Inside Rand Paul’s Jewish Charm Offensive

The 2016 contender is massaging his Israel views as he courts Jewish conservatives suspicious of the Paul family brand. He may not win them over, but not losing them could be enough.

Rand Rand visits a yeshiva in New Jersey.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
July 20, 2014, 5:19 p.m.

When Sen. Rand Paul des­cen­ded onto the Sen­ate floor earli­er this month to pro­mote his le­gis­la­tion to end for­eign aid to the Palestini­an Au­thor­ity, he stood next to an out­size poster show­ing the names and faces of three Is­raeli teen­agers who had just been killed.

“Killed,” Paul em­phas­ized, “in cold blood.”

Not long after Paul stopped speak­ing, his polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion swung in­to ac­tion. His top strategist, Doug Stafford, pack­aged the speech in­to an email that landed in the in-boxes of a clutch of in­flu­en­tial Jew­ish and pro-Is­rael Re­pub­lic­ans across the coun­try.

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The epis­ode — the pro-Is­rael bill, the im­pas­sioned speech, the rap­id dis­sem­in­a­tion — is a small win­dow in­to the early and ag­gress­ive Jew­ish-out­reach cam­paign of the ju­ni­or sen­at­or from Ken­tucky with his eye on the White House in 2016. As Paul lays the ground­work for a pres­id­en­tial bid — he’s already hired two top Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans and one vet­er­an New Hamp­shire strategist — few con­stitu­en­cies have re­ceived more at­ten­tion than Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans and pro-Is­rael ad­voc­ates.

Rand Paul has even found his own rabbi to help him nav­ig­ate the cul­tur­al di­vide.

Paul has donned a yar­mulke and danced to Hebrew songs. He has prayed at the West­ern Wall and vis­ited a prom­in­ent New Jer­sey ye­shiva (a re­li­gious school where a ma­jor GOP con­trib­ut­or served as his tour guide). He’s dialed in­to one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar Jew­ish ra­dio pro­grams and held off-the-re­cord con­fer­ence calls with Jew­ish lead­ers across more than 30 states. He has in­tro­duced pro-Is­rael le­gis­la­tion (title: the “Stand With Is­rael Act”), speech­i­fied about it in the Sen­ate, and, re­lent­lessly, sought a private audi­ence with the wealth­i­est and most in­flu­en­tial Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans in the na­tion.

Rand Paul, who has said he knew only a single Jew­ish fam­ily grow­ing up in small-town Texas, has even found his own rabbi (one he shares with Rush Limbaugh) to help him nav­ig­ate the cul­tur­al di­vide.

“Clearly, he is mak­ing a con­cer­ted ef­fort and a sin­cere ef­fort to really build re­la­tion­ships,” said Matt Brooks, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the in­flu­en­tial Re­pub­lic­an Jew­ish Co­ali­tion, a polit­ic­al group that aims to rep­res­ent Jew­ish in­terests with­in the GOP.

The charm of­fens­ive has two goals at its core. The first is to try to es­tab­lish Paul in the for­eign policy main­stream of Re­pub­lic­an­ism, par­tic­u­larly on the sig­nal is­sue of Is­rael, which is of key im­port­ance to both Jew­ish voters and evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans. The second is to win over, or at the least neut­ral­ize, the moneyed class of hawk­ish Is­rael de­fend­ers — free-spend­ing bil­lion­aires Shel­don Ad­el­son and Paul Sing­er chief among them — who Paul’s ad­visers know rep­res­ent among the most sig­ni­fic­ant im­ped­i­ments to his be­com­ing the party’s next stand­ard-bear­er.

Shel­don Ad­el­son is one of the GOP’s mega-donors Paul is try­ing to win over. (Eth­an Miller/Getty Im­ages)Paul’s labors are es­pe­cially crit­ic­al giv­en that he has be­gun the 2016 pres­id­en­tial sweepstakes with a deep de­fi­cit of sup­port among pro-Is­rael ad­voc­ates — an in­her­it­ance from his fath­er, three-time pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate and former Rep. Ron Paul, a man viewed with sus­pi­cion at best by much of the com­munity. “Pro-Is­rael people have al­ways felt that Ron Paul is bey­ond hos­tile to Is­rael; he’s hos­tile to Jews as well,” said Mor­ton Klein, pres­id­ent of the Zion­ist Or­gan­iz­a­tion of Amer­ica, a pro-Is­rael lob­by­ing group. “So clearly this con­cerns Rand Paul be­cause people as­sume, like fath­er like son.”

