“America’s rabbi” managed to cause quite a stir in a week with bigger things on the agenda.
WASHINGTON — During a week in Washington consumed by high-stakes wrangling over a speech by the Israeli prime minister and nuclear negotiations with Iran, an unlikely figure has emerged as a flash point for both right and left, condemned in Congress and on the AIPAC policy conference stage. A rabbi, in fact: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Boteach’s organization’s attack ad in the New York Times last week that accused National Security Adviser Susan Rice of turning a blind eye to genocide and depicted her against a backdrop of skulls, got a resounding thumbs down from pretty much all the major Jewish groups, as well as the Obama administration and AIPAC, which is holding its yearly policy conference this week. Boteach, the author of Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy and the former host of reality television show “Shalom in the Home,” is suddenly radioactive. After hanging tough for the weekend, Boteach apologized for the ad on Monday. But the rabbi has managed to make himself the center of attention — or a center of attention — during a tense period between the U.S. and Israel, and during an AIPAC conference strenuously trying not to seem partisan.
The ad was the talk of a pre-AIPAC party attended by journalists and operatives on Saturday night, and has come up often in conversations on the margins of the conference. On Monday evening, AIPAC chairman of the board Lee Rosenberg denounced the ad while introducing Rice’s speech at the conference.
It’s not just the ad, though: On Monday afternoon, Boteach held an event on Capitol Hill with Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman was scheduled to be there as well, but backed out because of the ad. “I cannot appear at a forum which was advertised using an unwarranted incendiary personal attack. I will be working with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, and others, to create appropriate forums to focus on the danger posed by Iran,” Sherman said in a statement. “Nothing has done as much to unify the Jewish community, and nothing has done so much to bring the Jewish community in agreement with the Obama administration, as this ad.”
Boteach began the panel by apologizing, saying that his group which was responsible for placing the advertisement, This World: The Values Network, had not meant it as a personal attack against Rice.
But in an interview after the panel with BuzzFeed News, Boteach struck a slightly less apologetic tone.
“We’re not apologizing for our strong stance on the need to stand up against genocide,” Boteach said. “We’re not apologizing for our strong belief and concerted media campaign to have the prime minister of Israel speak in the national capital. I continue to strongly disagree with Susan Rice’s comments on Charlie Rose that the prime minister of Israel, just by giving a speech, is going to be destroying the fabric of U.S.-Israel ties.”
Rice last week called Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“We’re apologizing for the perception that this is a personal attack,” Boteach said. “It’s not a personal attack.”
“To the extent that our ad conflated the personal and policy is what we’re apologizing for,” he said. “I have no interest in offending Susan Rice.”
Boteach said that he’d come to the decision to apologize after “discussions with close friends,” not because of the widespread condemnation or because of his ties to Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker, who was a co-president of Boteach’s L’Chaim Society at Oxford University, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.
The Jewish community “can be a very insular place,” Boteach said, and they have a “fear that rattling the powers that be can shake Jewish security.”
“When you write a book called âKosher Lust,’ you’re used to being attacked by rabbis, used to being attacked by the community, when you’re Michael Jackson’s rabbi, you’re used to being attacked by everyone,” he said.
Of course, not everyone has it out for Rabbi Shmuley this week. Asked after the panel if the ad went too far, Cruz didn’t condemn it.
“After Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to speak in Congress, there have been debates after debates after debates on questions of personality,” Cruz said. “And they’ve all served as distractions. A back and forth about protocol. A back and forth about an ad in the newspaper. The people pressing these distractions want them to be distractions.”
This isn’t the first time Rabbi Shmuley has been in the limelight. The last time the rabbi got this much press was probably in 2012, when he ran for Congress in New Jersey as a Republican and lost. Boteach did get a half-million dollar donation for his campaign from Republican megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who were in attendance at the event on Capitol Hill on Monday and who are thought to be major funders of This World (they don’t show up in the most recent publicly available IRS 990 form, from 2012). Boteach said at last year’s This World gala that he was dedicating Kosher Lust to the Adelsons.
“There are many backers, thank God,” Boteach said. “There are thousands of backers around the world.” When asked whether the Adelsons were footing most of the bill, Boteach said, “No, of course not.”
Boteach was vague about the purpose of his organization. “We try to make the Jewish people a light unto the nations,” he said. Asked what that entails, he didn’t name specifics.
Boteach also seemed unsure of how many employees This World has, saying “It fluctuates because we, we have a lot of consultants — it fluctuates.”
The rabbi is fairly buoyant, all things considered. He’s been tweeting photo after photo from the AIPAC conference, and told BuzzFeed News that he still finds Rice’s comments to Rose unacceptable.
“I don’t want to be involved in negative conversations, that’s not our purpose,” Boteach said. “We want to be provocative of course, but not negative. A little tiny nation that has experienced a lot of suffering has to sometimes be provocative to be heard.”
Boteach jokingly said he was even considering a run for president: “Shmuley 2016.”