Caught between loyalties, all eyes are on New Jersey senator as nuclear vote nears

From left: Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Booker, who remains publicly undecided on the Iran nuclear deal, is under immense pressure as the deadline for Congress to vote on a resolution of disapproval nears. Photo courtesy of Sen. Cory Booker, flickr
Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who remains publicly undecided on the Iran nuclear deal, is under immense pressure as the deadline for Congress to vote on a resolution of disapproval nears.
Photo courtesy of Sen. Cory Booker, flickr

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) finds himself in the unenviable position of being caught between his president and his friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

As a rising star in the Democratic Party, Booker is likely being counted on by President Barack Obama to ensure that his promised presidential veto of a resolution rejecting the Iran nuclear deal is sustained in the Senate. Meanwhile, Booker has been the focus of digital, print and broadcast advertisements urging the New Jersey senator to reject the deal.

Booker has close ties to Obama and stands with the president on most issues, but he is also a friend to Jewish leaders — he’s known for giving an impressive d’var — who stand adamantly opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, Boteach most vocal among them.

Boteach has repeatedly called out his longtime friend in opinion pieces, writing in The Observer, “a Senator who has enjoyed one of the warmest relationships with the Jewish community of any elected official in American history would never betray the Jewish community.”

Most recently, Boteach stood with other Jewish leaders at the Chabad House at Rutgers University as New Jersey’s Republican governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie declared his opposition to the Iran deal and called on Booker to do the same.
“For Sen. Booker this morning, the people of your state, the people of this country and the people of the world are counting on you to be a strong, direct and powerful moral voice,” said Christie. He told Booker to “look our president in the eye and say, ‘No Mr. President. Not this time.’”

New Jersey’s other senator, Bob Menendez, and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York are the only two Senate Democrats to come out against the deal.

Typically, the junior senator follows the lead of the senior senator if they’re of the same party, explained Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group and former foreign policy adviser to the late Frank Lautenberg, whose Senate seat Booker now occupies; however, with this vote, senators are striking out on their own, as was demonstrated in New York when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came out for the deal just before Schumer came out opposed.

Booker’s constituents include a large number of Jews, Muslims and others who are passionate about the Middle East, Rubin noted.

“The pressure is on the senators to come out now rather than at the last minute,” said Rubin. “Sen. Booker is going to have to feel confident enough in his position to be able to explain it to everyone, and if he’s not, then he should take more time.”
The “soul friends,” as Boteach has often called them, met more than two decades ago when the two met at Oxford University where Boteach served as a Chabad emissary and Booker attended as a Rhodes Scholar. Booker eventually became president of the school’s L’Chaim Society and continued a close relationship with the rabbi, even spending one summer living with Boteach and his family.

Despite the public and private pressure — though he wouldn’t go into specifics, Boteach said the two had talked about Iran “going back to the beginnings of the [nuclear] discussions” — Boteach doesn’t seem concerned about the state of their friendship. He noted that he and Booker’s shared personal hero, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “brought about the second American revolution. He didn’t do so just by private conversation and private phone calls.”

“It’s not an impact on our friendship. We’re soul friends. There’s a deep love,” said Boteach, who after leaving Oxford became a celebrity rabbi, authoring several popular books and hosting television shows, as well as a pro-Israel advocate and one-time Republican congressional candidate. “This is about policy. It’s not personal.”

He continued, “My job is to stand up for my people, and Cory understands that.”

Booker, for his part, is keeping a tight lid publicly on how he will vote.

“Senator Booker will make his decision on the Iran deal based upon what he believes is best for America’s national security regardless of political pressure, lobbying, or theatrics,” his press secretary, Silvia Alvarez, said in an email. “The Senator’s decision will be derived from thorough and thoughtful analysis of all the facts, evidence and information as well as from consultation with a wide and diverse array of experts.”

Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on the deal.

“I don’t believe for a second that he’ll vote for this deal,” said Boteach. “I know Cory will stand up against Iran.”

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