I called Booker last week to ask him about this issue. He wasn’t at all defensive, and he seemed disinclined to distance himself from his Hasidic friends, although he was careful to endorse President Obama’s vision of Middle East peace, which has little support in conservative Jewish circles.
He and Boteach, he said, are particularly close. Their relationship began at Oxford University, when Booker was studying as a Rhodes scholar and Boteach was in charge of a Chabad-sponsored Jewish organization. Boteach eventually asked Booker to serve as the head of the L’Chaim Society. (That appointment, in fact, was partly why Chabad later censured Boteach, who would soon cut his formal ties to the movement.)
After celebrating a Jewish holiday with Boteach, “the next day two friends were castigating me for hanging out with the Lubavitchers,” Booker said. “I decided to go back to Shmuley and tell him what they were saying. This led to a three-hour conversation and a deep friendship. You know, Alex Haley once told the story of how a conservatively dressed white businessman came up to Malcolm X and said that he disagreed with him but respected his style, and Malcolm X gets really close to the guy and says, ‘You know something? You can search the world two times over and you’ll never find two people who agree on everything.’ Shmuley and I have sat at Shabbat tables for two decades now, disagreeing.”
Boteach opposes a Palestinian state. When I asked Booker about this, he said, “One of the best speeches I’ve ever seen given about Israel was President Obama’s most recent speech, which he wisely gave to students, and in which he really articulated the sort of core Democratic Party understanding about Israel — the need for a two-state solution, a need not just for peace but for a penetrating peace for all people of the region, in a conflict that is just hurting everybody.”
There is no evidence — zero, none — that Booker is outside the mainstream of Democratic Party or Jewish community thinking on the Middle East. There is also no evidence to suggest that Booker’s relationship with Jews and their faith is insincere. He does so much more than the minimum required of non-Jewish politicians to build trust with Jews that his preoccupation could be motivated only by honest interest.
The Senate lost a Jewish member when Lautenberg died, but if Booker replaces him, he will undoubtedly find a place in the Senate minyan. He’ll be an unusual member of this prayer quorum, and not only because he’s a black Christian. I’ve met most of the Senate’s other Jews, and I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that Booker knows more Torah than they do.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.