“It’s un­fair,” Klein ad­ded, “but it’s a nat­ur­al hu­man re­ac­tion.”

Paul’s team views much of the out­reach as cor­rect­ing his re­cord. “The only thing that we can do is go out and talk about what Rand be­lieves and make sure that people hear his real po­s­i­tions, not oth­ers’ mis­char­ac­ter­iz­a­tions of his po­s­i­tions,” Stafford said. “Things about polit­ics and money, those things will fall where they will.”

Kev­in Mad­den, who was a seni­or strategist for Mitt Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, said Paul has been the can­did­ate most com­mit­ted to de­fin­ing him­self for donors, power brokers, and polit­ic­al in­flu­en­cers. “If we were rank­ing po­ten­tial 2016 pro­spects in terms of who is do­ing the most leg­work right now, I think you’d have to rank Rand Paul first,” Mad­den said.

Those be­ing lav­ished with at­ten­tion cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ate it. “He was pa­tient, he didn’t rush me, he really spent time with me,” Klein said of a 45-minute sit-down in Paul’s Cap­it­ol Hill suite earli­er this year. But that only goes so far.

“My dis­cus­sions with oth­ers about Paul, be­cause he’s try­ing to speak to Jew­ish groups and do­ing things that pro-Is­rael people ap­pre­ci­ate, people are say­ing we should give him a second chance and re­think what our im­pres­sions were of Rand Paul. So I think he is mak­ing in­roads,” Klein said. “That doesn’t mean people are go­ing to be ne­ces­sar­ily com­fort­able.”

* * *

THE GROUP PAUL has most ag­gress­ively cour­ted is the Re­pub­lic­an Jew­ish Co­ali­tion, whose board of dir­ect­ors reads like a who’s who of big GOP con­trib­ut­ors — Ad­el­son, Sing­er, and former Am­bas­sad­ors Mel Sem­bler and Sam Fox, among many oth­ers. “He has made a sig­ni­fic­ant ef­fort since com­ing to the Sen­ate, both to es­tab­lish his own iden­tity and to get to know the folks in our or­gan­iz­a­tion and have a real, frank, open, and can­did con­ver­sa­tion about the is­sues,” Brooks said.

Last year, Paul met with the RJC’s board for a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion in the Wash­ing­ton of­fices of Hogan Lov­ells that stretched for more than an hour. Lately he’s been tar­get­ing in­flu­en­tial mem­bers, one by one. Over the week­end, Isaac “Yitz” Ap­pl­baum, an RJC board mem­ber who coau­thored an op-ed in For­eign Policy last fall with Paul titled “Peace Through Strength,” hos­ted an event for Paul in the Bay Area.

“He will not be the RJC’s first choice and his polit­ic­al people know that.”

“I needed to know where he stood” on Is­rael, said Fred Zeidman, a top Jew­ish GOP fun­draiser who also sits on the RJC’s board and with whom Paul shared an in­tim­ate lunch in Hou­s­ton in Feb­ru­ary. “I know what hap­pens when Amer­ica doesn’t pay at­ten­tion or gets apathet­ic,” said the former chair­man of the U.S. Me­mori­al Holo­caust Coun­cil.

Lunch was fol­lowed by a lengthy phone call in which Zeidman and his son, Jay, the na­tion­al co­chair of George P. Bush’s Mav­er­ick PAC, pressed Paul on his pos­ture to­ward Is­rael. Con­sider Zeidman’s fears al­layed. “I didn’t have any re­ser­va­tion af­ter­ward in­tro­du­cing him and ex­pos­ing him to my fel­low Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans,” he said. “I think that he is hav­ing a great deal of suc­cess.”

Not every­one, however, is so per­suaded.

“I’m not buy­ing it,” said El­li­ott Ab­rams, who served as a top na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and is now a seni­or fel­low for the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. Paul and Ab­rams had a private sit-down on Cap­it­ol Hill last fall. “You can’t be an isol­a­tion­ist and cred­ibly pro-Is­rael. The idea that you’re isol­a­tion­ist for every oth­er coun­try and every oth­er is­sue in the world ex­cept Is­rael just is not per­suas­ive.” (Paul, for his part, vig­or­ously re­jects the “isol­a­tion­ist” la­bel.)

