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Why Cory Booker matters to the Jews

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speaks to the Festival of Homiletics on May 22, 2018, at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy: “You got some ‘splaining to do!”

That is precisely what New Jersey Senator Cory Booker had to do — “‘splain” what he was doing in New Orleans, holding a sign that proclaimed: “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!”

A spokesman for Senator Booker, Jeff Giertz, told JTA in an email:

In one instance, amid the rush, he was posing for a photo and was passed a sign to hold – he didn’t have time to read the sign, and from his cursory glance he thought it was talking about Mexico and didn’t realize it had anything to do with Israel. He hopes for a day when there will be no need for security barriers in the State of Israel, but while active terrorist organizations threaten the safety of the people living in Israel, security barriers are unfortunate but necessary to protect human lives.

I am convinced that this was a misunderstanding — even as I am convinced that politicians, in particular, must be very cautious about the optics that they create.

Because, c’mon, folks: we are talking about Cory Booker.

Cory Booker is as close to a bonafide Judeophile as you will ever find. In fact, when he was a student at Oxford University, he (improbably) became president of the L’chaim Society. 

Senator Booker also gives a pretty good devar Torah.

But, here is why many Jews got very upset over that image.

Many Jews perceive that the left-wing of the Democratic Party is increasingly turning against Israel — or, at the very least, has become hyper-critical of Israeli policies.

Consider what we might dub “creeping Corbynism” on the left:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic congressional candidate from New York, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who linked Israel’s response in Gaza to Ferguson, and who has criticized the Israeli “occupation of Palestine.” She subsequently admitted her lack of knowledge on the subject, and indicated her willingness to learn. That’s good news.

Cynthia Nixon, actress and New York gubernatorial hopeful. She supported an artistic boycott of the West Bank settlement of Ariel — true, not “really” BDS, but does not help her in the pro-Israel community.

And, of course, Bernie Sanders — who believes that Israel overreacted in Gaza.

There is that marvelous line in the Exodus story — which speaks of the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, with the waters parting: “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:22)

That just about sums up Jewish political fears — the wall on the left, about Israel.

The wall on the right is about America. Those fears are about the current administration in the White House — especially, but not limited to, the fear that this administration is giving cover to a kind of Christian nationalism.

That would just be the beginning of Jewish fears — fears that many Americans share — about the direction of this country. Quite simply: many American Jews look at what is happening in this country, and they don’t see their Jewish values mirrored there.

Throw into this political cholent pot — the continuing rightward trend of the government of Israel. Nationalism, of the most problematic and exclusivist nature, is a growing international phenomenon. I’m just wondering when we will start seeing references to a new hybrid being: “Trumpanyahu.”

This trend will push Jews, especially younger Jews, away from Israel.

My answer to those Jews: I don’t like what this current American administration is doing, but I still love America. I don’t like what the Israeli administration is doing, but I still love Israel.

Come November, and subsequent Novembers, many Jews will have a very difficult political choice to make.

If they perceive that the Democrats are becoming “anti-Israel,” they will abandon the Democratic Party.

If they perceive that the Republicans are becoming too xenophobic, etc., they will not vote for Republican candidates, either.

American Jews might find themselves in political galut — exile.

My uneducated guess: even if the Democratic Party continues to move to the left on Israel, American Jews will do a political and moral calculus, and they will continue to vote Democratic.

As one of my friends said: “Israel is a strong, sovereign state. I support Israel. Israel can take care of itself. Right now, I am worried about America.”

I do not see Senator Booker’s support of Israel wavering.

But, this faux pas should be a wake up call to the Democratic party.

They have an Israel problem.

Because, at a certain level, perception becomes reality.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.