In 2007, a teenager in Brooklyn using the anonymous handle Doom777 began posting violent threats online against the life of celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “He is a very evil Jew, with terrible ideology, despite of the fact that he poses as a frum yid, and was at some point given a smicha,” read one post on a forum at Kahane.org, a website affiliated with the militant Israeli Kahane Chai movement. “He commits incessant chilluley hashem and for that imho deserves death.” A year later, the same person—a moderator on the site—posted more succinctly: “Someone shoot Shmuley Boteach.” Around the same time, the moderator changed the signature on his posts to read, “We’ll get you next time, Sternhall”—presumably a reference to Hebrew University professor Ze’ev Sternhell, whose home was attacked with a pipe bomb after he criticized settlements in the West Bank.
By that time, detectives from the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division were monitoring Kahane.org and other affiliates of Kahane Chai at the request of the Israel Security Agency, or Shabak—the equivalent of the FBI, better known as the Shin Bet. In 2009, according to internal NYPD documents obtained by Tablet, the NYPD used its preliminary findings as the basis for launching a Terrorism Enterprise Investigation—a designation that allows police to deploy informants and undercover officers into suspected terrorist networks—into groups affiliated with Kahane Chai, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department since 1994.
But the NYPD never alerted Boteach that his life might be in danger. “If there were these threats out there, I should have known,” the rabbi said last week, in an interview at his home in New Jersey, after looking at the NYPD documents. He has a wife and nine children, he said. “This wasn’t friends warning me that I was doing something that could be dangerous,” Boteach went on. “It wasn’t people writing me directly saying they want to harm you, which I have had too many times. This was rather a world-renowned law-enforcement organization, highly credible, highly respected, saying, ‘We’re taking this seriously.’ And it kind of made me wonder why I wasn’t informed at the time.”
The NYPD declined to comment on the case, which was among dozens of secret Terrorism Enterprise Investigations the department launched in the decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and uncovered by the Associated Press in its two-year investigation of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. At least a dozen of the TEIs involved mosques and other Islamic religious organizations, none of which were ever criminally charged with terrorist activity. In the case of Kahane Chai, the NYPD appears to have focused on web postings and online forums operated by members of the Kahane movement, rather than attempted to infiltrate synagogues or Jewish communal organizations in which Kahane activists were involved.
But, as in the other cases, this one appears not to have resulted in any charges ever being filed against the Kahane network or against individuals, including Doom777, named in the investigation. Attempts by Tablet to reach individuals named in investigative documents were unsuccessful.
Boteach, who is today best known as a close friend of Newark mayor and New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker, has a long history as a provocateur, first as a Chabad rabbi at Oxford University, where he wrote the book Kosher Sex, and more recently as a Republican congressional candidate and opponent of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. He says he has received death threats in letters, by email, and on Facebook—but nothing, as far as he knew, that required an investigation by the police. “You always know the danger is out there, and you’re realistic about it,” he said.
The Boteach compound stretches over a few acres in verdant Bergen County, just over the George Washington Bridge from New York City. The centerpiece of the property is a sprawling gray neo-Gothic stone mansion where Boteach lives with his family. A gated driveway leads to a carriage house in back where the Boteach HQ is situated. Inside, the walls are adorned with framed articles penned by and about him and other memorabilia, including features proclaiming Rabbi Shmuley to be one of the world’s most influential Jews.
There is an office for his assistants on one side and a personal office for Boteach in what could double as a greenhouse. From the office window, you can see the property next door, which infamously belongs to the Libyan government. When Boteach got wind that Qaddafi sought to stay there during the United Nations’ annual General Assembly in 2009, the rabbi pitched such a fuss that Qaddafi ended up staying at the home of the Libyan ambassador to the U.N. instead.
When we first spoke about the NYPD investigation last week, Boteach was in South Africa, where it was winter and nearing midnight. He was at the end of a long trip that included shepherding Dr. Mehmet Oz, the television personality, through the Holy Land, trekking to Rwanda with his family to visit genocide memorials, and, finally, seeing his son receive his rabbinic ordination in Johannesburg, at a ceremony that had taken place earlier that day.
Now Boteach pointed out the new Libyan provisional flag, which hung limply from a pole. The American flag that used to go up beside it was conspicuously absent. We sat on the veranda outside his office, and he lit up a cigar. “I’ve always been told by people that I could be a target, certainly with the Qaddafi opposition in 2009,” he said. “We were very concerned about that. My wife and I talked about it constantly.”