Stafford said Paul is reach­ing out to many con­stitu­en­cies, not just Jew­ish and pro-Is­rael lead­ers, in­clud­ing fisc­al hawks, gun en­thu­si­asts, and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. “This is not a one-off thing where we’re just tar­get­ing one com­munity,” he stressed.

Still, the math is daunt­ing if Paul finds him­self on the wrong side of the biggest-spend­ing Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans. Sing­er, whom Paul met with last year, has es­tab­lished him­self as one of the most in­flu­en­tial GOP money­men in Amer­ica. Mean­while, Ad­el­son and his wife, Miri­am, poured $93 mil­lion in­to su­per PACs in the 2012 elec­tion, mak­ing them the largest polit­ic­al fin­an­ci­ers in the na­tion. In the GOP pres­id­en­tial primary alone, the Ad­el­sons spent $15 mil­lion against Rom­ney and for Newt Gin­grich. Paul would have to raise $200,000 every week between now and the be­gin­ning of 2016 to match the $15 mil­lion that Ad­el­son can stroke in a single check.

Mi­chael Fra­gin, host of a weekly ra­dio pro­gram, Spin Class, on Jew­ish polit­ics, said Paul’s en­dgame isn’t to be Sing­er’s or Ad­el­son’s pick. “He will not be the RJC’s first choice and his polit­ic­al people know that,” Fra­gin said. In­deed, in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last fall, Ad­el­son didn’t even name Paul as among the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s top 2016 con­tenders. The more achiev­able ob­ject­ive: not to be per­ceived as an en­emy.

Mal­lory Factor, a con­ser­vat­ive polit­ic­al ana­lyst who has been help­ing Paul raise money and in­tro­du­cing him to prom­in­ent Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans, said Paul is stead­ily climb­ing the ranks of the com­munity’s 2016 rank­ings. “The one neg­at­ive,” Factor said, “is that in many cases he is not their first choice — yet.”

* * *

ONE OF THE UN­LIKELY Paul al­lies to emerge in the Jew­ish com­munity has been Richard Roberts, a ma­jor GOP con­trib­ut­or who has worked closely with Ad­el­son. (They teamed up, $1 mil­lion apiece, on a 2012 su­per PAC that un­suc­cess­fully tried to reelect Rep. Al­len West.)

Ron Paul (Justin Sul­li­van/Getty Im­ages)”Rand Paul’s fath­er, Ron, is clearly anti-Semit­ic,” Roberts said in an in­ter­view.

But that hasn’t colored his view of the young­er Paul, whom he first met at the 2012 GOP con­ven­tion in Tampa. Roberts quickly took a lik­ing to Paul and vo­lun­teered to bank­roll his Janu­ary 2013 trip to Is­rael (“The sen­at­or paid for him­self. I paid for every­body else,” Roberts said). Later, Roberts ac­com­pan­ied Paul as he toured a New Jer­sey ye­shiva, one of the world’s largest, and hos­ted a lunch­eon for him at his Lake­wood home. Roberts said he’s im­pressed with Paul’s “in­teg­rity,” how he could agree to dis­agree on some is­sues — and yet still be open-minded.

“He’s not about to com­prom­ise for polit­ic­al ex­pedi­ency,” Roberts said. Yet, he ad­ded, “As he learns new facts, as he learns new things, he can modi­fy things.”

Dur­ing their time to­geth­er in Jer­u­s­alem, Roberts or­gan­ized a group din­ner for the Sab­bath. The eat­ing and drink­ing was re­peatedly in­ter­rup­ted by song as they would all rise from the table and dance, arm in arm, around the room. “By the fourth or fifth song, I had my arm around Rand,” Roberts re­called. “I whispered in Rand’s ear, ‘If only your fath­er could see you now.’ He laughed hys­ter­ic­ally.”

An­oth­er be­hind-the-scenes fig­ure lay­ing the ground­work for Paul in the Jew­ish com­munity has been Rabbi Nate Segal of Staten Is­land. It was Segal who in­tro­duced Paul to Roberts. And Segal has done ad­vance work in the Or­tho­dox Jew­ish com­munity as Paul travels the coun­try, in­clud­ing for his two con­fer­ence calls with Jew­ish lead­ers. Segal has long con­versed in con­ser­vat­ive circles. He de­livered the in­voc­a­tion at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence this year, and ra­dio shock jock Rush Limbaugh has called him “my rabbi” for help­ing get Limbaugh out of a PR pickle in the early 1990s when he re­ferred to the “Jew­ish lobby” on air. Segal ac­com­pan­ied Limbaugh as a re­li­gious guide on a trip to Is­rael in 1993; 20 years later, he re­prised the same role for Paul.

