s a form of Jewish value, even the Pesach sacrifice has to be eaten with a family, it’s a family centric religion. Well these values need to be part of a political arena, so yes as a rabbi and a cleric I find to make my policies very strongly based on Jewish values.
As a member of Congress, would you press Israel not to change the law on conversion, thereby working to avert such responses as the Wyden letter against the Israeli conversion bill in 2010?
In the final analysis, it begs the question of to what extent any foreign government should be involved in the domestic, especially the religious, affairs of another. When it comes to the United States and Israel, of course the question is more nuanced because the United States is very involved in Israeli affairs and for good reason. American Jewry loves Israel, the United States is a very big contributor to it, but I think here this is really something that needs to be determined by not by American legislators but by Israeli legislators.
By all means, as a rabbi I might have an opinion on that, of course, but as a legislator, I don’t think it would be my role to be telling Israel what they should be doing in their own internal domestic affairs. Israel would not do the same here.
Having said that, I’m an Orthodox rabbi and always believe that we have to engage and address the conversion issue, so that Jewish identity has a standard that brings about unity of the Jewish people. I would say that while I am an Orthodox Jew who believes in Orthodox conversion, I’m not looking to make cataclysmic disruptions in the Jewish community right now that is going to lead to civil strife, to the extent that I believe that we do have to try to implement a more unified standard of conversion, which I hope will be a halachic one.
I think that it has to be based on an international conference, bringing together the leaders of the different strands of Judaism to ensure that we get people on board because Jewish unity is key.
We’re facing an existential threat from Iran, it truly is an existential threat; this is a very scary time in Jewish history - you have a guy saying he wants to wipe Israel off the map and is trying to build a weapon by which to do it. And whether or not he’s serious –he sponsors international terrorism, Ahmadinejad - Hamas and Hezbollah - but besides that I think that any nation that has suffered a genocide 70 years ago needs to take these threats very seriously, especially when it’s a brutal murderous regime like Iran that slaughtered its own people.
This is the time for Jewish unity. I do believe that we need to have an international conference of the leaders of the major strands of the international community, and by the way, when I was in England, when I was a rabbi at Oxford, I had two major conferences that were attended by a thousand people, with the leaders of reform, liberal Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, in that small community of about a quarter of a million Jews to bring about unity and we made some progress but not enough and that’s the way it should be done.