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It’s very hard to be a proud Jew here

One of the world's most contoversial rabbis reveals why Britain must fight back

    It’s tough for UK students, claims Shmuley Boteach
    It’s tough for UK students, claims Shmuley Boteach

    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 the man 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 wear yamulkes. I was railing against this through the 2000s, that how is it 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."

    Boteach made a name for himself during an 11-year stint as the Chabad rabbi at Oxford University where he launched the L'Chaim Society, a debating society that saw hundreds of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, sign up to hear some of the high-profile speakers he managed to book, Stephen Hawking and Benjamin Netanyahu among them.

    He remembers: "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 airs on Canadian cable TV network, Vision TV, will see Boteach 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 a spat 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 Huffington 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 Boteach's comments, "are coming from a place of misunderstanding".

    But this is nothing unusual for Boteach, who has courted controversy on numerous occasions. In 2015, his PR company, World Values Network, took 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 high-profile speakers he secured at the L'Chaim Society, as well as student members who went on to 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 per cent 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 mid-interview 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.

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