Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex and the just-released Holocaust Holiday, sat down with Neokohn.hu to address the issues Jews face today — from poor public relations to the need for a stronger identity and to combat assimilation — as well as to discuss the reality of the brutal dictatorship ruling over Palestinians, the human family under God, and making marriages work.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, thank you very much for taking this interview. How are you?
I want to say hello to all my Jewish brothers and sisters in Hungary, a country I have visited many times, I really miss it. I was in Budapest not that long ago; wow, what a city, the history, and for our people, what a tragic history, which is really painful.
You wrote a book about it.
Yeah, my new book Holocaust Holiday is just being released, and the book is about how in the summer of 2017 I took my children on an almost Europe-wide trip to the main Holocaust sites, extermination sites.
We actually went to Budapest right after Slovakia; my wife’s family is from Slovakia, and the Jews of Slovakia were annihilated. Obviously, it was very moving for my wife especially, and my wife’s grandparents, they were spirited secretly to Budapest, where they survived the War, living openly as non-Jews. In order to cross the border, a guard, SS or one of the Nazi allies, took his sword or knife and stuck it into the hay, they were hidden by a non-Jewish farmer, and they survived. And of course, Budapest has so much other resonance for me as a Jew, the birthplace of Theodor Herzl.
You’re very vocal about Jewish causes, now about the war in Israel, but not just about your support of the Jewish state, but also about the media’s take on the issue, in particular, some of the celebrities that sided with the Palestinians based on wrong information; you even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. How do you see American Jewry’s attachment to the state of Israel, and in retrospect, going back a couple of years, do you see any trend toward more or less support for the Jewish state?
Well, let me first respectfully correct something.
These Hollywood supporters are not supporters of Palestinians, they’re supporters of Hamas, and there’s a very big difference.
Supporters of Palestinians would never support a terrorist organization that brutalizes Palestinians. Hamas is a bigger danger to the Palestinians than it even is to the Jewish State of Israel. The Palestinians living in Gaza suffer under Hamas’ brutal, autocratic rule every single day. There was a vote in 2006, and since then they’ve ruled without any kind of votes, they’ve destroyed democracy, they’ve destroyed representative government for the Palestinians. They’re a bloodthirsty death cult, they engage in honor killings of Palestinian girls whose only crime is to have a boyfriend, they slaughter gay Palestinian men and women; they’re disgusting, they’re killers.
Watch an excerpt of the interview:
People think they’re supporting the Palestinians; they’re actually supporting Hamas.
With regard to American Jewry and support for Israel, it is what it is. You can call it a searing indictment, you can call it a critique, but the deafening silence of so many American Jews for Israel when it is at war, and I’m glad you used the word war because what we saw in Gaza in the last two weeks was a war, a war between terrorists and a democracy. The mainstream Jewish organizations didn’t really even get behind any rallies for Israel. That’s pathetic. At a time when Israel needs to see public support, at a time Jews are getting beaten up in Times Square, Los Angeles and Toronto? Our Palestinian brothers and sisters are out there crushing Israel in public demonstrations all the time.
If they are crushing Israel, why would you call them our brothers and sisters?
Because I’m a religious Jew, and the Torah tells me that every human being is my brother under God, with the exception of terrorists who erase the image of God from their countenance. I’m hoping that my Palestinian brothers and sisters will actually see that Israel is as great a blessing to the Arabs as it is to the Jews. Because if Israel can live in a free and open, an economically prosperous society in the heart of the Middle East, then that means that Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, that all these countries will one day be the same, God willing. And so many of them are just brutal dictatorships. Iran is the most barbaric government on the face of the Earth, maybe North Korea along with them or Hezbollah with its control in Lebanon or, of course, Gaza with Hamas.
I want my Arab brothers and sisters to enjoy all the freedoms of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. So, the American Jewish organizations, they need to step up in the United States.
Jews need to stand up not just for the Jewish state of Israel but for American-style democracy. This isn’t just a Jewish question, this is an American question.
Antisemitism, as you mentioned, in the past weeks has shown its ugly face in the streets of New York, Los Angeles and many other cities in America. Do you foresee a better future for American Jewry?
American Jews are profoundly worried, concerned right now. That’s one of the reasons I’m honored to do your interview for the Hungarian Jewish community because I really care about European Jewry; I know how much they’ve suffered. I don’t just mean genocide, the Holocaust, I mean modern antisemitism. Having been the rabbi at Oxford University, I know what Western Europe can be like.
