Attacking Obama on Israel but seeking Arab votes, Shmuley Boteach fights an uphill battle in New Jersey
US elections

Attacking Obama on Israel but seeking Arab votes, Shmuley Boteach fights an uphill battle in New Jersey

The ‘Kosher Sex’ rabbi, 'an unconventional Republican' who takes shots at his own party's 'obsession' with gay marriage, challenges a 30-year Democratic streak

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Republican nominee for New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District (and a regular contributor to The Times of Israel), wants to run a different sort of campaign.

In an open letter published in June, Boteach assured his opponent in the Congressional race, Democratic incumbent Bill Pascrell, that he won’t “repeat the earlier error made by some members of our community in labeling you an ‘enemy’ of Israel.” Two sentences later, he again repudiates “the myth, started in the Democratic primary, that you are a foe of Israel” — an assertion he promises to avoid making.

Pascrell voted for US aid to Israel, Boteach explains.

But while he vows twice in a single paragraph that he won’t call Pascrell an “enemy,” he can’t help but note that “other actions with which you have been associated… are extremely troubling to the pro-Israel community. Most notably, you signed the infamous Gaza 54 letter, condemning Israel for ‘collective punishment’ against Palestinians in the Gaza blockade.”

That double-feint argumentative style, staking out the centrist position even as he campaigns as an ardent Republican, agreeing with his challenger and then driving home the critique from another direction, isn’t just a rhetorical device for Boteach. It is the essence of his campaign, and maybe of his effusive charisma.

He attacks President Barack Obama’s policy toward Israel mercilessly, but seeks his district’s Arab vote. He campaigns for school vouchers and wants to weaken the “draconian, extreme” interpretation of the separation of church and state, but thinks gay marriage is a “distraction” for the Republicans that helps them avoid facing the real affliction facing America’s families — widespread divorce.

An Orthodox rabbi and father of nine, a bestselling author and social critic, a savvy publicist and minor television personality all rolled into one, Boteach’s campaign is defined by his capacity to inhabit multiple worlds.

‘Yerushalayim is the heart and soul of the Jewish people’

“President Obama has been an utterly unreliable steward of the Israel-America relationship,” Boteach begins.

On Iran: “The Obama administration’s policy on Iran is sanctions, sanctions, sanctions. And it’s not working. The IAEA says enrichment is continuing. You only have to look at North Korea, where they decided that the only thing that will keep the regime in power was nuclear weapons, and they starved their people to get nuclear weapons. We’re already seeing it in Iran.”

On security cooperation with Israel: “The Obama administration has leaked so much damaging information, secret classified information about Israel’s plans [to strike Iran’s nuclear program], it’s almost like they’re making it impossible for Israel to strike if they’re forced to strike. That is absurd.”

Even on the president’s diplomatic efforts: “When [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon went to the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran, Obama should have said, ‘If you go, we’re pulling our funding from the UN.’ Is the UN charter meaningless? The US taxpayer is paying 25% of the funding of the UN and Ban is going to Tehran. I recommend putting a $25-million bounty on [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad’s head, to show that Arab lives matter. Also, Romney said as president he would seek an indictment against [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide. The head of the Central Command has asked for a third aircraft carrier in the Gulf to send a message to the Iranians. Obama could have done all of that. None of those are military options. None would have meant boots on the ground.”

And the Democratic Party is no better than its incumbent candidate when it comes to Israel, he says. “Jerusalem was omitted from the Democratic Party platform as the capital of Israel, and half the Democratic Party screamed ‘no’ [in the floor vote to have it put in]. That was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that. Yerushalayim” — he often uses the Hebrew name for Jerusalem during the conversation — “is the heart and soul of the Jewish people.”

But, The Times of Israel asks, Israeli leaders seem to have found common ground with Obama on Iran, and even on the Palestinian question.

Obama changed, he charges, and not of his own volition. “During the first two years [of Obama’s term] there was nonstop pressure on Israel. But then he got shellacked. The Democrats lost one of the safest Democratic seats in the country, Anthony Wiener’s seat [in Queens, New York] to Republican Bob Turner, because Jews in Queens got sick of Obama’s pressure on Israel. So Obama had to stop [pressuring Israel]. Obama’s policies on Israel are completely different now than in 2010.”

An uphill battle

Boteach has the unenviable challenge of defeating a Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic district. New Jersey’s 9 Congressional District, before the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, was won handily by the last three Democratic presidential candidates by an average margin of 23 points. It hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress in 30 years.

“Look, everybody knows this is a Democratic district,” Boteach acknowledges. “Republicans have lost during the past 30 years by about 35-40 percentage points. So if we imagine I started 40 points down like everybody else, we polled a month ago and were within 12 points among likely voters. We think we’re much closer than that now.”

Victory seems unlikely, but not impossible. And Boteach has managed to convince some wealthy donors the seat is worth challenging, including Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and the conservative Patriot Prosperity Super PAC, which will likely spend some $1 million on his campaign by Election Day.

