He describes himself as “America’s rabbi.” Shmuley Boteach, is everywhere, it seems, and in the Jewish world, at least, he’s often front and centre. He’s the author of 30 books on subjects ranging from sex and relationship advice for Jewish couples (Kosher Sex and Kosher Lust), to Jesus (Kosher Jesus). He’s been touted as a spiritual adviser to celebrities, including the late pop singer Michael Jackson, and starred in a short-lived reality TV show, Shalom in the Home. In 2012, he ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress as a Republican, losing to the incumbent by 73 to 25 per cent.
Last spring, he touched off a firestorm when his organization placed a full-page ad in the New York Times saying U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice had “a blind spot” for the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and, potentially, the Jewish People at the hands of a nuclear Iran. Major Jewish groups strongly condemned the ad, and Rabbi Boteach apologized to Rice, and said his disagreement with her was “strictly over policy.”
Rabbi Boteach will appear in Toronto July 15 at Beth Torah Congregation for a talk presented by StandWithUs Canada, an arm of an international organization dedicated to educating about Israel and countering misinformation that often surrounds the Middle East conflict. He will address the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel that is gaining steam on university campuses and how young people can respond.
You have worn many hats: sex and relationship expert, celebrity spiritual adviser, reality TV star, would-be politician, and Middle East pundit. Who is the real Shmuley Boteach?
I think I’ve only been one thing. I’ve been a rabbi, and there are different dimensions to that title. A rabbi’s a counsellor. A rabbi is a promoter of values. A rabbi is a defender of the Jewish state. All of it emanates from my commitment to Judaism, the Jewish People and what Judaism represents: universal values. So the real Shmuley Boteach is simply a Jewish man who believes in his people and in his people being a light unto the nations.
You’ll be in Toronto to talk about the BDS campaign against Israel and how it affects our children. Give us a nutshell version of how it does that.
The sole intention of the BDS movement is the economic destruction of the State of Israel. It has nothing to do with opposition to an occupation, because if it did, it would be boycotting the Apple iPhone, which is manufactured in China, which has been occupying Tibet since 1951. If it was about occupation, BDS would be boycotting Turkish coffee, because of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus since 1974. It’s not about Palestinian rights, because if it was, it would be boycotting Lebanon for the real apartheid they practise, in law, that doesn’t allow Palestinians to have top professions. It would be boycotting Kuwait for expelling 250,000 Palestinians. It’s about the destruction of the State of Israel.
Its net effect on our students is to create an environment of hostility and intimidation where Jewish students feel compromised, where their friends and colleagues are slowly turning against Israel and the feeling that standing up for Israel will push them outside the mainstream. It erodes Jewish pride and identity, let alone the impact on the State of Israel should the BDS movement spread and should the thus-far symbolic votes of boycott become university policy to actually divest from companies that do business with Israel.
Describe effective ways in which young people can be equipped to counter BDS and other forms of on-campus anti-Zionism.
There are many ways. First of all, we believe in peak visibility on campuses: giant pro-Israel events that draw hundreds and thousands to enlarge the pro-Israel footprint. No. 2, we believe in respectful but effective counter-demonstrations against the BDS movements. When they set up an Israeli Apartheid Week at NYU here in New York City, we did an Israel Pride Week that easily outdrew the number of people on the other side right across from their demonstration, effectively nullifying the significance of Israeli Apartheid Week.
Recently, U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson announced a counter-BDS campaign called Campus Maccabees, which seeks to raise $50 million. Does it really take that much money to oppose BDS?
It’s not my money. It’s not for me to say how he should spend his money. I’m not a philanthropist. I’m an activist. I can only comment on whether or not I believe that countering BDS ought to be a priority for our community. It absolutely is a priority. When you want to destroy a nation, you first destroy its name. If you demonize them, then you get the world to hate them. You make them into a pariah state. If Israel becomes a pariah, people won’t visit, do business, won’t sell Israel much-needed arms to defend Jewish life from wholesale slaughter. Economic sanctions would be levied. So it’s definitely a priority.
In an interview with Tablet magazine last year, you were quoted as saying “The main reason I’m on TV is because I want to be a celebrity.” The quote was from an earlier USA Today article. Your detractors charge you with self-promotion and say it is unseemly to be a celebrity rabbi. What’s your response?
There isn’t a word in that Tablet article which is true. I question every single quote. It was a hit job. That’s easy to see. So I’m not going to comment on that.
I do what I do to promote a Jewish message. I’ve been consistent. If I wanted to be on TV, I could be for any number of things, as can almost any American. So if I wanted to be on TV for TV’s sake, then I’d be eating bugs on Fear Factor. I’ve never veered from my core mission, which, as I said before, is to promote universal Jewish values, defend the State of Israel and make the Jewish People a light unto the nations.
I continue to do television. It’s always the same thing. I’m either doing a show to repair families, based on Jewish values. The family is the very fulcrum of Jewish life and of western civilization. I’m on TV either repairing families, defending Israel, which I do a lot; commenting on values issues, such as whether there should be a Confederate flag, which is a symbol of racism, rebellion and slavery, flying atop the South Carolina legislature. But to say I’m on TV for anything at all is patently untrue. If I wanted to be a celebrity, I’d be on for anything. But I turn down countless television opportunities that do not accord with my core message.
Some say U.S.-Israel relations are at their lowest point. Where do you see them and what could be done to repair them?
I wouldn’t say relations are at their lowest point. I’d say they’re strained. I think the Obama administration would like to see a Palestinian state very badly. And if that would solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I think a lot of people would go along with it. Many of us believe a Palestinian state is not going to resolve anything. Israel retreated from Gaza and all it got was 15,000 rockets. If you retreat from the West Bank, many of us believe we’re not going to see a Palestinian state established, but a Hamas state. And rockets would now be within a three- or four kilometre range from the Knesset and a 10-kilometre range from Ben-Gurion Airport.
The Palestinians have yet to demonstrate that they create viable states that live in peace and harmony with Israel. And no one has demonstrated that territorial compromise on Israel’s part has led to peace or stability. And that’s the essential nature of the strain between Israel and the U.S. The Obama administration still hopes that the Palestinians will moderate, that the Iranians will moderate, and yet we see no signs of that. Iran is supporting terrorism around the world and continues to threaten Israel with complete oblivion and annihilation.
I don’t question President Obama’s intentions. I believe he’s well-intentioned. I believe he’s a friend of Israel, that he loves the Jewish People. But I think he’s an idealist and believes that people can live together in harmony and peace. That’s a biblical idea. Unfortunately, the people that he is specifically speaking about have repeatedly let him down.
I don’t question that he’s a very good man. His secretary of the treasury is an Orthodox Jew. He makes a seder at the White House. No president has ever done that. There’s no reason to believe that he has any hostility to the Jewish People, and I have in my columns absolutely and utterly condemned anyone who has called him an anti-Semite. That is disgusting, reprehensible and an absolutely vile and untrue allegation.
I do believe that he’s putting a certain amount of faith in the Iranians and the Palestinians, which will directly jeopardize Israel’s existence. I absolutely believe President Obama is a friend of the Jewish People, that he loves the Jewish nation and that his policies are harming Israel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.