Meet Cory Booker's Top Donor: A Right-Wing, Islamophobic, Pro-Israel Outfit That Backs Trump’s Extremist Agenda

At a recent town hall, Booker's responses to questions about his bigoted donors were baffling.

Newly elected US Senator Cory Booker speaks after winning a special election on October 16, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey

Many pundits are proposing Cory Booker as the Democratic hope in the 2020 presidential election. In his high-profile speech in the Senate against the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Booker intended to brand himself as a bold crusader for civil rights and a leading opponent of Donald Trump.

Yet away from the spotlight, Booker has cultivated a close relationship with a group that closely aligns with Sessions and his bigoted politics: NORPAC, a Republican-run, pro-Israel group that has pushed a nakedly Islamophobic agenda in the U.S. while supporting Trump’s extremist nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

NORPAC's agenda is well to the right of AIPAC, the main arm of the Israel lobby. In fact, the group gives Booker more than twice the amount of money he receives from Goldman Sachs: $158,871 in a single campaign cycle. NORPAC is run by Ben Chouake, a New Jersey doctor who endorsed Ted Cruz for president in the Republican primary and insinuated that Congressman Keith Ellison is unfit to be chair of the Democratic National Committee based on the fact that he receives donations from the Council on American Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in America.

Despite knowing he cannot get Cory Booker to take right-wing stances on every issue, Chouake has discovered he can get Booker to take right-wing stances on Israel by ensuring he gives more money to Booker than anyone else. Haim Saban took a similar approach in donating to Hillary Clinton, stating, “If I'm not number one [in donations to Clinton], I'm going to cut my balls off.”

While AIPAC remained silent on Donald Trump’s recent nomination of Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, NORPAC congratulated Friedman, calling him “an accomplished attorney” and stating that he has earned “the trust and respect of the Israeli people, a point which will enable him to best fulfill his duties in representing U.S. interests in Israel.”

Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Beti El, an organization that provides financial backing to West Bank settlements that are illegal under international law. Bet El also supports the annexation of the West Bank, has described the centrist pro-Israel group J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than kapos,” referred to Barack Obama as “blatantly anti-Semitic,” and accused the State Department of “being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel over the past 70 years.”

As a result of this far-right, pro-Israel group giving more money to Booker than any other donor, Booker has been incentivized to stand by the state of Israel over the interests of his own party and constituents. As President Obama and the Democratic Party pushed for the Iran deal in 2015, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come and speak in opposition to the Iran deal. While nearly 60 Democrats including Vice President Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison skipped the speech, Cory Booker took the NORPAC line, appearing in the audience as a foreign nation bashed the president and leader of his own party before a joint session of Congress.

Booker did no different in the aftermath of United Nations Resolution 2334, which condemned illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, releasing a one-paragraph statement

“UN Resolution 2334 was a one-sided effort targeting the state of Israel that set back efforts to move us closer to a two-state solution and to peace. That’s why I spoke out against this resolution before the Security Council vote in December...Our legislative effort makes it clear that the US-Israel partnership is unbreakable, that the UN is an inappropriate venue to impose restrictions on the peace process, and that Congress will act to protect direct negotiations that move us closer to a two-state solution.”

A Politico poll published in the aftermath of the resolution found that once again, Booker’s record aligned far better with his donors than with the opinions of his party and its base.

An unsettling town hall experience with Booker

On January 6, I attended a town hall in North Brunswick, New Jersey, intending to ask Booker about another major pro-Israel donor aligned with the Netanyahu government: Democratic sugardaddy Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire who has said, “I’m a one issue guy and my issue is Israel”; that Western countries need to enact "more scrutiny" of Muslims, and that Congressman Keith Ellison is “clearly an anti-Semite.”

When I asked Booker about his relationship with Saban, he claimed he had never heard of him, though he is one of the most prominent funders of Democratic candidates and has been a close confidant of the Clintons for decades. “I will check what his beliefs are,” Booker said. Regarding Saban’s Islamophobia, he offered more empty boilerplate: “I’m going to check all that out.”