Yet even with outside financial support, he faces an uphill battle that he attributes to “the power of incumbency.”

“Do you know how many [House] seats change sides every two years? On average, fifteen out of 435.”

He draws an analogy of himself, as David, compared to Pascrell’s Goliath. “Congressmen can send mail to their constituents — at the taxpayers’ expense — talking about their record.” Unlike Pascrell, “who has contributors who have supported him for 16 years, I’m a start-up. It’s hard to fund-raise when you’re challenging an incumbent.”

Pascrell leads Boteach in fundraising by as much as 5:1, though it’s hard to determine how much outside money is influencing the race on each side.

‘Why I Am a Republican’

For Boteach, victory will only come because he is an unconventional Republican, willing to cross party lines. He is not afraid to criticize fellow Republicans, such as when he attacks what he calls the party’s “obsession” with gay marriage.

“I don’t understand some in the Republican Party who think railing against gay marriage is a way of fixing heterosexual marriage,” he says. “Obsessing about gay marriage is not going to fix the real problem of American families: the high divorce rate among heterosexuals. If every gay man or woman in America moved to Canada, you know what the divorce rate would be in America? Still 50 percent. It’s a distraction.”

In the end, he’s a Republican for three reasons, two of them related to foreign policy. He prefers what he calls the party’s uncompromising support for Israel.

He also supports the Republican Party’s “freedom agenda” that “holds dictators responsible for slaughtering their citizens.” President Obama, he says, “has little freedom agenda to speak of. This is a guy who hugged Hugo Chavez. This is a guy who curtsied to the king of Saudi Arabia. This is a guy who did not lead in Libya, but followed Britain and France.”

And third, Boteach believes in small government. “I believe that there’s an adversely proportionate relationship between the size of government and the size of the individual. I’m a big believer in individual empowerment, in the Jewish values of freedom of choice and human dignity, and I think it’s not fair to rob us of our human dignity by building a society that impedes human potential.”

It’s a surprising lecture for a rabbi, when traditional Jewish views seem to support centralized assistance to the sick and poor. What does he feel is the government’s responsibility to care for human suffering and illness? What does he think about Obamacare, which Romney has vowed to repeal?

Once again, his reply marks a shift to the political center.

“We all, Republicans and Democrats, have to take care of those who are struggling, the elderly, the needy. We have to be a charitable society. But we also have to give people dignity. The average person who pulls out a food-stamp card would much rather pull out an American Express card. We Jews pray every morning, ‘God please make sure I do not get my livelihood through someone else’s hands. Give me my dignity.’”

Obamacare, he says, “has good aspects, like keeping kids [on their parents’ insurance] until age 26, and [guaranteeing insurance companies will] accept preexisting conditions.” His opposition to Obamacare isn’t out of principle, but out of a critique of the technicalities. “The problem with Obama’s health-care plan is that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; it doesn’t make things cheaper.”

Canvassing for the Arab vote

His pro-Israel rhetoric matches that of much of the Republican Party — until it doesn’t. While he slams the Democrats over Israel and speaks proudly of his daughter’s service in the IDF, Boteach pivots to a discussion of the Arab American vote in Patterson, which he believes will go to him by as much as 40% on November 6.

“Our polls show that in the Arab American community we have 40% support. There are three reasons for that: First, I am one of the foremost voices in this country against the brutalization of Arabs. I even suggested the US recall its ambassador to Moscow. Moscow and Beijing are blocking action on Syria. We should show we care about Arab lives.”

He supports some form of intervention in Syria’s civil war — “without boots on the ground” — and was “the guy who fought against [ousted Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi [buying a house] in my neighborhood.

“No. 2: I meet the Arab community constantly, and I say to them, ‘Look, we’re not going to agree about Israel, but we can agree about everything else — jobs, the economy.’ The Arabs here are very hard working. They’re small-business owners. They want the government to leave them alone. They don’t want to pay most of their money in tax. They don’t want to be restrained by government regulation. They’re entrepreneurs.”

And finally, “I support school vouchers. Arabs want their children to have an Islamic education in Islamic schools the way Jews want to have their children in Hebrew day schools getting a Jewish education. And it’s becoming an impossibility here in America, because we have this draconian, extreme interpretation of the separation of church and state that doesn’t even allow the secular departments of religious schools to get funding. I mean, no one’s asking the US government to fund Talmud, Rashi and Chumash. But why shouldn’t the federal government be funding geometry, American history and mathematics in parochial schools?” Federal education subsidies, he notes, come from “the parents’ money.”

He speaks a great deal about school vouchers, and believes it is a cause driving some Jews into the Republican fold.

“School vouchers are hugely important to the Jewish community. We are one of the only religions that don’t actively proselytize. We are entirely dependent on our birthrate.” So when Jewish families “want to send their kids to Jewish day schools, but can’t afford high property taxes and high tuition fees, the net result is they have fewer children. We’re seeing this even in the Orthodox community, which normally has a high birth rate.”

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