While serving as rabbi at Oxford University, I befriended a young African-American Rhodes scholar, Cory Booker. Because of Cory’s immense popularity within our student organization, the Oxford L’Chaim Society, he was voted in as co-president 199′, serving as leader of an organization of more than 4,000 student members.
Many in the Anglo-Jewish community were puzzled (to use a British understatement) by a non-Jew serving at the head of a major Jewish organization. They were wrong. Cory was simply the best man for the job. A deeply spiritual man of impeccable character, Cory, a Baptist, was the living personification of Judeo-Christian values. He had a deep love and reverence for God, humanity, and the Jewish people, and he possessed an almost unequaled ability to inspire goodness in others. Indeed, Cory’s presidency is remembered as a golden era for student life at Oxford, and today Cory, who is running to be mayor of Newark, is one of America’s most promising young politicians.
I thought of Cory as I watched Israel descending into the morass of yet another bitterly contested election. We who have prayed for a strong Israeli leader, firm in his or her conviction that the real road to peace in the Middle East rests not with Israeli concessions but with Arab political reform and democratization, are now handed a roster of the usual suspects. For the most part, the prime ministerial candidates are men who have already succumbed to international pressure to cede territory in return for what was supposed to be peace but has always increased Arab hostility toward the Jewish state.
Indeed, I have begun to despair of any Jewish prime minister being able to withstand the pressure for further concessions. Menachem Begin was the most nationalistic of all Israel’s prime ministers, but he handed over to Egypt land equivalent to three times Israel’s size and received an ice-cold peace, and decades of Egyptian anti-Semitism, in return. Ariel Sharon, the man whom many once viewed as the rock of Israeli security, abandoned Gaza and its brave Jewish residents and in return received a wave of Hamas-launched rockets so relentless that his government is now considering a ground invasion back into Gaza. Ehud Barak, once Israel’s most decorated soldier, was ready, at Camp David, to give to the abominable Yasser Arafat Judaism’s most sacred sites, and even Bibi Netanyahu, long Israel’s most eloquent defender, gave control of Hebron, Israel’s first capital and the city of the patriarchs, to a perfidious Palestinian Authority.
After 60 years of non-stop war, who would judge Israelis for becoming their own worst enemies? But even so, given this history of self-inflicted injury, does it really matter who is Israel’s next prime minister? The outcome is already a foregone conclusion. He will come under staggering international pressure to cede Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, and if history is a guide, he will buckle to that pressure.
Therefore I believe, strange as it may sound, that Israel could benefit from having a non-Jewish prime minister. One of the reasons that Cory Booker was such an effective president at Oxford was that he did not have so many of the hang-ups that we Jews sometimes possess: problems affirming our identity in a non-Jewish environment; insecurity about being Jewish, an outsider, and different; a desperate longing for mainstream acceptance, and a willingness to compromise one’s identity in order to obtain that acceptance. I would regularly encourage the committed Jewish students to invite their less-affiliated Jewish friends to Friday-night Shabbat dinners. Many, however, were reluctant to do so for fear of being stigmatized as being too Jewish, too parochial, a Jewish missionary. But Cory had no such hang-ups. He recruited his entire class of Jewish Rhodes scholars, and hundreds of students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, became regulars at our events. How ironic that one of the great builders of Jewish life at the world’s most famous university was a God-fearing non-Jew.
Israel needs that kind of leader, someone unafraid to assert that Israel is a righteous, moral, and democratic country that has little for which to apologize. All too many Israeli leaders have treated invitations to the White House, Downing Street, and the United Nations as the ultimate form of acceptance into some grand club from which Jews were previously excluded, and have therefore traded in their ideology to garner mainstream acceptance. Maybe it is time we had an Israeli leader who doesn’t begin with an outsider mentality.
Indeed, perhaps only a non-Jew could go to the United Nations and speak the truth about the shocking prejudice against the Jewish state in that increasingly immoral international body. Perhaps only a non-Jew could speak with credibility about the Jews’ right to their ancient, biblical homeland. Indeed, would the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promulgated by a non-Jewish lover of the Jewish people, have had the same credibility had it been the Rabinowitz Declaration?
Of all the people who are puzzled by Israel’s mysterious penchant for self-destruction, evangelical Christians are the most puzzled of all. Evangelicals were the most vocal opponents to the withdrawal from Gaza, wondering why Israel would voluntarily allow the creation of a Hamas terrorist launching pad on its borders. Indeed, Christian evangelicals take seriously not only the Jewish biblical claim to the Land of Israel, but the idea of Jewish chosenness as well, a concept that modern Jews find distasteful and unpalatable, even though chosenness conveyed a sense of spiritual mission rather than any kind of superiority.
So why not have a Christian Israeli prime minister who will proudly and publicly affirm the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old claim to its homeland. I, for one, would welcome any Israeli leader, of whatever birth or religious affiliation, who is immune to any sycophantic desire for international backslapping.