Given the fact that Booker’s largest donations come from a far-right pro-Israel super PAC run by a man who campaigned for Ted Cruz, it is likely that Booker is not too keen on sending back checks from extremist donors who also happen to be pro-Israel. Booker instead shifted the conversation to a discussion on how to overturn the Citizens United ruling, saying, “I’ve voted against many interests that have given me money before.” He said he accepts donations from both pro-Wall Street and anti-Wall Street people.

According to CrowdPAC, a site that tracks money in politics, ”Of the Democratic politicians thought to be under consideration for the vice-presidential slot, Cory Booker has received the largest percentage of his donations from Wall Street. According to CrowdPAC database of all campaign contributions since 1980, 12.4% of Booker's incoming campaign donations have been from the financial sector.”

Booker’s loyalty to big business went so deep that in the midst of the 2012 presidential election, he attacked President Obama over his criticism of Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital. Booker stated,”It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity.” In a tweet, Sen. John McCain thanked Booker for defending private equity. This led the Republican National Committee to launch a petition titled, “I Stand with Cory Booker.”

After the town hall, I spoke one-on-one with Booker, who insisted again that no donor has ever affected his views on Israel. He claimed that he had “lost Jewish donors after the Iran deal.”

Booker’s use of the word Jewish, instead of Zionist or pro-Israel, seemed unusual, perhaps a hint that he saw the American Jewish community as a monolith on Israel. Yet Jewish Voice for Peace is the fasting-growing Jewish American organization by membership, and only 31% of American Jewish college students consider Israel to be a democracy.

Booker also seemed convinced he had made a courageous decision by joining 42 Democratic senators and President Obama in supporting the Iran deal.

After our brief exchange, I spoke with Booker’s state director, George Helmy, an Egyptian-American from Jersey City. Helmy is an alumnus of Rutgers University-Newark, a campus of Rutgers University with an overwhelmingly large Palestinian and Arab population. Rutgers-Newark’s Student Government Association unanimously voted to divest from companies profiting off of the Israeli occupation last year.

Given Helmy’s background, I assumed he would have some familiarity with the inclusive, anti-racist culture of Palestine solidarity organizing. So I was baffled when he insisted to me in blunt terms that the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement was anti-Semitic.

I told him that a 2014 J Street poll found that 49% of Jews under 30 support a limited boycott of Israel. I asked him if those poll respondents, in addition to Jewish Voice for Peace, Israelis Against Home Demolitions, Judith Butler, Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin were also anti-Semites. He responded that the BDS movement was anti-Semitic because it “singles out Israel” and does not do anything about human rights violations in Russia and Syria, two countries that are already heavily sanctioned by the United States.

When I challenged Helmy further, he declared BDS is anti-Semitic because Israel is a Jewish state. I told him that we boycott Israel because it commits human rights violations, not because it is a Jewish state. 

“Russia commits human rights violations too,” was his reply.

I realized we were going in circles and that Helmy was not interested in having a substantive discussion on the topic.

As unsettling as the town hall was, the experience gave me a newfound sense of clarity. I had finally witnessed in an up-close, personal fashion the destructive influence of campaign finance on a politician who might have his eyes on the presidency. The massive contributions from NORPAC and other pro-Israel donors not only encourage Booker to turn his back on his constituents, aligning with Trump and his far-right administration, it forces him and his staff to commit themselves to logical fallacies that place them in an alternate reality.

Now I understand why Booker aggressively tramples over the aspirations of the young progressives, people of color, black South Africans, and even sectors of the Democratic Party who are clamoring for equal rights in Palestine. To know why Booker has opposed one of the major civil rights causes of our time, just follow the money.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece quoted Haim Saban as stating that "Islamophobia doesn't exist." This was a characterization of Saban's defamatory remarks about Muslims and was mistakenly published as a direct quote.

Hamzah Raza is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @hr609.

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