“I’m pretty bor­ing in this whole scheme of things,” Segal in­sisted.

* * *

IF PAUL’S PHILO­SOPHY would lead to a less in­ter­ven­tion­ist Amer­ica abroad, he’s couch­ing it in the most ag­gress­ive rhet­or­ic pos­sible to sat­is­fy do­mest­ic polit­ics. He’s also talk­ing about Is­rael a lot. In fact, since 2013 three of the top four Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate who’ve men­tioned Is­rael are po­ten­tial 2016 can­did­ates: Ted Cruz of Texas (No. 1), Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida (No. 3), and Paul (No. 4). The only ex­cep­tion on the list is Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, one of the lead­ing GOP hawks, ac­cord­ing to the Sun­light Found­a­tion’s Cap­it­ol Words pro­ject.

“Sen­at­or Paul has been very out­spoken, even com­pared to some Jew­ish mem­bers of Con­gress, on is­sues very im­port­ant to the pro-Is­rael com­munity,” said Nachum Segal, host of the New York-based ra­dio pro­gram, Jew­ish Mo­ments in the Morn­ing, bet­ter known as JM in the AM, that has been on air for three dec­ades. (He’s also Rabbi Nate Segal’s broth­er.) “If you want to speak to the Jew­ish world, if you want to reach out to the Jew­ish com­munity, it’s a stop on that route,” Segal said of the show.

Rabbi Chaim Nate Segal speak­ing at the 2014 Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence in Na­tion­al Har­bor, Md. (Gage Skid­more/Flickr)Paul came on last year, after vis­it­ing Is­rael, and then again this spring shortly after he had in­tro­duced the Stand With Is­rael Act. Paul took the op­por­tun­ity to tell the Jew­ish audi­ence, “Your money is be­ing sent to the Palestini­an Au­thor­ity and has been for quite a while.”

Paul has sought to amp­li­fy his pro-Is­rael mes­sage through the or­gans of the con­ser­vat­ive Right, pen­ning op-eds about Is­rael in the Na­tion­al Re­view, for in­stance. In them, Paul has ad­op­ted the rhet­or­ic of hawk­ish hard­liners, even if he’s push­ing more dovish policies like cur­tail­ing for­eign aid. “Some say my po­s­i­tion is too hard-line, too strong,” he wrote in one such piece. “To them I say, how many more chil­dren must die be­fore it is ac­cept­able to cut off the flow of money to ter­ror­ists?”

Klein, the pres­id­ent of the Zion­ist Or­gan­iz­a­tion of Amer­ica, said Paul has de­livered a sim­il­ar mes­sage to his or­gan­iz­a­tion’s mem­bers dur­ing Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing trips the last two years. “He’s a polit­ic­al per­son and he knows his crowd and he says the things we’re happy to hear,” Klein said. “He doesn’t say the things we’d not be happy to hear, such as his look­ing askance at for­eign aid [in gen­er­al].”

Klein noted that Paul’s mus­cu­lar de­fense of Is­rael with his Stand With Is­rael Act ac­tu­ally dove­tails with a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist world­view. “Of course, it goes right along with his be­ing against for­eign aid any­way,” he said. “It’s ac­tu­ally an easy one for him.” Not­ably, the lead­ing pro-Is­rael lobby, the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, has come out against Paul’s le­gis­la­tion, ar­guing it’s not in Is­rael’s best in­terests.

* * *

THE HAWKS THAT have long dom­in­ated the GOP for­eign policy es­tab­lish­ment have plenty of reas­ons to re­main skep­tic­al. Paul’s in­ter­na­tion­al per­spect­ive, however he frames it, re­mains to the left of tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an­ism. It was only weeks in­to his Sen­ate term in 2011 that Paul re­in­forced some anti-Is­rael pre­con­cep­tions when he re­leased a fisc­al blue­print that erased the en­tire for­eign aid budget, in­clud­ing to Is­rael. Then Paul went on na­tion­al TV and called the money “wel­fare.” “Should we be giv­ing free money or wel­fare to a wealthy na­tion? I don’t think so,” Paul said.

“He star­ted off by say­ing what he thought about for­eign aid and shif­ted to say­ing what he thought would help him get elec­ted pres­id­ent.”

