September 22, 2019

“America needs a Jewish values voice”

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. ‎