It’s really interesting, what the American Jewish community doesn’t realize, strangely enough, there’s often less antisemitism in the streets of Eastern Europe than Western Europe.
When Jews walk the streets in Poland, for example, where I go a great deal, they don’t have to worry about wearing a yarmuka (kippah). Hungary the same.
One sees these horrible events and these horrible trends. Yet, most American Jews don’t side with the Jewish community, don’t side with the state of Israel, and they vote the Squad into Congress. Do you see the responsibility of American Jewry in all this?
Well, there’s one of two ways to look at that. One is, let’s fault them and blame them. AOC (Alessandra Ocasio-Cortez), I guess the jury’s out; I’m not going to call her an antisemite, that’s not fair. But Rashida Tlaib is a dyed-in-the-wool antisemite, Ilhan Omar probably even more so. So we can either blame American Jews or, to be honest, the pro-Israel community can blame itself and say “How is it that we’ve done such a poor job in educating people about the centrality of a Jewish homeland, of democracy and freedom?”
I always say that Jews are really good at certain things; they are terrible at other things. We’re really good at education, philanthropy, communities, families. But we suck at public relations.
Which is funny, as we are always accused of owning the entire media and having control over communication.
Jews don’t understand that public relations is actually something deep; it’s not something shallow. Public relations is the ability to communicate a substantive message effectively and to inspire people with that message. And we in the Jewish community have forever failed at that. Even going back to ancient Biblical times, why is it that Christianity spread its message — essentially taken from the Jewish religion — to billions of people. We Jews have never grown past 14-15 million. Why is it that Islam, again, essentially extracting the message of the one God and the importance of divine law, a people, etc., why is it that they spread their message to billions of people, but we Jews can’t grow our message? We’ve never been good at it, and we’ve never been good at responding to antisemitic attacks. When Jews were accused of deicide, of killing Jesus, two thousand years ago, we couldn’t effectively respond because we thought, “That’s ludicrous, nobody’s going to believe it.”
We were accused of drinking the blood of Christian children, the blood libel, Again, we didn’t take it seriously because we thought no one would believe it. So now, when people look at me and they say, “No one’s going to believe Hamas’ word over Israel’s; Israel’s a democracy, Hamas is a terrorist organization. We don’t even have to respond, it’s self-evident.” And I say to them, well is it more self-evident than the Jews killing the Christian saviour.
Nevertheless one should try, no?
You have to accept that the world is willing to believe anything about the Jewish people unless we respond effectively. I’ve been engaged in major public relations battles, social media battles over the past few weeks with Israel’s haters. What they do is actually a very simply formula:
They take all the truth about Hamas, and they flip it and just say it about Israel.
Hamas kills innocent men, women and children? They say Israel kills innocent men, women and children. I guess to the average Westerner watching this stuff on the evening news, they don’t really understand who the different political parties are. So how have we failed to communicate that with Hamas, which has Hitlerian aspirations; their charter calls for genocidal annihilation of the Jewish people wherever they are to be found.
There was a very interesting research published in today’s Jerusalem Post, from Pew Research Center, which talked about the growing support for Chabad amongst Jews. It said there are more Jews under the age of 35 who are affiliated with Chabad than with the Reform and Conservative movements combined. So, on the one hand, there is this turning more toward traditional Judaism, and on the other hand, on the opposite side of the coin, you see Jews assimilating and a rise in assimilation. What do you think is the biggest challenge of American Jewry?
It depends on who you ask. If you ask Chabad, and I am proudly Chabad, they will say the biggest challenge isn’t even antisemitism or the attacks on Israel, it’s assimilation. There’s a lot of truth to that, but if you ask the average American Jew today or maybe European Jews or Israelis, they’d probably say that today the greatest challenge is antisemitism and hatred of Jewish people, which is like a tsunami going throughout the world. I would also say that the two are interconnected.
One of the reasons we’re not effectively combatting antisemitism is that we don’t have enough Jews with a strong enough identity to stand up proudly against it because their sense of peoplehood has been eroded through assimilation.
So, the two biggest challenges are assimilation and threats to our physical security.
In Israel you see genocidal threats, even now as we speak. There are three enemies surrounding Israel that would murder every Jew in this room if they had the opportunity and indeed every Jew in the world: to the West, Hamas; to the North, Hezbollah; and to the East, Iran.
