Cory Booker is home from Israel.
The New Jersey Democratic senator spent five days in Israel last month, part of a Middle East trip that included stops in Iraq and Jordan.
It was his second trip there this year. He went with a delegation of eight senators in January.
This trip started off with just him and his staff. In Israel he was joined by Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. “We were there to show our bipartisan support for Israel,” Mr. Booker said.
“Tim is really an impressive senator, one of the future stars of the Republican party,” Mr. Booker said.
The two senators are the only African Americans in the Senate. (In fact, they are the only two African Americans to have been elected to the Senate and serve at the same time.)
“The two of us are of African descent,” he said. That’s why he was so pleased; “we got to have a chance to meet with Ethiopian leaders to learn more about the community and the incredible heroic story of the Israeli Mossad and the Ethiopians themselves that led to the rescue.”
They met with Dr. Avraham Neguise, a Likud Knesset member who was born in Ethiopia and came to Israel in 1985, and with Mehereta Baruch-Ron, Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, who emigrated from Ethiopia when she was 10 years old. “The community is making tremendous strides,” Mr. Booker said.
They visited a jewelry company teaching jewelry making to “Ethiopian women — also a few men, but mostly women.
“If you know Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah — hierarchy of giving —that’s the highest level, training people for jobs,” Mr. Booker said. (It’s not surprising to hear Mr. Booker wax rabbinic; although he is a practicing Protestant he is well educated in Jewish texts and has many connections to the Jewish world.)
“We got a chance to go to one of the Ethiopian community centers, to just engage with some of the young people and hear more,” Mr. Booker continued. “I’m interested, especially as a former mayor” — of Newark, from 2006 to 2013 — “in how are you helping communities with that transition, from absolute poverty to being full-fledged Israeli citizens with a strong pathway to the middle class.
“It all was very enlightening.”
Mr. Booker said that as a member of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, he wanted to hear about Israel’s progress on water conservation, “how they’ve solved so many problems with their innovations, how their agricultural yields are higher than in other places. There’s a lot there to take back. There’s so much genius in their technology and innovations,” he said.
His meetings also dealt with security issues. “It was important to do a deep dive with experts, from former military experts to current leaders,” he said.
He met with former Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When he talked to Mr. Netanyahu, the fact they stood on opposite sides on the debate over the Iran deal — Mr. Netanyahu opposed it, Mr. Booker supported it — didn’t come up.
“We may have had differences there but that’s past us,” Mr. Booker said. “We’re both focused now on the implementation of the deal. We have to make sure implementation continues to be done with fierce oversight.”
The senator said he heard some vindication for his support of the agreement. “When I met with former military folks, I found some affirming comments from them that the immediate nuclear threat has been pushed back a decade more,” he said.
The Movement for Black Lives, the coalition of activist groups that includes Black Lives Matter, published an agenda that criticized Israel for genocide and advocated BDS. What does Mr. Booker make of it? “I’m not sure what the controversy is,” he said. “This is not the Black Lives Matter platform. This is an umbrella organization that has many organizations underneath it.
“Anyone who understands Black Lives Matter knows there is no central leadership making decisions. It’s a grassroots movement with no leaders. It’s a movement focused on the U.S. and the criminal justice system.
“Our first concern is knowing those facts on the urgent issues facing African American citizens in particular. But all of us are invested in a criminal justice system that’s fair.”
Making the system fair, he said, requires undoing the damage caused by the war on drugs, which led to a massive increase in America’s prison population, and a disproportionate number of arrests of African Americans.
Because of the war on drugs, he said, “we have places like Florida, where one out of every five black people can’t vote” because they are felons.
That racial difference in the application of the criminal justice system, he said, “is so contrary to Jewish values. The most energizing thing about Black Lives Matter is its talking about how we can bring about justice.”
The question of Israel in the platform “is a distraction from an urgency that is not a black urgency but an American urgency, the same way Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner spilled their blood together,” he said.