His base cheered his bravery (one head­line from the liber­tari­an Cato In­sti­tute: “Rand Paul is Right About Is­rael”); Paul has been try­ing to walk back the com­ment ever since. Now, he still pub­licly says he’s for cut­ting aid to all na­tions — but he tries to soften the blow by em­phas­iz­ing Is­rael would be last on the list. Mean­while, Klein said, “When I met with him privately, he said if it was clear that Is­rael would not get for­eign aid be­cause of his vote, he would vote for for­eign aid.”

Brooks of the RJC has wel­comed Paul’s shift, both in tone and sub­stance. “It demon­strates that the sen­at­or is not sort of ri­gid when it comes to some of these is­sues but rather is very open and re­cept­ive,” Brooks said. “Clearly, on some is­sues the sen­at­or has evolved. I see it as evolving. I use that word very spe­cific­ally.”

Oth­ers call it pan­der­ing.

“He star­ted off by say­ing what he thought about for­eign aid and shif­ted to say­ing what he thought would help him get elec­ted pres­id­ent,” said Ben Fried­man, the Cato fel­low who wrote the 2011 art­icle prais­ing Paul. “I doubt that he’s un­der the il­lu­sion that he can win over the part of the Re­pub­lic­an Party that has al­ways been most vo­ci­fer­ous and sup­port­ive of Is­rael but he prob­ably thinks he can neut­ral­ize them.”

Fried­man said Paul has the free­dom to be flex­ible be­cause his liber­tari­an base has nowhere else to go in 2016. “Maybe some of them will sit on their hands in­stead of be­ing out there and sup­port­ing him,” he said. “But for the most part he has that con­stitu­ency locked up when it comes to be­ing elec­ted pres­id­ent.”

Paul’s de­fense of his po­s­i­tions can at times take on an ex­as­per­ated tone. “Let me re­peat that, since no one seems to be listen­ing closely,” he wrote in a Wash­ing­ton Post piece that sought to cla­ri­fy he did not sup­port a policy of nuc­le­ar con­tain­ment with Ir­an. (In Septem­ber 2012, Paul was the lone “no” vote in a 90-1 tally against a res­ol­u­tion that said U.S. policy was to pre­vent Ir­an from ac­quir­ing nuc­le­ar weapons.) Much of the ex­as­per­a­tion comes from what he be­lieves are mis­con­cep­tions about his fath­er. As Paul com­plained to The New York Times earli­er this year, “They start out with a mis­char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of his point of view, bas­tard­ize it, make it worse.”

Some of Paul’s al­lies blame a GOP na­tion­al-se­cur­ity ap­par­at­us that is de­term­ined to de­rail Paul. “There are folks who want to, for their own polit­ic­al pur­poses, char­ac­ter­ize Rand in a cer­tain way,” Stafford said. “We’re not go­ing to let them do that.”

Factor, who is help­ing Paul raise money, said, “The prob­lem is that, in the Re­pub­lic­an Party and the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment, con­ser­vat­ives would rather burn and kill who they think are heretics from oth­er wings of the party than unite and fight the in­fi­dels that are try­ing to burn down our coun­try,” re­fer­ring to Demo­crats.

In an in­ter­view earli­er this year, Paul him­self em­phas­ized that his for­eign policy world view is still evolving. He only re­ceived a seat on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee in early 2013 and, he noted, he is still ex­pand­ing his team of ad­visers, nam­ing Di­mitri Simes, pres­id­ent of the Cen­ter for the Na­tion­al In­terest, Lorne Cran­er, a former Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, and Richard Burt, a former am­bas­sad­or, as new­er ad­di­tions.

“I was a phys­i­cian in Bowl­ing Green without a for­eign policy really,” Paul said of his ca­reer four years ago. “As far as de­vel­op­ing ideas on for­eign policy, I would say most of those people are all new since we’ve come to Wash­ing­ton.”

As former Sen. Norm Cole­man, an RJC board mem­ber and in­flu­en­tial Jew­ish polit­ic­al fig­ure who has been cour­ted by Paul, said, “He’s do­ing a very good job clear­ing up the per­cep­tion that he’s not his dad.”

“The point is, Rand is reach­ing out. In the end, he may not be my guy for pres­id­ent. He and I may simply be in dif­fer­ent places [on for­eign policy],” said Cole­man. “But I have the greatest re­spect for his in­tel­lec­tu­al in­teg­rity, for the will­ing­ness to listen, for the out­reach he’s mak­ing. That’s what you want to see in a lead­er.”

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