Does Sen. Rand Paul’s reputation as the candidate most disconnected from Jews have validity, or is it misinformation that precedes him?
Rabbi Pinchas Lipshutz, publisher of the highly influential charedi weekly Yated Ne’eman, told the Republican presidential candidate at a meeting in Kensington last week, that when he was first invited to meet Paul, the rabbi said, “Paul? Are you crazy? He’s an anti-Semite. It’s the elephant in the room,” said Rabbi Lipshutz, “so I’m bringing it up.”
Rabbi Lipshutz was among several dozen Orthodox leaders invited to meet with Paul at the headquarters of Torah Umesorah, the National Society For Hebrew Day Schools, one of the largest Orthodox institutions with 675 yeshivas and nearly 200,000 students. Paul was peppered with questions on the perception that he’s an isolationist (he offered nuanced reflections on the mistakes of interventionists, yet supported war as an option); Iran (he supports negotiations but he doesn’t trust Iran); questions on Israel (he seemed on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wavelength); and whether he supported school vouchers and tax credits for yeshiva tuition (he did, “I’m a big supporter of school choice,” though he thought education should be more of a local issue than a federal one).
When he spoke of his strong belief in religion as vital to American civilization — his opening statement was not political but completely philosophical about the virtues of religion — along with his pleasurable recollections of a Shabbos dinner in Jerusalem, singing and dancing with Mir yeshiva boys, he so enchanted the Orthodox leaders in the room that almost all skepticism vanished as they stood in the line to pose for smiling pictures with the libertarian Kentucky senator.
Rabbi Lipshutz, who was at that Shabbos dinner with Paul in Jerusalem, told the candidate in front of the other leaders, “I saw that you’re a decent, really a genuine, nice, intelligent, loving person. And everything I read about you [being disconnected from Jewish concerns] was a lie. It was not true. I thought that you could really win.” The Torah Umesorah conference room erupted with applause. “I told [a friend] I’m going to support this guy,” he said.
Although polls show that the Democrats are increasingly vulnerable to Orthodox defections in the wake of President Obama’s public annoyance, even contempt, for Netanyahu, and the growing sense that the president pressures Israel but not the Palestinians, nevertheless, Republican candidates have been zeroing in on the Orthodox community in this first furlong of the campaign. Even before announcing, Sen. Ted Cruz gave such a stirring keynote address at the Zionist Organization of America dinner in December that many wearing yarmulkes interrupted him with ongoing chants of “Run Ted, Run!” Last week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush attended a private gathering at the Ramaz School. Now, Paul was staking his claim in Brooklyn.
Also last week, in Las Vegas, Politico reported that the biggest contributors to the Republican Jewish Coalition met at the home of Sheldon Adelson, who contributed $100 million to candidates in 2012. Politico added that the coalition has “long been suspicious of the Kentucky senator.” In 2010, Matt Brooks, the RJC’s longtime executive director, called Paul a “neo-isolationist” and said he was “outside the comfort level of a lot of people in the Jewish community.” This year, Politico reported, Paul has “been surpassed in early polling by a group of more outwardly pro-Israel candidates,” such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush.
At Torah Umesorah, Paul asked softly, “What are perceptions?” He said things are improving. Recent polling on his Israel positions didn’t reveal “as much of a problem as it might have been, two or three years ago, before people knew me.” He sponsored a bill called “the Stand With Israel Act. It says that we shouldn’t give money to the Palestinian Authority, allied with Hamas, because indirectly we may be funding missiles being launched against Israel. And AIPAC doesn’t support me on the bill. In fact, they lobbied against me on the bill. So, what is that saying, two Jews, three opinions? Every Jewish person isn’t the same, or has the same thoughts. … I think Israel is one of our best allies and best friends around the world. … I don’t think there’s any question where I stand … but there will be naysayers who for competitive advantage will spread untruths.”
As for Iran’s nuclear threat, said Paul, “If there’s a way that we can have a negotiated peace, I want peace as opposed to war. And that’s exactly what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu said when he came before a joint session of Congress. … That doesn’t mean that I favor a bad deal, though. My main concern about the deal right now [is that] the president writes 1,300 words and says the agreement means this, and then the Iranians come out with 500 words, they tweak it in English, saying exactly the opposite … and I think that goes to the sincerity or the credibility of whether or not we can believe they will keep their word and the agreement.”
Another problem, said Paul, is Iran maintaining “that they’re only talking about nuclear enrichment and not terrorism or ballistic missiles. I think that was a good point Netanyahu made when he came here, that we really need to be talking about all of this,” missiles and terrorism included.
Paul said the interim agreement with Iran is better than no agreement, or no inspections, “and it’s better than the military option, frankly, at this point.” Nevertheless, “I’m very, very skeptical of the Iranians since they’re [saying that the agreement] doesn’t mean what Obama says it means.”
Asked by one of the rabbis whether the label of “isolationist” was an unfair assessment, the senator replied, “The short answer is yes. I think foreign policy is a spectrum,” between isolation and intervention. “In recent years, I think we’ve been too close to [trying to be] everywhere all the time, and sometimes it’s been to our detriment, with unintended consequences.” What Paul called “Hillary’s war” in Libya “is, was, and continues to be an utter disaster. [Slain Libyan strongman Muamar] Kaddafy wasn’t a good guy but he suppressed radical Islam. Now that Kaddafy is gone, the country’s in civil war, our ambassador was killed, our embassy fled, a third of the country now supports ISIS, so I would ask the question, are we better off or worse off with Kaddafy gone?”
He gave the examples of the fiasco of Syrian involvement, and giving weapons “supposedly to the moderates … those weapons would end up in the hands of ISIS. Saudi Arabia has flooded weapons in there. Saudi Arabia is an ostensible ally, an ostensible friend, and they haven’t been helpful. They have supported radical Islam in our country, they support radical Islam around the world, and they indiscriminately put weapons into the Syrian civil war.”
He added, “I think it was a mistake to topple [Saddam] Hussein. Hussein was the bulwark against Iran. Now Iraq is a vassal state of Iran.”
So, said Paul, for opponents to call him an isolationist is too simple. “There are times you fight and times you don’t.” If we do fight, we have to realize that “there are sometimes unintended consequences. … I’m not an isolationist. I am somebody who believes that war is the last resort. If we use it, we use it effectively and we use it to win.”
After 9/11, for example, “I would have voted to go into Afghanistan,” said Paul. “I would have voted to do anything we had to do to get Bin-Laden. So there are times you do have to act. Now ISIS is a threat, and I am for military action and I am for the bombing campaign.”
Other than the charedi Yated Ne’eman, the media was not invited to ask any questions, and so there was no discussion about even religious issues in the news, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (regarding the rights of a religious person to refrain doing business with a gay wedding). However, Paul said, “I think freedom requires tradition … liberty requires virtue. … You have to have religion. You need a religious backbone for a culture, or for a civilization.”