One of the world’s most con­tro­ver­sial rab­bis re­veals why Bri­tain must fight back

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - NAOMI FIRSHT

IT IS slightly un­nerv­ing when be­gin­ning an in­ter­view to have the in­ter­vie­wee at­tempt to re­verse the sit­u­a­tion by suggest­ing it would be more in­ter­est­ing if he asked you ques­tions in­stead. Per­haps I should have ac­cepted the of­fer from self-styled “Amer­ica’s Rabbi” Sh­mu­ley Boteach. It would at least have meant I got a word in edge­ways.

While he looks your typ­i­cal rabbi —som­bre suit, slightly ro­tund and an ap­pro­pri­ately bushy beard—this me­dia-savvy 49-year-old is a force to be reck­oned with. Speak­ing to them an who was one of Michael Jackson’s un­of­fi­cial spir­i­tual ad­vis­ers is less like hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion and more like be­ing steam­rollered into hear­ing a lec­ture on which­ever topic is most trou­bling him at the time.

And, at the top of Boteach’s cur­rent agenda, is the anti-Is­rael sen­ti­ment flour­ish­ing across the UK and on its cam­puses. He claims the prob­lem is much worse here .“On US cam­puses there is a BDS prob­lem, and oc­ca­sion­ally Is­raeli speak­ers be­ing shouted down, but that’ s an anom­aly. In­tim­i­da­tion of Jewish stu­dents on cam­pus is not yet very pro­nounced.

“We don’ t have what you have here on Bri­tish cam­puses, a real spirit of in­tim­i­da­tion against Jewish stu­dents, Jewish stu­dents afraid to weary a mu lkes. I was rail­ing against this through the 2000s, that howi sit that no-one is stand­ing up for the Jewish stu­dents on cam­pus who just feel this air of in­tim­i­da­tion? The fact that they should feel un­safe is un­ac­cept­able.”

Bot each made a name for him­self dur­ing an 11- year stint as the Cha bad rabbi at Ox­ford Univer­sity where he launched the L’Chaim So­ci­ety, a de bat­ing so­ci­ety that saw hun­dreds of stu­dents, Jewish and non-Jewish, signup to hear some of the high-pro­file speak­ers he man­aged to book, Stephen Hawk­ing and Ben­jamin Net any ahu among them.

Here mem­bers :“When I was the rabbi of stu­dents at Ox­ford and set up the L’Chaim So­ci­ety, I said to my­self I have two ob­jec­tives: one is spread­ing univer­sal Jewish val­ues among stu­dents, two is to be a home for the Jewish stu­dents. But when I ar­rived I quickly made my pri­or­ity de­fend­ing Is­rael be­cause I just couldn’ t be­lieve how bad the as­sault on Is­rael was at Ox­ford. And that was in 1988-1999, it’ s got­ten so much worse since .”

Boteach, who now di­vides his time be­tween New York and New Jer­sey, has up­held ties with the UK, and es­pe­cially Ox­ford, where he says he “be­came a man”. He ar­rived there aged 22 and newly mar­ried to wife Deb­bie; six of their nine chil­dren were born there. “It’s where I really found my­self in terms of Jewish ac­tivism and phi­los­o­phy of life,” he adds.

In those Ox­ford days, he was known for his good re­la­tion­ships with the stu­dents, of­ten act­ing as coun­sel­lor for their per­sonal prob­lems. Since mov­ing back to Amer­ica he has trans­lated this into com­mer­cial suc­cess dis­pens­ing ad­vice as a guest on the Oprah Win­frey Show and even host­ing his own TV show called

Shalom in the Home, where he of­fered ad­vice to cou­ples and fam­i­lies.

A new pro­gramme, the rather ego­tis­ti­cally-ti­tled Divine In­ter­ven­tion, which air son Cana­dian ca­ble TV net­work, Vi­sion TV, will see Bot each of­fer ad­vice to peo­ple go­ing through ma­jor life chal­lenges. His ad­vice may not al­ways be wel­come—as ev­i­denced not long af­ter our in­ter­view, when he gets into asp at with mem­bers of the Jewish so­ci­ety at King’ s Col­lege Lon­don af­ter giv­ing an im­promptu talk on how to ad­vo­cate for Is­rael. A ques­tion from a stu­dent was halted by the JSOC pres­i­dent who prefers to dis­cuss Is­rael in KCL’s sep­a­rate Is­rael so­ci­ety.

Fol­low­ing the al­ter­ca­tion, Boteach penned a scathing blog in the Huff

ing ton Post ac­cus­ing Jewish stu­dents of be­ing too “cowed” and “afraid” to dis­cuss Is­rael. But a Lon­don stu­dent in a Times

of Is­rael blog post sug­gested that Bot each’ s com­ments ,“are com­ing from a place of mis­un­der­stand­ing”.

But this is noth­ing un­usual for Bot each, who has courted con­tro­versy on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions. In 2015, his PR com­pany, World Val­ues Net­work, took

How is it that no one is stand­ing up for Jewish stu­dents on a UK cam­pus?

We have much wis­dom to share with the world

out a full-page ad in the New York Times at­tack­ing US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Susan Rice, which pro­voked wide­spread crit­i­cism. But, al­though he did later apol­o­gise, he seems to rel­ish the con­flict. I was alerted to his visit to the UK through a mis­lead­ing press release from his UK team claim­ing there was con­cern the rabbi would be banned from speak­ing in the run-up to his Ox­ford Union de­bate.

