Last Thursday, Cory Booker, New Jersey’s junior Democratic senator who had maintained a Hamlet-like state of indecision, at least in public, on his eventual vote on the Iran deal, declared himself.
He would vote for it, he said.
The next day, he invited New Jersey Jewish leaders to a meeting in Newark set for Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. He asked Adam Szubin, who (coincidentally) grew up in Teaneck and is now the undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes at the Department of the Treasury, to help him explain why he decided as he did.
Mr. Booker also posted a long essay on his website explaining his decision.
That did not placate his would-be guests, who included Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, who heads the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division; Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, the founder and head of the lobbying organization Norpac; and Laura Fein, the New Jersey region director of the Zionist Organization of America.
Strikingly, the guest list did not include his longtime, mutually acknowledged best friend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood, who has been vocal first about his fervent hope that his friend reject the deal, and then in his disappointment, despite his enduring friendship, at Mr. Booker’s decision.
Two of the local invitees, Dr. Chouake and Ms. Fein, decided not to go to the meeting.
Given the level of detail in Mr. Booker’s posted explanation, and because “I think it’s gathering Jewish leaders together to give an explanation for the vote, I don’t think that it is a proper message for the Jewish community to do this at this point,” Dr. Chouake said. “The senator has decided to cast his vote in favor of an agreement that is bad for America’s security and contrary to the wishes of his constituents.
“The right message from us would be to take a step back, let him rethink this, and maybe make the right decision.
“I disagree with the senator’s decision, and I don’t feel comfortable being part of a leadership meeting explaining it or lobbying for it.
“The agreement is what the agreement is. You can twist the definition of things only so much. It will bring us closer to war — the only option to stop a breakout is the military option. This will enable the worst country on earth to become more wealthy, more powerful, more aggressive, and it won’t stop it from getting nuclear weapons.
“Senator Booker knows our position. He made a decision, people are very upset, and I don’t see this is the time or place for this kind of forum. It is important for the community to show that they are upset with the senator’s decision. As good a relationship as we have had with him, this affects the relationship and our confidence in his decision.
“Frankly, I think it is a morally challenged decision,” Dr. Chouake continued. “Look at some of the people who are opposing it. Ben Cardin” — Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat, represents Maryland — “there’s a guy who says that we have to intervene in Syria because it’s simple, they are using chemical weapons on their own people, it’s a moral imperative. Everyone else was running away from it, and he said that it was a moral imperative.
“Then you’ve got a guy like Menendez,” — New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, another Democrat — “who is going to face prosecution” on corruption charges, “and Chuck Schumer” — New York’s senior senator — “who is willing to risk his position as the leader of the Senate” — he’s in line to become the next Democratic minority leader. You know what? That’s courage. It’s conviction. I had hoped that more people would stand up and say, regardless of anything else, that the agreement is bad and we shouldn’t support it.
“When you think about Cory Booker, you think about someone who is very charismatic, brilliant, athletic, gifted, good looking, a natural leader — one of his greatest strengths has always been his moral clarity.
“I think he dropped the ball on this one.”
Ms. Fein’s reaction to Mr. Booker’s decision was blistering. “Senator Booker’s shameful decision to support a deal that furthers Iran’s nuclear and terror ambitions while he acknowledges the risks it poses to Americans and our ally Israel is a catastrophic mistake and a complete betrayal of all he purported to stand for,” she said. “His chutzpah in attempting to sanitize his craven choice by reaching out to Jewish leaders just hours after he sold out has further angered all who once thought him a leader of principle. Only a reversal of his decision could restore any shred of credibility.”
Given the strength of her reaction — which was seconded by the ZOA’s national leadership — she saw no point in going to the meeting.
Rabbi Genack did go to the meeting.
“I had what to say and I wanted to say it,” he said. “I wanted to express for myself and the community our position, our disappointment” in the senator’s decision to support the Iran deal, and “why we think that’s a disastrous approach.”
The senator “said he knows he has lost a lot of credibility within our community and that he’ll have to work hard to get it back,” Rabbi Genack said.
About 15 people were there.
Rabbi Genack described Mr. Szubin from the Treasury, who described how continued oversight on sanctions would work, as “very bright. He’s frum.” Nonetheless, Rabbi Genack was not swayed by Mr. Szubin’s presentation.
Rabbi Genack said he’s known Mr. Booker for 20 years — and that he was among those who advised the senator to come out against the deal before he reached his decision.
“Cory Booker himself, in his statement, eviscerates the deal and said it’s a terrible deal. Given that he thought it’s a terrible deal, I would have thought he would have voted against it,” Rabbi Genack said.
“We know from history that when people say they mean to do us ill,” Rabbi Genack said, referring to the Iranians, “they mean to do us ill.”
The Iran deal, he said, “came about because there was never a military option that was serious. It was never credible. America, with its economic power and military power, should have led the world to put the sanction regime back.”
On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union was scheduled to rally in Washington with the Rabbinic Council of America — which represents Orthodox rabbis — against the deal.
Rabbi Genack explained that the rally was important even though the Iran vote appeared a foregone conclusion. “This decision and this deal is an inflection point in history,” he said. “History doesn’t end with this. The challenge we have now will be more difficult in terms of containing Iran.
