Reporter's notebook

Yair Netanyahu tells Boteach in NYC his father saves Jews ‘from annihilation’

As PM’s son sits in conversation with ‘America’s Rabbi’ Shmuley Boteach, a few protesters break a vow of silence given at the door. Both sides seem to enjoy the ensuing fight

Yair Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son, speaks with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Nov. 6, 2019 in New York City. (Ben Sales / JTA)
Yair Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son, speaks with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Nov. 6, 2019 in New York City. (Ben Sales / JTA)

NEW YORK — I’m always up for a night of theater. Wednesday night, not far from Lincoln Center, I sat in a Manhattan townhouse to hear a conversation between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Yair Netanyahu, the vociferous son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There will be no protests or demonstrations!” the rabbi said before the chat began, so naturally there were protests and demonstrations. This gave Boteach, who was shocked — shocked! — that such a thing should happen, the chance to shout and speechify far louder and longer than the protestors did. His social media aide tweeted short videos of this before the event was even over.

Boteach, whom I have chatted with before about movies, is a very charismatic and sharp fella. I genuinely like listening to him speak, even when I disagree. His website claims that he is “America’s Rabbi” and his bio reminds readers that he was, at one time, a spiritual leader to Michael Jackson. Should we credit him for not obscuring past truths, or is this just an incredibly tone-deaf boast? It’s impossible to know.

Yair Netanyahu, a tall, light-haired and handsome 28-year-old man, is the prime minister’s eldest son, and a heavy hitter on Twitter and Facebook. Even Wikipedia has his occupation listed as “social media.” Netanyahu made it abundantly clear he feels his use of social networks wasn’t a choice, but a necessity. After a lifetime of watching his father fall victim to, as he put it, “a vicious, vile, lynch media,” he now feels he has an opportunity to speak directly to journalists “about their lies.”

He said that almost all of Israel is united behind his father, but a very, very small group controls “100 percent of the media” in Israel and “they are all vicious.” It has been “lies and slander for 30 years.”

I got the distinct impression that he didn’t much like Israeli news outlets. But just in case anyone might have missed the point, he continued.

“A small group from the radical fringes — not even the left — have control of the mainstream media,” Netanyahu said, adding that “there is no fair media in Israel, and only on social media could the silent majority have a voice.”

With that off Netanyahu’s chest, Boteach took an opportunity to profess his intense love of the prime minister.

Netanyahu claimed his father took Israel from a “primitive” socialist economy (“with no exports except for oranges”) and made it an economic powerhouse, and said most Israelis recognize this. “Economic strength is diplomatic strength,” he said, because “no one wants to be friends with someone weak.”

He exulted in his father’s landmark visit to Oman, as well as close relationships with US President Donald Trump, India’s Narenda Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Netanyahu said his father never gets more than five hours of sleep a night, and that being prime minister isn’t a job, but a “mission to protect the Jewish people from annihilation.” It was here, about 35 minutes in, while talking about Turkey’s recent violent action against the Kurds, that the first of several interruptions took place.

I need to back up and say that Boteach knew that a representative of the feminist anti-military group Code Pink was at the event. Everyone who checked in had to show ID. Also, the event was held in the headquarters of Boteach’s World Values Network, an advocacy group whose mission is to “disseminate universal Jewish values in politics, culture, and media, making the Jewish people a light unto the nations.”

At Boteach headquarters, there are over 12 framed full-page ads the organization has placed in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about various causes, not all of them Jewish. There are painted portraits of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (even an embroidered blanket with his image!) and a painted portrait of Boteach himself.

This office, though, is also where Boteach has family Shabbat dinners when he is in town, and I get the impression the guy keeps a toothbrush there too. Which is to say: It’s his house, his rules. He even took Code Pink’s Ariel Gold (who recently traveled to Iran) aside prior to the discussion and said “I don’t want any interruptions during the talk.”

I confirmed this with Gold after the fact (more on this in a bit), but I have to go with my gut here: The rabbi knew an interruption was inevitable so he leaned into it. His opening remarks essentially laid a trap. He began by saying he was an American and loved free speech, and that was why he was hosting Yair Netanyahu. Despite this love of free speech there would be no question-and-answer session at the end of the chat. He also said that by agreeing to sit in the room, you were agreeing not to interrupt, and if you do interrupt you have proven yourself to be a liar.

Personally, I feel like that last bit of language is a bit of overkill. I took no oath, I signed no paper. I’m not one to normally interrupt, but I’ve been known to lightly heckle at events that I’m not covering for professional purposes. Would I then be a liar if I gave the speakers a little zetz from the cheap seats?

But when the interruptions came, Rabbi Boteach effectively flipped out, getting red in the face and shouting “You lie through your teeth!” and that the interruptors “trample on free speech!” He called their actions a shame against protest, and even called them anti-Semitic.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, right, and Yair Netanyahu, far left, in New York, November 6, 2019. (Twitter screenshot)

That last one was a bit of a doozy. In addition to the woman from Code Pink, another lone person and two young men who described themselves as unaffiliated Jews against white nationalism protested before and after Gold was led out by police. They were all escorted out, as well. One of the young men began by saying that three of his four grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but I was unable to hear the rest of what he said thanks to boos (a man in front of me wore a Trump 2020 yarmulke).

Boteach, in his post-interruption rant, called the demonstrations “absolutely vile” and “pure anti-Semitism” (you can see that at the end of this video here).

Jimmy Schneider, age 23, was one of the two “unaffiliated Jews” who felt the need to get up and say something.

“Rabbi Shmuley is a supporter of Donald Trump and there is no reason to give Yair Netanyahu a stage,” Schneider told me later in the evening. “Yair is not some great intellect. He is a proponent of white nationalist ideals, and to suggest that he represents the future of young Jews is untrue.”

Schneider said that the police who escorted him from the building were courteous, but “one young woman did kinda claw me on the way out.” He also said that had the rabbi, knowing that protesters were there, allotted 10 minutes at the end of the event for questioning, he would have held his tongue until then.

When asked the same question, Gold said that she “couldn’t guess about what might have happened,” but when she heard “incitement and hatred and Islamophobia” that were “dangerous and against her Jewish values” she could not stay quiet.

“Shmuley may have been upset, but the whole world is upset. The Iranian people are upset,” she continued, saying that Boteach’s encouraging Trump to break off from the Iran deal is “preventing citizens in Iran to receive aid and cancer medication.”

Let her try that in Iran,” Yair Netanyahu said of Gold. Boteach went further, suggesting that interrupting people in Gaza would get her mowed down by machine guns. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, but by this point all the protesters were out of the room; I wasn’t sure who the rabbi was shouting at.

The chat continued for 40 more minutes after the spat. We learned that earlier Boteach had put Caitlin Jenner on the phone with the younger Netanyahu for a brief chat, that the prime minister and his son really only get a chance to talk during Shabbat dinners, and that Israel can thank Benjamin Netanyahu for giving it “the best economy since the time of King Solomon,” according to his son.

When Netanyahu became cagey after being asked about one day running for office, Boteach saw fit to compare the Netanyahu family to the Kennedys. For this reporter, it was time to go home.

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