The investigation apparently originated with a request forwarded to One Police Plaza, in lower Manhattan, in early 2008 by Det. Charlie Benaim, the NYPD’s liaison in Tel Aviv. The Shin Bet wanted information on a 25-year-old American-born Israeli citizen who they believed was a “hardcore” leader in the Jewish Legion, an offshoot of the Kahane Chai movement. According to internal NYPD documents, the Israelis believed the man had moved to Brooklyn after the Shin Bet shut down an Internet cafe he had been running in Jerusalem that allegedly served as a base of operations for the Jewish Legion; now they believed he was raising money from an address in Borough Park for the Jewish Legion—which has been declared a terrorist organization by the Israeli Knesset and designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Treasury.
The NYPD agreed to send a surveillance team to follow the man from Kennedy Airport to his home. In October 2008, according to internal documents, the case was labeled a success story by the Intelligence Division’s Technical Operations Unit: NYPD detectives had traced the man using “unorthodox” computer and Internet searches—using the commercial search provider Lexis, according to another document—and surveillance photos to the Israelis. But no charges were ever brought against him in the United States.
In the meantime, investigators searching online for traces of Kahane Chai came across the threats against Boteach. Other evidence listed in the preliminary inquiry includes a YouTube video in which Shelley Rubin, the head of the Jewish Defense League, exhorted American Jews to arm themselves. “Buy weapons now,” she is quoted as saying—nothing more or less incendiary than comments that were made at the time by many groups across the American right. The fact that the threats came from a group deemed outlaw by both the American and Israeli governments likely gave them more weight, lawyers said. “It would be irresponsible not to follow that up, particularly when it’s coming from an organization that the Treasury Department has designated as a terrorist organization,” said Jethro Eisenstein, a civil rights attorney who has devoted 40 years to monitoring the NYPD’s investigations of First Amendment-protected speech and activities.
But while they used the threats against Boteach to justify their investigation, the NYPD appears not to have taken them seriously enough to warn the rabbi. “The one useful thing that could have been done, that of course wasn’t done,” Eisenstein said, “was to give Shmuley Boteach a heads up.”
Boteach clarified that he wasn’t out to criticize the NYPD. “These are professionals, and I trust in their professionalism. I’m assuming they probably didn’t want to worry me or make more of it than it probably was,” he said. “I don’t know what their thinking was. In some ways, it’s even a little bit comforting that I find out about it now when perhaps the danger has passed. I don’t know. I mean, are these people still at large? Are they making threats? It’s not as if my public posture that would have irritated them has changed so I would suddenly be off their radar screen.”
Indeed, Boteach noted, he had taken Oz to Hebron, to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Baruch Goldstein—a Kahane activist—massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers during Ramadan in 1994. “I called him a moral abomination the next morning and, even so, my house was firebombed at Oxford,” Boteach said. “That was the first time we had a serious threat.”
Later, he said, he was targeted because of his public friendship with Al Sharpton, which prompted his enemies to declare him a “traitor” to the Jewish people. “Coming from a Jewish source, it’s even more disappointing because we all want to believe this idea of the oneness of the Jewish community, the Jewish people and that we also want to believe these extremist elements do not inhabit our community to the same extent,” Boteach said. “I don’t believe they do. But when it’s brought so close to home, it’s very disconcerting.”
Boteach was critical of the NYPD’s broad-based surveillance of Muslims, which extended into New Jersey. The congressional district he ran for in 2012, he told me, was the second-most-Muslim district in America, after the one in Dearborn, Mich. “No one has any right to impugn the character of patriotic Americans,” he insisted. “America has no religion. A Muslim American is as American as George Washington. If you don’t believe that then you’re undermining the very foundation of the republic.” He brought up the Japanese internment during WWII and NSA spying. “The surveillance that’s being done now, it’s all very uncomfortable,” he said. “Who the heck wants people listening to our phone conversations?”
And yet, seeing his name in the secret NYPD files gave him pause. “Obviously I’m a little subjective now having seen this,” he said. “Once people start making death threats, saying that someone should be shot or killed, which is just utterly unacceptable, then they’re inviting themselves to monitoring because they are speaking very violently. You’re basically saying we’re not to be trusted. Well, if you’re not to be trusted, you’re not to be trusted. They’re asking for it.”
Read the NYPD document here.
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