Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had for years encouraged his dear friend, Mehmet “Dr.” Oz, to run for office, spending hours talking about their shared desire for a unifying, “values-based campaign,” and what an Oz-led version of that would look like. Now, Oz is taking his old friend’s advice and running for a Senate seat, and Boteach is disgusted by what he sees.
“The man running for Senate is not Dr. Oz. This person is unrecognizable to me,” Boteach, a high-profile media personality and figure in conservative pro-Israel circles, tells Rolling Stone. Oz’s campaign for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, Boteach says, has reduced the candidate to an “election-denying, genocide-denying caricature of an extremist.”
In a phone interview, Boteach bemoaned Oz’s embrace of Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, skewered the GOP Senate nominee over his positions on the Armenian genocide and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and denounced the campaign’s personal jabs against their Democratic opponent, John Fetterman.
Boteach jokes that Oz may have been kidnapped by “space aliens” who replaced the famous TV host with a morally depraved clone. But Boteach’s frustrations with the campaign are serious, as he says the run is a “disgrace,” “grotesque,” and a “festival of fraudulence.” And he says that if Oz plans to continue running his race as he has thus far — and especially if Oz continues being soft on Turkey’s authoritarian leader — he’s undeserving of a spot in the Senate and should withdraw “immediately.”
A spokesperson for Oz’s campaign did not provide a response when asked about Boteach’s comments and the messages he exchanged with the campaign.
Boteach, a long time Republican who once ran for U.S. House, stresses that his criticism of Oz should not be viewed as an endorsement of Fetterman, rather a caution as to what Botech sees as a lack of conviction to the principles Oz had espoused throughout their friendship.
Oz and Boteach met in the early 2000s through their mutual connection to Oprah Winfrey and her various media properties. Both successful in their own right, their subsequent friendship was often portrayed as a triumph of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Boteach expresses a deep admiration for Oz in his writing, and describes him and his family as regular fixtures and guests to shabbat dinners in his home. In 2013, Oz, who is Muslim, and Boteach traveled to Israel together, where they visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs and danced a hora.
But the tension between the rabbi and Oz seems to have been building for months before this apparent breaking point, according to emails and other messages reviewed by Rolling Stone. In an Aug. 24 email to the GOP Senate nominee and his advisers, Boteach appeared furious that Dr. Oz and his campaign had attacked Fetterman for having suffered a stroke earlier this year.
“Anyone who has a modicum of self respect will condemn the actions of a campaign that mocks a stroke victim, especially when it’s the campaign of America’s most famous doctor,” the rabbi wrote. “My father died of a stroke at the beginning of COVID. This statement is a disgrace and gutter politics at its worst.”
Boteach added, “I thought this campaign would inspire people. What a waste.”
Boteach says Oz’s campaign has become a “tragedy for the Jewish people” — as well as for the U.S. at large — in large part because of Mehmet’s approach to Turkish President Erdoğan. Boteach regards Turkey’s president as “arguably the world’s most vocal anti-Semite” and as a tyrant who has hollowed out Turkish democracy, and views Oz’s stance on him as “disqualifying.”
In other emails reviewed by Rolling Stone, Boteach repeatedly attempted to persuade Oz and the campaign to be more clear and forceful on his stance on multiple issues, including on Isael and on the Armenian genocide.
After what Boteach describes as a “heated conversation” with a close relative and adviser of Oz’s who “told me I should stop pushing the Oz campaign to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as the Jewish community for the most part didn’t care about it and that the genocide is a disputed historical fact,” Boteach cc’d the candidate on an email expressing his frustration over the conversation and urging the the campaign to acknowledge “historical fact.”
In the phone interview, the rabbi says it is “mandatory” to speak out to criticize “friends in positions of influence” who are soft on genocide or who deny it.
Oz, the child of Turkish immigrants, has generally ignored questions about the Armenian genocide, carried out by Turkish forces in the Ottoman Empire. When he’s asked about the issue, his campaign spokespeople will typically send reporters comments such as “Dr. Mehmet Oz opposes genocide and the murder of innocent people in all forms. The evils of World War I should be commemorated.” Such comments typically omit, conspicuously, the words “Armenian genocide” — an All-Lives-Matter approach to genocides that Rabbi Shmuley and others find deeply inadequate.
Last year, near the beginning of Oz’s Senate campaign, Boteach defended Oz in the Jerusalem Post from attacks regarding his Turkish heritage and wrote that “Mehmet has proved to be a friend without compare, to me and the Jewish community as a whole.”
That enthusiasm dimmed as the campaign progressed. In a subsequent article, Boteach called Oz’s campaign a “tragedy” for the Jewish community, criticizing him for taking the “disastrous advice given by political consultants who convinced Mehmet that highlighting his commitment to Israel and his attachments to the Middle East would harm his campaign.” By the end of this summer, Rabbi Shmuley had had enough, and no longer wished to be associated with the Oz candidacy.
In June messages to Oz obtained by Rolling Stone, Boteach expressed disappointment that the campaign was turning into a “2020 election-denying, AR-15 holding, Armenian genocide denying” fiasco and not the “values-based campaign” the two of them had discussed going back years. “I will always be your friend. But I won’t be your sycophant,” Boteach wrote.
Now, as he takes his private laments public, the rabbi pauses when asked if he still considers Oz — the current MAGAfied version, anyway — a friend. It’s a “fair question,” he says, adding: “You’d have to ask him that.”