Long considered a close friend of Israel and a trusted ally of the Jewish community, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has come under fire for appearing in a photo holding a sign that read, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go,” earlier this month. Though Booker’s camp has since claimed he did not see what was written on the sign, leaders of the Jewish community are suddenly conflicted.
“I think people feel really betrayed,” Rabbi Eli Mischel of Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, N.J., told NJJN. “There’s a guy who was so close and was supported in such a significant way by not just the Jewish community but the Orthodox Jewish community. It feels as if he’s selling out our community in order to try to become president and to play to all the more extremist groups. [Booker is expected to be in the mix for the Democratic nomination for president, though none of the hopefuls has yet officially announced a presidential bid.] It’s painful. I think people are very, very hurt and upset.
“He certainly does not have my vote anymore,” he said.
Rabbi Mischel said his membership has a mix of Democrats and Republicans.
After the initial fallout from the photo, taken at the NetRoots Nation conference in New Orleans, the senator’s spokesperson, Jeff Giertz, tried to mitigate the damage, releasing a statement saying that Booker was in the midst of taking photos with several appointees just before addressing the conference and did not notice what was written on the sign.
“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,” Giertz said.
However, this explanation seemingly conflicts with the version of events according to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, whose members stood with the senator in the picture and later released a statement to The Intercept stating that, “It was in this overwhelmingly supportive environment at Netroots Nation that our contingent had the opportunity to meet Sen. Cory Booker briefly and discuss our work for freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people before posing for a photo with him.”
Widespread criticism from the Jewish community is unusual for Booker, a Democrat who, for most of his political career, voiced support for Israel and raised significant funding through the Jewish community. NorPAC, whose goal is to support candidates focused on Israel’s strength, security, and survival, is among his top contributors, having donated more than $158,000 to Booker’s campaigns between 2013 and 2018, according to opensecrets.org.
After the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights tweeted the photo of Booker, the Simon Wiesenthal Center released a statement on its website, writing that they “were shocked” to see Booker “holding a sign that equated the wall between the U.S. and Mexico to the barrier Israel constructed, which has successfully halted suicide bombers from wreaking more havoc on Israeli citizens.” Tacitly accepting Booker’s explanation, the statement continued, “We understand that the senator does not fully grasp what the sign said, but he is a leading American political figure who has been touted as a future President of our nation,” and requested that Booker provide further clarification. As of press time, Booker had not made additional comments regarding the photo.
Local rabbis are divided over whether they find Booker’s explanation for the photo credible, or whether he is taking Jewish support for granted in a bid to win over more liberal factions in his party.
Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston suggested that it would be easy to end up in the situation Giertz described in New Orleans, a national figure, having been deluged with requests for photographs, with just enough time to skim a sign haphazardly handed to him during the chaos.
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” said Rabbi Kulwin. “Many people are reading too much into this. If they want to criticize his positions, fine, they should read up on them see what he has said and written, and respond to that. But in this case, Sen. Booker just got caught up in a crazy scrum. Anyone who sees more than that wants to.”
Like Kulwin, N.J. Regional Director of AJC Rabbi David Levy, who was in touch with Booker’s staff soon after the photo appeared on social media, has concluded that the senator’s statement in response should be taken at face value. “As a result of our consultations with the Senator’s staff, we understand that Sen. Booker was unknowingly placed in a compromised situation while being overwhelmed with requests for photos,” Rabbi Levy said. “AJC is thankful for Sen. Booker’s reiteration of his deep support for Israel’s security.” Quoting from another portion of Giertz’s statement, Levy added that AJC appreciates that the response “reaffirmed [Booker’s] understanding that ‘…while active terrorist organizations threaten the safety of the people living in Israel, security barriers are unfortunate but necessary to protect human lives.’”
But Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom in Summit wasn’t buying it, and suggested that Booker gave in to constant pressure from more extreme groups in the Democratic Party that have become increasingly critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian cause in recent years. Rabbi Friedman took Booker’s actions as a signal that the Jewish community needs to exert more pressure on the former Newark mayor.
“I believe that Sen. Booker is constantly hearing from anti-Israel activists on the left,” he said. “I think that we as a community assume that once someone expresses support for Israel, our job is done. However, there are many other people out there trying to convince people like Sen. Booker to reconsider their positions.”
But Rabbi Friedman wasn’t willing to abandon Booker as a result of the photo, or other candidates and elected officials because they are perceived as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
“When a politician criticizes Israel, we write them off as opponents instead of engaging with them,” he said. “We have to be in constant communication with leaders from both major political parties. Our allies need to hear from us, and those who don’t yet ‘get’ Israel need to hear from us as well. The other side takes nothing for granted and neither should we.”
Added Rabbi Friedman, “Support for Israel used to be a non-partisan issue in this country. We need to figure out how to get back to that.”