It's fitting, perhaps, that Newark Mayor Cory Booker will be filling the U.S. Senate seat of the late Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Lautenberg was a former national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal who wrote landmark immigration legislation benefiting Soviet Jews. Booker, an African-American and Baptist, has a number of high-profile Jewish supporters and speaks frequently at synagogues.
The big difference, perhaps, is that Booker is a lot more comfortable quoting Torah.
Booker's outreach to the Jewish community, which precedes his political career, is a topic of fascination for the Jewish and general media alike. A 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 [Rabbi Shmuley Boteach,] an ultra-Orthodox 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."
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.
What descriptions like these don't describe is anything tangible Booker has done for the Jewish community or Israel. His lack of a track record on Jewish issues is understandable: Since the white exodus of the 1960s, Newark has few Jews, and no foreign policy. The Jewish support for the African-American political prodigy 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 Hezbollah 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.
I call it 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.
A lot of that can be chalked up to Booker's relationship with Boteach, the self-proclaimed "America's rabbi." Their relationship goes back to Booker's days as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, when Boteach tapped him to head the campus L'Chaim Society. Boteach, a Republican, recently ran an unsuccessful race for Congress. In contrast with Booker, Obama was close with Jewish progressives like Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Bettylu Saltzman, David Axelrod, Abner Mikva, and Newt Minow.
It's possible that Booker has observed Obama's rocky relationship with the Jewish activist community and has learned some lessons. On paper, there's not much difference between what the two believe about Israel. (Booker believes that the "United States should continue to facilitate direct negotiations that seek a two-state solution" and supports both diplomacy and a "credible military threat" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.) 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. Booker is more likely to boast of his ties with Wall Street donors than with activist rabbis.
Booker is proudly Democratic and, like Obama, holds liberal views on most issues. He's even had to distance himself from Boteach. If recent surveys and past elections are any indication, Booker did extremely well with the majority of Jewish voters, while a disproportionately Orthodox minority voted in Wednesday's special election for Steve Lonegan, his Republican opponent, a libertarian with a solid record of pro-Israel rhetoric. But it's hard to find a Jewish or pro-Israel criticism of Booker, from either party.
Perhaps Booker has hit on a new formula for uniting the Jewish vote: Talk Orthodox, vote Reform.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at njjewishnews.com/justASC/
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