(Jewish Insider Original Interview) Fresh off a recent CODEL visit to the Middle East with stops in Israel, Iraq and Jordan, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) checked in with us by phone this week to provide a rundown of his trip. "It was one of the more comprehensive visits I’ve had, even though I was just there in January, and to be able to spend close to a week in Israel was incredibly helpful," Booker told us.
JI: You are a social media pro and we noticed you didn’t have any posts from Israel. Why was that? And, since we believe in second chances, if you could post a single Snap or Instagram from your visit, what would it be?
Booker:(Laughter)The reality is that I didn’t post at all on this trip through the Middle East. I decided to go dark for the first time in a while. For about 10 days I didn’t post anything or access my accounts at all. Some of it was security issues as well as just giving it a rest for a while and really absorbing as much as I could in my role on the trip. When you’re on a CODEL, it’s a marathon, round the clock, nonstop, no sleep.
There were so many profound moments in Israel that I would have wanted to post. One of the more moving meetings I had was with Ethiopian Jewish leaders that was just incredible. I visited the Ethiopian National Project, which was created by the government to fully integrate Ethiopian Jews into Israel's society. They’re still facing a lot of challenges with poverty, unemployment but the Ethiopian National Project is really doing an extraordinary job in empowering the Ethiopian community to be successful. So to meet with young people and others—that was just a really a very moving moment for me, that I probably would have tweeted or snapped about. I did take a lot of selfies with the young people there so I imagine it might have popped up on some of their social media.
JI: You went to Israel with Tim Scott, a Republican Senator from South Carolina. Is that a testament to Israel remaining a bi-partisan issue in Congress?
Booker: I think he and I both, not only as a bipartisan pair, but this is the first time in American history that two popularly elected African-Americans have been serving at the same time in the US Senate. One of the reasons why we really wanted to connect with the Ethiopian community, as two Americans of African descent serving in the Senate, was to make an important connection with them and be able to discuss issues of race and culture as well. Sen. Scott and I are friends first and foremost. Number two, we definitely wanted to show the bipartisan support for Israel as well as do things that we thought would be unique for the only two African-Americans in the Senate, including getting a chance to meet with diverse communities.
JI: In recent weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement had some harsh things to say about Israel in their platform, including referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “genocide” —and in the process alienating some in the pro-Israel community would are otherwise sympathetic to many of the issues the movement cares about. You know both of these communities. Is there anything you will do to bridge the gaps?
Booker: First of all, from what I read and I only read one article about it, it’s not the Black Lives Matter’s platform, it was the platform of an umbrella organization that has a number of left organizations as a part of it. Number two, if you understand the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s no central leadership of the movement. This is an organic, grassroots movement all around our country. The first thing we should be concerned about the BLM movement should be the issues that the BLM movement is bringing forward. There’s no fundamental platform being brought by activists in Oakland, Baltimore or New Jersey. The main issues that you see, the commonality between activists all around the country, are trying to deal with the challenges in the criminal justice system, something that is very much central to my work. So my hope is that people stay focused on the urgency to create justice here at home.
JI: We wanted to ask if you have a favorite Torah portion or verse—we’ve heard you speak about Mount Nebo in the past...
Booker: I don’t want to pick one. If you talk to me numerous times, there are different ones that really do resonate with me that I think about.
JI: Any specific ones during your trip?
Booker: One from the trip that I seem to be coming back to time and time again is how obviously this is the month of Av and Tisha B’Av is truly a tragic day, the destruction of the temple and I was thinking about that while I was over there during the month of Av. Most people don’t know that the first Tisha B’Av was when Moses sent 12 scouts into the promised land to see what was going on. Ten of them came back and—the Torah is really powerful because it doesn't just say they were huge giants who saw the spies as grasshoppers but rather—they reported that “we see ourselves as grasshoppers in their eyes” so that kept the people back out for another 40 years because of that. Two of the spies were exceptions though, Caleb and Joshua. I was thinking about these two who understood, who had such a powerful faithfulness in God who liberated us from Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought us through the desert, I can keep going with “Dayenu’s” if you’d like. (Laughter) But now we’re here and we have this courage born from faith and we believe that no matter how big they are, we can do this.
To me, it’s a metaphor for a lot of the challenges in the Middle East right now, where there’s incredible suffering and grief going on. I met with a lot of NGOs that work both with Palestinians and Israelis and—I’ll never forget this one woman in a group of mothers of murdered children—in a group of Israeli as well as Palestinian mothers—and how she spoke powerfully about still having the courage to believe and have hope that there could be peace and that in fact through their grief and their pain they can be agents of that peace. That hopefulness and faithfulness to me spoke of a faithfulness of Caleb and Joshua that no matter how big the problems are, no matter how “Giant” they may seem, we still have the courage to believe we can press forward with peace and security and that this could be the reality for the promised land.
JI: You are known to be the “biggest Democratic recipient of pro-Israel donations.” Last summer, there was a strong disagreement with some over the Iran nuclear deal. How are relations with the pro-Israel community today?
Booker: Again, my decision stems from a fierce allegiance to Israel as well as to the security of the United States of America. It was affirming to me to meet security experts over there, former military commanders who fought in wars, who confided in me that the nuclear threat has been removed for the near future and how much that is freeing up resources and energy to focus on the common threat of terrorism in the region. I found a lot of folks over there, security and military experts, who were affirming to the decision I made and how beneficial it is. So again, for me the looming threat was an Iranian nuclear attack and we’ve removed that for the foreseeable short term and we’re focusing on what we need to focus on, which is Israel’s immediate security and the strong partnership between the United States and Israel. For that, those conversations I have with pro-Israel people in Israel and the US, and in my meeting with PM Netanyahu, everyone believes whether they supported the deal or not that we now must look forward and continuously strengthen the bonds between Israel and the United States.
JI: This next question stems from an article in the Jerusalem Post during your visit, which said you were spotted at Shmuley Boteach’s daughter’s wedding last week in Jerusalem—and implying that you’ve made up with him after the fallout over the Iran deal. Were you at the wedding and have you made up with Shmuley?
Booker: I was told they printed a correction. I was visiting Israel on taxpayer dime and so I wasn’t attending any personal functions whatsoever and I was told that they printed a correction.
JI: We’ll have to ask them about their online edition.