“The rally is both to lobby against the deal, for people to understand the historic negative consequences of the deal, and to look toward the future.” The group will work with AIPAC to meet with members of Congress.
Rabbi Genack is a long-time Democrat. “I’m also disappointed that Secretary Clinton supported the deal,” he said.
But he said the deal reflects the policy beliefs of President Obama — beliefs that were debated during the 2008 Democratic primaries.
“We came to the wrong conclusion because the president has a flawed perspective,” he said. “When Clinton ran against Obama, one of the big issues was about how we deal with Iran. Senator Obama said we should be talking with Iranian leaders. She said the president of the United States should not be talking with them. I was told that David Axelrod” — one of the president’s former top advisers — “told Obama he should walk the statement back, but Obama said no, that’s my policy.
“You saw there the genesis for this policy” of the nuclear deal, “and this appeasement. You saw it in his speech in Cairo when he talked about having a new relationship with Iran,” Rabbi Genack said.
Perhaps the most explosive reaction to the meeting came from Rabbi Boteach, whose long friendship with Mr. Booker — a friendship that he insists is not at risk, despite Mr. Booker’s decision — makes his stakes in the issue inextricably personal as well as political.
Still, he said, his options were starkly limited; in fact, only one was possible. “One cannot play politics with the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people,” he said. “This vote on the Iran deal is the pivotal issue of our time. We in the Jewish community can give no sanctuary to elected officials who chose Iran and terror funding over Israel’s security.
“People are well aware of my quarter-century friendship with Cory — it transcends friendship, he is part of my family — but in the face of a promised second Holocaust I was never going to be silent, and it was unrealistic for Cory to expect my silence.”
He did not expect to be invited to this meeting, he continued, but he thinks those invitees who chose to go are making a big mistake, trading access for integrity.
“Those Jewish leaders in New Jersey who grant Cory their silence in return for access are not Cory’s true friends,” he said. “They have abrogated their responsibility as Jewish leaders. Powerful leaders always attract sycophants, but they never benefit from the counsel of sycophants.
“It was shocking that Cory planned this meeting, so soon after he announced his vote. It allows him to demonstrate that there has been no damage to his standing in the Jewish community. Those Jewish leaders who chose to attend this meeting, to listen to Adam Szubin’s sales pitch — he is the administration’s Jewish salesman for the deal — are undermining the strong message of opposition to the catastrophic deal that must be presented to our elected officials.
“In particular, I have made it clear to the Orthodox Union in general, and to Rabbi Genack in particular, that they are inadvertently greasing the wheels for Cory’s choice to embrace the deal.”
Rabbi Boteach detoured from his main message to talk about Rabbi Genack. “He’s one of my dearest friends,” Rabbi Boteach said. “I go to him for halachic opinions. And I introduced him to Cory about a decade ago, in my house, on Shabbat, and I brought them together multiple times thereafter, in the hope that they would become friends.”
Now, he believes, the Orthodox Union is falling into a trap. “They organized a conference call two weeks before the vote, so Cory could explain his position.
“That call should have had one purpose — the Jewish community should have voiced their outrage that he was even considering voting for the deal. And now Rabbi Genack is helping to orchestrate this meeting to minimize the damage to Cory’s standing in the community. Really, Rabbi Genack and the OU should be putting Israel’s security first.”
Was Rabbi Boteach really saying that a principled decision to vote for the arms deal, or to think that it would be correct to vote for it, is not possible? “No, of course I understand that people genuinely disagree with me, and of course this is a democracy. It would be one thing if it I were a political figure who said there is a deal, and I agree with it.
“But Cory’s statement destroys the deal. It demolishes it. When he said he would vote for it, the speech he gave was the best speech against it that any politician in the country ever has given. Republicans have been quoting it as the best statement against the deal.
“Cory said that the deal shouldn’t have been negotiated. He said that it was awful. He said that it is certain that Iran will cheat. He said that Iran will have another $150 billion to use to kill people. He said that Iran seeks to annihilate both Israel and the United States — and only Cory has said that.
“And then, after giving the best argument against the deal that I have ever heard, he shockingly said yes, I will vote for it. Until that moment I thought that there was a real possibility that he would vote against it.
“Reasonable people can disagree, but Cory now has staked his career on this deal, and he is the one who made the best argument against it.”
Rabbi Boteach said that his friendship with Mr. Booker is so strong that it will persist, even though it has taken some hits and will need some time to recover. “It will endure,” he said. “Our love always will endure. I will always be close to Cory.
“He understands that too. If he is upset with me, he will get over it. Our public campaign put our relationship on the line, but I think I am doing him an enormous favor, because this will be a stain on his senatorial record forever. The community’s relationship with Cory will heal, but we can’t minimize the gravity of his decision.
“The Jewish leaders who still say we love you no matter what, you’re still taking our phone calls, are doing him an enormous disservice by saying that conviction doesn’t matter.
“I think that the Orthodox Union is out of its depth. It has a constituency probably 95 percent against the deal. It is against their interest to help organize this meeting and not take a strong public stance against Cory’s choice. Even if he wouldn’t return their calls for a while, it is their job to show courage, to let the community come before their own personal interest,” Rabbi Boteach said.