A day with Shmuley Boteach: Moses of Oxford returns…

As a proud Jew, an unabashedly open Zionist and a student at the University of Oxford, one of my heroes and inspirations is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. I was privileged enough to spend the day with him last week, prior to him debating the nature of Iran’s nuclear program at the Oxford Union debating society.

It was after reading both volumes of his work Moses of Oxford, that I decided to apply to Brasenose College. It is a phenomenal book. It not only covers all aspects of student life at Oxford, but it explores everything from the Jewish historical experience, the workings of Israeli politics, to how we are able to bring G-d into the modern world. While Rabbi Boteach is the popular author of such works as Kosher Sex and Kosher Jesus, it is Moses of Oxford where he truly distinguishes himself as one of the foremost intellectuals of the Jewish world. There is a philosophical musing on nearly every page. He somehow manages to utilise even the most mundane of anecdotes during his time at Oxford, in order illustrate some of the most profound moralistic reasoning I am yet to read. His writing is almost unequalled.

Stumbling into him by accident on Oxford’s famed Cornmarket Street, I was completely lost for words. Here was a man I knew of for years– a personal friend of everyone from Michael Jackson to Sir Isiah Berlin. I had no idea what to say.

‘Err, sorry. Hi. Sorry to bother you. Rabbi Boteach, it’s simply an honour to meet you.’

True to his reputation of being a warm, charismatic and open personality, Rabbi Shmuley immediately put me at ease. With his amazing wife Debbie, we strolled around Oxford for quite a while – discussing what had changed since he left the place in the late 1990s. Within five minutes, it was as if I had known Shmuley for years. I mean, I kept on calling him Shmuley! We were on first name terms…

After making initial contact by Twitter, I had arranged for Rabbi Shmuley to meet the leading advocates for Israel at the University of Oxford. A true Oxford man, Shmuley requested for this meeting to take place in the pub. Absolutely classic stuff on his part…

When Rabbi Shmuley was in Oxford, things were quite different. There was of course extremely hostile opinion towards Israel on campus (after all, Hanan Ashrawi was quite loud in the 1990s) – but somehow, the legendary L’Chaim Society commanded widespread esteem in the way it stood up for Israel as the supreme embodiment of Jewish values. In L’Chaim’s time, Bibi Netanyahu was able to get a standing ovation from nearly 1000 largely hostile students after a speech at the Oxford Union. In hosting world-famous politicians and intellectuals, L’Chaim became the second largest society in Oxford’s history – a feat yet to be beaten.

Nowadays in Oxford, it is difficult to match what L’Chaim managed to pulled off. As Shmuley was to find out, we’ve had quite a tough time in recent months. Not only have we had to deal with the usual anti-Israel crowd – for instance in opposing blatant online anti-Semitism – but we’ve also had to endure a relentless onslaught of attacks from our own constituency.

Where else to meet Rabbi Boteach? The pub of course...
Where else to meet Rabbi Boteach? The pub of course…

It’s been quite difficult – and to be honest, we’ve struggled to find the best way forward. Shmuley however, was to give us the advice we desperately needed.

‘You’re not looking to be popular. If you’re looking for popularity quit now! What you’re looking for is respect. To be strong, you must command your opponent’s respect!’

As Shmuley elaborated, be big and be bold. Never be afraid. Never shy away from voicing an opinion – for speaking the truth. I was reminded about what Shmuley wrote of me when I confronted the notoriously anti-Israel MP, George Galloway.

‘‘The silent majority should learn from Mr. Hunter’s courageous action that standing up for Israel and fighting anti-Semitism is the job of every Jew and every non-Jew who wants the Middle East to have the democratic freedoms of Israel rather than the theocratic terror of Hamas.’’

I remembered what I did – and why I did it. Silence is despicable. And if there is just one thing to admire about Rabbi Boteach, it is his consistent impulse to speak out against evil. Rabbi Boteach will always rise up to the plate to condemn the wicked.

Of course, sometimes Shmuley is not popular with everyone. We cannot deny that he is not a controversial man. But he still commands universal respect. He’s a man of stature. He is a rarity in that he is the personal embodiment of his philosophy.

And if you want to see Boteach’s philosophy in action, you have to see him in a debate. Shmuley has locked horns with both Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. He’s easily held his own – and perhaps put his opponents on the back foot for once. True to form, he was to wipe the floor at the Oxford Union…

Dream Team: With Shmuley outside the Oxford Union...
Dream Team: With Shmuley outside the Oxford Union…

Defending Israel and liberty itself, Shmuley launched a scathing attack against the opposition’s moral relativism. How dare they single out Israel as a ‘morally abhorrent’ state when Iran continues to hang homosexuals as high as they can – as Iran’s fanatical Ayatollah-led regime continues to oppress minorities and crack down on political dissidents. And how dare the opposition downplay Israel’s security concerns – labelling genuine strategic threats as the ‘prejudice of western observers.’ Were they not acquainted with the history of Jewish persecution – even within living memory? Is the Jewish State not threatened by a nuclear Iran? The opposition’s blatant hypocrisy – and quite simply, appalling arguments – were brilliantly demolished in a rare mixture of wit and powerful oratory.

The crowd went wild. I’ve seen few speeches at the Union which have received such applause. This was Shmuley in action.

Gripping the crowd at the Oxford Union...
Gripping the crowd at the Oxford Union…

Yet despite Shmuley’s valiant efforts, his side lost. It’s tough to defend Israel at the Oxford Union. You’re never going to win. The majority of the crowd will always be impervious to reason.

But it was clear, as I was to discover in the post-debate drinks, that Shmuley was seen as the best speaker of the night by a long way. When Shmuley was speaking to a group of Muslim students, he gripped them with what he had to say. Despite irreconcilable political differences, these students were fascinated by Shmuley’s personality. By the end of the night, the whole room gathered round him. His stories of hosting Prince Khaled Ibn Bandar of Saudi Arabia (among other royals in the Arab world) were surreal. He refused to serve them alcohol as members of illustrious Islamic dynasties. As representatives of a great faith, Islam, Shmuley was not going to allow his guests to compromise the respect they held.

I was reminded of another thing he had told me in the pub:

‘We are a nation, and a nation which deserves an equal footing among all other nations. A nation which demands respect.’

Rabbi Shmuley commanded that respect – and we craved it. We were in awe of the way Shmuley was a magnet to our biggest political opponents on campus – and left them in a similarly dazzled state as us.

The room gathers round Rabbi Shmuley
The room gathers round Rabbi Shmuley

In the face of intimidation and demonization, we had found the answer to fighting anti-Israel activity on campus. Unashamedly spread the light of universal Jewish values. Instil Jewish pride. And by default, always defend the State of Israel as a manifestation of Jewish pride – never be silent, always take the moral stand!

Perhaps we could found our own Le’Chaim Society? It was a proposition we advanced to Shmuley repeatedly.

‘Re-start L’Chaim? Really?’

‘Shmuley, you have to! It’s been too long…’

I think Rabbi Boteach is quite tempted by the idea. All I can say is that Oxford better watch out. If we press him enough, Shmuley might well be back!

About the Author
Jonathan Hunter is a dual British-Israeli national studying history at Brasenose College, Oxford. He serves as the UK Campus Director of StandWithUs, an international nonprofit organisation advocating for Israel in 16 chapters around the world. Jonathan was recently elected to the Union of Jewish Students' National Council.