In his June 13th essay "Cory Booker's Rabbis," Peter Beinart wonders how much Booker’s close friends, dynamic Jewish leaders Shmuely Boteach and Shmully Hecht, have shaped the Newark mayor’s positive views of Israel and perhaps even turned his gaze away from the rights of Palestinians.
As noted, Booker, Hecht and I founded Eliezer, The Jewish Society at Yale, in the fall of 1996. Our reasons for establishing the society and the shape it has since taken speak directly to Beinart’s inference that Hecht and Booker’s close friendship instigates the latter's warm regard towards Israel and even affiliation with AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby.
Beinart’s article can leave the impression that Booker has been led (perhaps unawares) into a cloistered environment where propagandists for settler Zionism shape and even mind his thoughts. A recent posting on the Facebook page of J-Street North New Jersey with a link to a recent piece on Booker from The Jewish Daily Forward similarly asks: “Should people be concerned that most of Booker's interaction with the Jewish community is through conservative organizations?”
In fact, Eliezer is a completely independent Jewish organization, and Booker came to the Society with his own strong ideas. He also brought enormous social skills, apparent even before he ran for his first Councilman’s office, and was friends with all kinds of people. There is no reason to believe that Booker has not derived his own conclusions about Israel and, for example, about a two-state solution for which he is on record. Though certainly romantic on the subject, Booker has been neither corralled nor bamboozled. He is nobody’s dupe and is a responsible agent.
Though Hecht and I discuss—in fact, frequently debate—Israel, it would be presumptuous of me to explain or defend his positions, and moreover insulting to Eliezer, which by our design is a table of independent opinions. Rabbi Hecht does indeed posses unique power and influence at Eliezer, over matters of Jewish law. On occasions where we hold services, they are in the Orthodox fashion under his leadership, though members come to Shabbat dinner form all manner of prayer services, and from none at all. Beyond this, members select each other and we run Eliezer the way I imagine Peter Beinart edits Open Zion: Within moral parameters, members and guests are welcome to express and defend their ideas. Within the same parameters we do not enforce political litmus tests.
My own feelings on Israel are known among members: I dream of a secular and democratic state of all its citizens, and reject all nationalism, including the varieties that developed among my African American and Jewish forebears for understandable (and often good) reasons. I further believe that non-Zionist alternatives for the security of Jews in an often hostile and changing world are a legitimate part of the secular and religious Jewish legacy and must not be marginalized. I am not naive at all to the threats to Israeli life, nor to the situation of religious minorities all over the Middle East. Judaism is native to the Middle East (as is the heritage of a plurality of Israelis now) and Jews have the right to live safely in that as any part of the world. These facts and fears acknowledged, my ideal for a just state is not so different from the vision of equality that Ali Abunimah offers in his book, One Country.
What might be hard for Beinart and others with a conventional left understanding of diversity is how a Chabad-born and trained rabbi can genuinely be the advisor to a diverse society of independently minded men and women. Hecht could have opted to build a conventional Chabad House and install himself as the sole authority. Instead, he shared his dream with a Baptist and three rather secular academics, all of whom revere Judaism as a civilization, but none of whom have adopted Hecht’s or any other brand of orthodoxy.
I believe that, while never compromising his beliefs, Hecht’s Chabad-developed tolerance has allowed him to grow an organization from an Ivy League student club to a Jewish institution with a global and multifaceted network of truly diverse interests and connections.
To praise Chabad as simply a resource for Jews when in need of a good meal or stiff drink is to underestimate the movement and the power of its late leader the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision and ability to compel his followers to devoted action among people who are so different from them in belief.
With Rabbi Hecht’s complete and confident partnership I have invited guests across the political spectrum to share their beliefs, including on Israel. None have been asked to check their beliefs at the door, only to bring good arguments and be willing to share (and defend) them at an opinionated table of members. No one is vetted in the manner that Beinart seems to think Booker should when dealing with Hecht and Boteach.
Phil Weiss, co-editor of the website Mondoweiss, came to our brownstone twice, the first time for Shabbat dinner, where he spoke about his activities, which have been highly critical of Israel. Weiss recalls leading a “dynamic, vibrant and painful conversation.” Hecht invited Phil back a second time, to a Passover Seder where Weiss was seated at the same table as Justice Richard Goldstone, author of the Goldstone Report on Gaza (and a later editorial modifying his conclusions) and Emergency Committee for Israel’s Noah Pollak, a divergent three to say the least.
Simply sitting shevet achim gam yachad, together as brothers and sisters, will not solve the problems in Israel nor guarantee the rights and safety for all of the people living under its direct and indirect sovereignty. In a world of tight factions and bundled platforms, however, sharing a truly diverse table is a good start, and I would urge Beinart to be slightly more hopeful than suspicious of the Booker-Hecht friendship, because it is based in brotherly love and in the context of diversity of thought and culture that I know he especially admires.