Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood does not avoid controversy.
As readers of his column in this paper might have noticed, sometimes he creates it himself. But sometimes it finds him.
Piers Morgan, the English journalist, writer, and television personality, hosts a show, “Piers Morgan Uncensored,” that runs on Murdoch-owned stations in the U.K. and Australia. “It has emerged as one of the most-watched shows in the English world on Israel/Hamas,” Rabbi Boteach said. “His shows get 5, 10 million views every night.”
Recently, Mr. Morgan invited Rabbi Boteach to debate Cenk Uygur, a Turkish-American politician who has a program called “Young Turks.” “There were millions and millions of views of it,” Rabbi Boteach said. “It went viral.
“So when they asked me to debate Mohammed Hijab,” whom Wikipedia describes as “a British Muslim YouTuber, author, debater, and philosopher” with “over 800 thousand subscribers on his YouTube channel,” Rabbi Boteach said yes. He flew to London for the live, in-person show.
“I’m not sure why Piers Morgan wanted to give Hijab a platform,” he said. “Maybe he feared that he could be accused of favoring Israel, so they brought on a radical Islamist. Hijab had said that no Jew would debate him. He said that Jews would shake and shudder in
front of him.”
Instead, Rabbi Boteach said, “we have to show courage and fearlessness. We have to model it.”
So the shaking and shuddering didn’t happen. But the debate did devolve almost immediately into chaos.
At the start, Mr. Morgan said that it would be according to standard format, with each man being given a minute to answer a question he would pose to them. The minute’s end would be marked by a bell.
It didn’t work.
Mr. Hijab started yelling immediately. Rabbi Boteach yelled back. Mr. Morgan yelled too. Mr. Hijab addressed rhetorical questions to Mr. Morgan, and then did not allow him to answer them before he resumed
At one point, Rabbi Boteach compared the Israeli response to Hamas to the British response to the Nazis during World War II, and Israeli bombing of Gaza City to the British bombing of Dresden. Was Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had ordered the bombing, a war criminal, he asked. (All the questions were asked and answered over the background baying of whoever wasn’t talking.)
Rabbi Boteach had asked Mr. Uygur that question; no, the answer was. But now the answer was yes,
Churchill was a war criminal.
“From the first, I saw that Piers couldn’t lead the debate,” Rabbi Boteach said.
“And every time that Hijab was challenged, he’d change the subject. He wouldn’t let himself be pinned down. Instead, he’d talk about kosher sex and push the blood libel.
“I was interested in pinning him down, so that I could expose hm to the audience, even if I did get into shouting battles with him.
“It turned out that as you might expect, the debate went viral; seven or eight million people watched it, and about 30 million saw clips of it. it’s the talk of Great Britain. I can’t walk down the street without getting stopped.
“We taped it on Wednesday, and it aired the next day. And then, when it became clear by Friday morning just how poorly he had been received, he went nuclear.
“He put out these shocking, horrible, vile, depraved tweets, with pictures of my two sons in the IDF in body bags, praying that God forbid they’d die. First my son Mendy, and then my son Yosef.
“At the end of the debate, Piers Morgan asked us, ‘What did you accomplish in this debate?’ He said, ‘You didn’t convince anyone.’ But I did two things. I showed the community where I lived for 11 years” — from 1988 to 1999, he was a rabbi at Oxford, first sent by the Lubavitcher rebbe and then independently forming the Oxford L’Chaim Society — “that we shudder and shiver before none but God.
“And I exposed the wafer-thin civility that his man has. He is Isis. He is Hamas. His being rehabilitated,
his being on mainstream TV shows — that’ll never
“I just interviewed Elon Musk, so I have a direct line for him. I asked him to suspend Hijab’s account, or at least to censor him.” (Not surprisingly, Rabbi Boteach has not heard back from Mr. Musk.)
“I am meeting with an attorney about how we can stop the threats, and how to bring them to the attention of the Metropolitan Police” — that’s Scotland Yard — “and the hate task force.
“It turns out that he’s a really bad guy,” Rabbi Boteach continued. “He spoke about how the Koran would allow sex with a 5-year-old girl.” (Rabbi Boteach kept asking Mr. Hijab about that during the debate, but the shouted question never got a response, shouted or otherwise.) Mr. Hijab also kept coming back to the title of one of Rabbi Boteach’s many books, “Kosher Sex”; he seems to find the existence of that book, and that phrase, particularly objectionable.
The debate ended as it began, in acrimony.
“Hijab wouldn’t shake my hand at the end of the debate,” Rabbi Boteach said.
“And look at what he’s doing. He’s trying to make it dangerous for me to come back to Great Britain. And he went to the Jewish community and intimidated people. Survivors. What’s shocking is how people like him can operate with impunity.”
The effect of Hamas’ attack on Israel and the war in Gaza that followed is striking in Great Britain, Rabbi Boteach said. “You will not see one yarmulka in the street. Private schools are taking religious insignia off uniforms. The Jews have gone completely underground.”
The situation is particularly toxic because “Islamists don’t look at Jews as human.”
Rabbi Boteach said that at the debate, given that he wanted to represent Jews in a way other than Mr. Hijab wanted, “I had three choices. Which should I do?
“The first would have been to say no,” he said. “Then he’d mock me. He’d call me a coward.
“Choice number two. Do the debate, but be very
dignified. That way, you walk away with your dignity — but you lose the debate.
“Choice number 3 is you stand up to him, even though it might turn into a brawl. Tell him that he has to defend his lies. That’s what I did. I feel that particularly right now, we in the Jewish community have to engage in confrontation, not run from it.
“The Islamists are trying to intimidate us. They cover their faces. They burn things down. They are trying to scare us.”