Rabbi’s wrong-headed error

Rabbi’s wrong-headed error

Column for the Jewish News December 3 2015

I spent quite a lot of time some years ago following the vapour trail of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was then the Chabad rabbi at Oxford.

Boteach spent 11 years all in all in Oxford, so one could scarcely accuse him of being unfamiliar with how things work in the UK. But all good things come to an end and soon the pint-sized rabbi went back to his native America, where in latter years he seems to have reinvented himself as a hard-right answer to lawyer Alan Dershowitz; equally combative and feisty on behalf of Israel, although perhaps not with the legal finesse employed by Professor Dershowitz.

Quite often the rabbi – who spends an inordinate time on social media detailing his quotidian adventures – comes back to Britain, often to make an appearance at the Oxford Union or to debate.

Last week he was in the UK and after an appearance on Russia Today (RT) – on which most self-respecting people will not make an appearance without a very long spoon – the rabbi was able to make a variety of claims about the direction of the British media towards Israel, many of which apply only to RT and not to any respectable outlet.

But be that as it may. My concern is with a run-in that Rabbi Boteach appears to have had with the Jewish students of King’s College, London, after which he made some thoroughly reprehensible and outrageous allegations about the way in which the students are conducting themselves – and which, if true, would be a scandal. But I do not believe the allegations are true.

Here’s what Rabbi Boteach had to say about his experience with the King’s College Jewish Society: “What finally shook much of my confidence in British Jewry was my experience where I was invited to address the Jewish Society at King’s. In the course of the discussion, I focused my remarks on Israeli democracy and the blessing it can be to the innocent Arab citizens of Israel’s autocratic Arab neighbours… As I spoke, I could see my hosts growing restless and the discomfiture on their faces surprised me. I was in for a bigger shock, however, when my hosts essentially stopped me in the middle of my remarks…

“When I asked for an explanation, I was told by the president of the organisation, a young man wearing a yarmulke, that the Jewish Society has a policy against speaking about Israel. The group, he said, was non-political and focused on “Jewish subjects.”

“I was dumbfounded. Was Israel not a Jewish subject? It was as if Israel had become the Voldemort of nations, the country that dare not be named”.

Here’s what actually happened, as told to me by a former president of King’s Jewish Society, who is himself as right-wing as the rabbi.

He was not invited to address JSoc. A JSoc member discovered he was next door and asked him to come to the JSoc regular weekly kosher lunch to mingle and schmooze with the students. They don’t often have a speaker, not least because it’s their only break between lectures and because people tend to wander in and out. It’s also one of the few opportunities for many of the King’s students to have a hot kosher meal. So Rabbi B went to King’s, did not introduce himself to JSoc’s president or honorary officers, and stood up and spoke. And spoke and spoke and spoke. It was, says my informant, “a real ‘them or us’ speech. And people were very uncomfortable”.

In an effort to get Rabbi Boteach to stop speaking, the president, naively, said that they didn’t discuss Israel at JSoc events. Which is demonstrably not the case as both the JSoc and the Israel Society at King’s bravely put Israel’s position out there on a regular basis. The president subsequently apologised to Rabbi Boteach for having stopped him speaking, but the damage was done.

Unable to imagine that some people might not want to listen to him, the rabbi first posted on his own website, and then on the Jerusalem Post, his own self-serving account, in which he makes the scandalous allegation that British Jewish students are not allowing discussion of Israel’s case on campus, because they are “afraid” of some nebulous response.

It would be bad enough if the rabbi made such a claim while he were still in the UK. But to say such a damaging thing from the smug safety of New York is irresponsible to the highest degree.

He’s been hawking this version of events around the Israeli media and – sooner or later – the suggestion that British Jewish students respond to Israel as the love that dare not say its name on campus will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The lesson – if people care to draw one – is be careful whom you invite to lunch.

  • 3 December, 2015