Yet, when I checked to see if any com­plaints had been raised, I was told there weren’t any.

While Boteach is now mostly con­cerned with de­fend­ing Is­rael, when I meet him he is due to take part in a de­bate about mar­riage. “I be­lieve the state should have noth­ing to do with mar­riage. I be­lieve in civil unions for all and mar­riage for none. I’m a great be­liever in the sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State. What is the gov­ern­ment do­ing recog­nis­ing a mar­riage by any clergy? The gov­ern­ment should not have any reg­u­la­tion over our spir­i­tual lives,” he says.

With­out paus­ing for breath he segues into talk­ing about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, a topic he had to deal with early on, when his brother, also a prac­tic­ing Ortho­dox Jew came out dur­ing Sh­mu­ley’s teen years.

Boteach is clear on the fact that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is pro­hib­ited in the To­rah, but says it is not “im­moral” and en­cour­ages openly gay Jews who come to him for ad­vice to in­stead fo­cus on the other Jewish laws. “You’re left with 611, that will keep you pretty busy,” he quips. It is a refreshing ap­proach for an Ortho­dox rabbi, and per­haps part of the rea­son for his mass ap­peal.

He is a pro­lific writer, pro­duc­ing two col­umns a week for var­i­ous out­lets and has penned more than 30 books, many about re­la­tion­ships. His lat­est, Kosher Lust, pro­vok­ingly ar­gues that lust and not love is the most im­por­tant fac­tor in a mar­riage.

Sh­mu­ley Boteach is evan­gel­i­cal about Ju­daism and its val­ues set­ting an ex­am­ple to oth­ers, and strongly be­lieves that pro­mot­ing them will help bring more peo­ple round to the Is­rael cause.

“We have a lot of wis­dom to share with the world”, he says. A World Val­ues Net­work cam­paign sought to pro­mote Fri­day night as a fam­ily night for all Amer­i­cans based on the val­ues of Shab­bat.

He is a vo­cif­er­ous name-drop­per, con­stantly talk­ing about the high­pro­file speak­ers he se­cured at the L’Chaim So­ci­ety, as well as stu­dent mem­bers who went onto be­come suc­cess­ful politi­cians such as Ron Der­mer, who is now Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to the US.

Pub­lic re­la­tions is clearly his forte —and is also the means by which he in­tends to win the me­dia war against

Is­rael. The World Val­ues Net­work was set up to “dis­sem­i­nate univer­sal Jewish val­ues and de­fend the state of Is­rael” and reg­u­larly takes out ads in the New York Times.

Boteach him­self is fre­quently on pan­els de­bat­ing Is­rael and the fol­low­ing week was fly­ing to Is­rael to ar­gue with Amer­i­can Jewish au­thor Peter Beinart. “No one knows pre­cisely why this tsunami of Is­rael-ha­tred has erupted. But that has noth­ing to do with my re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate. I have to mas­ter proper com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic re­la­tions, and really com­mu­ni­cat­ing Is­rael’s mes­sage, and not throw­ing in the towel be­liev­ing that I can’t im­pact on that,” he says.

I ask if this is the main pur­pose of his trips to the UK, but he says his fo­cus is still on the United States be­cause of its “global in­flu­ence”. He says it is harder to fight for Is­rael in the UK be­cause there is much less wide­spread sup­port for Is­rael among the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion. A 2015 poll showed around 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans hold favourable views to­wards Is­rael, and Boteach claims the op­po­site is true for the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion.

Does he think Bri­tish Jewry is giv­ing up on de­fend­ing Is­rael? “I think Bri­tish Jews are coura­geous fight­ers for Is­rael, up against phe­nom­e­nal odds,” he says. “It is much harder to be a proud Jew in the UK than in the United States. I don’t think they’ve given up at all. I think they have de­cided they may never be ef­fec­tive in their ac­tivism, so are fight­ing in a rear­guard ac­tion that’s hold­ing back this tsunami from grow­ing, but don’t think they will ever win peo­ple over fully. I dis­agree with that.”

He be­lieves, how­ever, that the UK is in­te­gral to the bat­tle for Is­rael in Europe. “Too many Jews have given up on Europe. And the UK is the apex of Is­rael dis­cus­sion in Europe. There is so much ob­ses­sion with Is­rael in the UK and it re­flects a Euro­pean ob­ses­sion. That grants us a phe­nom­e­nal op­por­tu­nity to get on the air­waves and de­scribe what is really hap­pen­ing rather than al­low­ing peo­ple to ab­sorb this char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion of Is­rael in­dis­crim­i­nately. I don’t want to write off Europe.”

While Sh­mu­ley Boteach has been seen as a self-pub­li­cist, his pas­sion for Is­rael is un­de­ni­able.

A news alert on his phone mid­in­ter­view in­form­ing him of a stab­bing of an Is­raeli sol­dier causes him to pause mid-tirade. He looks gen­uinely trou­bled, telling me one of his sons is in the IDF.

Through­out his al­most con­stant mono­logue, the only time I see him at a loss is when he talks about lib­eral stu­dents to­day and their pref­er­ence for sid­ing with “death cults” like Hamas and the "bar­barous" Ira­nian regime. It is the only time he ap­pears not to have all the an­swers. “The world has gone mad,” he says.


It’s tough

for UK stu­dents,

claims Sh­mu­ley Boteach

Shoul­der rub­ber: Sh­mu­ley Boteach has been close to many fa­mous faces, in­clud­ing Michael Jackson

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