So, assimilation and the threats of annihilation against Israel — those are the greatest threats we face today, and, of course, the rise of antisemitism.
Surfing onto calmer waters, your book, Kosher Sex, was great success in Hungary.
Yeah, I did know about that.
You frequently give lectures about intimacy and relationship issues. What triggered you to write this book and to make this one of your flagship topics?
Well, “Make love not war.” I wish we could talk much more about saving marriages, and increasing passion and intimacy between husbands and wives. I’m a child of divorce, which is what led me to write all these books to try to discover the secret to making marriage something happy so that people don’t divorce, so children aren’t raised like yo-yos between households. I didn’t enjoy that. My father passed away a year ago, and I miss him tremendously. I wish I could have grown up with my father in the house all the time, but my parents divorced; my mother raised us, and I saw my father a lot, but it’s not the same thing as being raised by two parents who you see loving each other.
So, that’s what got me into writing Kosher Sex and many other books on relationships. And my daughter Chana on the 20th anniversary of Kosher Sex two years ago launched this company called Kosher.sex. Anyone can go to it, it’s amazing.
She opened a store in Israel too, right?
She started a number of pop-up and permanent stores; the store in Israel is permanent. And she got world attention for it. I’d much rather talk about love and marriage than people who hate Jews and genocide, it’s just that there’s so much hatred toward our people. I’m kind of pulled back into this all the time. Kosher Sex is about to launch all these amazing products to help married couples, and just as we were about to launch, Israel goes to war in Gaza. I can’t be silent.
My involvement with Israel can be off-putting to many people who just want to hear me talk about relationships, but I can’t watch my people suffer. But talking about relationships, I’ve always been just really inspired to do my utmost to counsel married couples and help singles meet their soulmates. I’m a great believer in the institution of marriage. I wish I could talk about that all the time.
One of my biggest books has been Kosher Sex, which has been translated into some 20 languages.
Relating to one of your other books, Kosher Jesus, published not long ago, and regarding evangelical Christians’ declining support of the state of Israel. You’re also a vocal defender of the Judeo-Christian relationship. How do you see that playing out now, and how do you see its future? there a common enemy that unites Christians with Jews nowadays? A common enemy like radical Islam.
Israel may be closer today to some of the Gulf states, initially because of a common enemy like Iran, whether it’s UAE or Bahrain or Morocco (although not a Gulf state), which then becomes a real relationship because of economic ties. Also, Muslims and Jews have so many shared values between our two faiths; we have to get beyond the Islamist fanatical hatred of the Jewish people to what we share in common religiously. But when it comes to evangelicals, that is the nature of the bond.
I don’t think it’s a relationship of convenience at all nor based on having a common enemy. I think our evangelical brothers and sisters really, really believe in the word of God and the Bible. They believe that they’re blessed through their support of Israel and their support of the Jewish people, they believe that we are the chosen people.
A lot of Jews sit there scratching their heads, “What does ‘chosen’ mean, sounds like we think we’re better than everyone, that we’re elitist. It’s not true. Chosen is not a noun. We’re chosen to teach the world God’s commandments and how much God loves them and how much they should be keeping God’s commandments.
It humbles us to remember that God wants all of his children, Jew and non-Jew alike, under that umbrella of the human family.
Young Christian evangelicals who I meet love Israel. I keep seeing these dire predictions that the evangelical relationship is going down the toilet because young Christians are not as devoted to the Jewish-Christian ties and Israel as their parents. I haven’t seen it, and I am not sure that those studies are accurate.
You worked in outreach when you were a resident rabbi at Oxford University. There are 100,000 Jews in Hungary. What would you say is the best outreach advice for non-practicing, non-affiliated Jews?
We have three great centers of European Jewry left. A lot of American Jews don’t understand. We all think that Hitler killed all the Jews of Europe. We forget that there are 600,000 Jews in France, 230,000 Jews in the United Kingdom, and 100,000 Jews in Hungary. My advice is that we have to connect them with each other, building strong communities, building shuls, just like Chabad does — schools, mikvahs, education, and march against antisemitism and connect them with Israel. And that’s how you create a strong identity, an identity first and foremost based on the externalities, affiliating as part of the Jewish nation, and then the internalities, the spiritual connection of keeping the mitzvot (commandments).