Thanks to an atypical shared interest, Ted Cruz has befriended an extraordinarily well-connected rabbi—a relationship that could pay big dividends as his presidential campaign gains momentum.
Shmuley Boteach, one of the pro-Israel community’s most colorful and well-connected leaders, and Ted Cruz have built a close and trusting bond. The two have connected over a shared stance on a controversial spy and have helped each other advance their political ends.
Boteach is probably best known for writing best-sellers like Kosher Sex and giving spiritual advice to Michael Jackson. But he’s also given a fundraising boost to the Evangelical Christian Texan by introducing him to potential backers in the New York and Los Angeles Jewish communities.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, the rabbi said he and Cruz bonded over their commitment to Israel and said they both have advocated for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who spent 30 years in prison for selling highly classified intelligence to the Israeli government.
Their relationship offers insight into why the senator’s presidential bid has had a much wider appeal than frustrated GOP Establishment insiders may have expected.
“I’d say we have a very warm, friendly, trusting relationship,” Boteach said. “He’s actually a lot of fun. We’ve had occasions when it’s just been the two of us having wine and really kicking back and talking as people amidst the frenetic pace of a presidential campaign.”
“I think he’s very accessible, he’s very approachable, you can disagree with him,” he added.
That friendship has yielded help for both sides. Cruz has been introduced to Boteach’s friends—like megadonor Sheldon Adelson—and Boteach has gotten the inside track on issues he cares about—like the release of Pollard. Boteach said the senator privately gave him a heads-up that the White House was planning to release Pollard, as The Hill initially reported.
“Of course, he has been a very big advocate for Pollard’s release,” said Boteach, who noted that he shared that view and once visited the spy in prison.
The rabbi added that when Cruz’s team gave him the heads-up this summer that Pollard would be granted parole, they were “incredulous.”
“They were cautious about what they hard heard because there had been many fits and starts about Pollard’s release,” he said.
Boteach added that when they told him about Pollard, they passed it on as good news.
Cruz’s team didn’t comment. Publicly, Cruz has been mostly mum on the Pollard topic. And that isn’t surprising.
Israel’s government paid Pollard a monthly stipend to give them extremely sensitive intelligence, including information on how the NSA tracked radio signals and how the U.S. Navy tracked Soviet submarines. Reports suggest that some of this intelligence ended up in Moscow and that Pollard marketed his intelligence-gathering services to South Africa, Australia, and Pakistan before taking Israel as a client.
Despite this, Pollard found passionate defenders in some quarters. Advocates of his release—including current Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu—argue that he served an overly onerous sentence, especially given that he spied for an American ally. And his backers are devoted. Adelson asked Mitt Romney to make the politically fraught choice of publicly backing clemency for Pollard. Romney demurred.
Steve Sebelius, a political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, reported in April that Cruz said he had an “open mind” about Pollard at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas.
According to a transcript of Cruz’s comments that Sebelius sent us, Cruz said he met with Pollard’s attorney, and (in typical Cruz fashion) boasted that if it made sense, he would have the requisite “backbone” to pardon the spy.
“It’s a very good question, a question I’ve actually been having a conversation this weekend about,” he replied. “What I would say on that is that I would keep an open mind to the arguments. I would listen with an open mind. Indeed, I visited last night with Mr. Pollard’s attorney briefly. I would listen with an open mind, at the same time, I would want to hear a classified briefing. Our intelligence agencies give their arguments and their perspective. On the question of pardons, I don’t think that should be decided as a political matter, I think it should be decided on merits. Now what I can say [applause], what I can say is that if I were persuaded on the merits that a pardon was justified, I would actually have the backbone to grant the pardon. [applause]”
Bear in mind that George Tenet threatened to resign as CIA director when Bill Clinton was thinking about pardoning Pollard, and that Donald Rumsfeld once wrote that the spy’s release would be “enormously damaging to our efforts to keep spies out of our government.”
But Cruz, who rarely turns down a chance to flout the establishment, has suggested that a classified briefing might produce exonerating evidence of which Tenet and Rumsfeld were unaware.
So, when it comes to Pollard, why would Cruz go further than Romney? One senior official at a pro-Israel organization told The Daily Beast that Cruz’s Pollard stance appears to be a low-cost way of competing in the Sheldon Adelson primary.
In May, Boteach has helped facilitate at least one encounter between Cruz and Adelson. When Cruz came to New York to accept the Defender of Israel title from Boteach’s The World Values Network—a nonpartisan group whose stated goal is “to disseminate universal Jewish values in politics, culture, and media”—he reportedly shared a table with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
Cruz even praised the Adelsons in his acceptance speech there—a talk that went over extraordinarily well, judging by the fact that just about every sentence he said drew applause. It was a good night for the senator.
“We never heard from one person that he didn’t deserve it,” Boteach said of the honor.
So when it comes to making connections, it may not matter much that Cruz isn’t a friend of the D.C. Republican establishment.
“He’s a phenomenal friend of Israel,” said Boteach.