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Rand Paul’s Jewish outreach finds receptive if wary audience

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in March. (Gage Skidmore)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in March. (Gage Skidmore)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Can Rand Paul woo his party’s Jews?

The Kentucky senator and likely candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is stepping up his Jewish outreach. In recent weeks, Paul chatted with rabbis on a conference call and proposed legislation to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

Making inroads with Jewish Republicans is an uphill battle for Paul, an ardent anti-interventionist and opponent of foreign aid. A few years ago, Jewish Republicans were sounding alarms over Paul’s foreign policy views, which they saw as inimical to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Now, however, some are sounding a more conciliatory note.

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, told JTA that Paul has “evolved.”

“He started off wanting to cut all foreign aid. Now he sees it as a long-term strategy. He wants to start scaling back to countries burning flags in their streets,” said Brooks, referencing Paul’s calls to cut aid to countries that are hostile to the United States.

It’s a major shift from 2010 when Paul was running for Senate. At the time Brooks had called Paul a “neo-isolationist” who was “outside the comfort level of a lot of people in the Jewish community.”

The changing tone reflects new political realities. No longer an insurgent Senate candidate, Paul is now a rising power within the Republican Party who is widely assumed to have larger ambitions.

Fred Zeidman, a leading fundraiser for GOP presidential campaigns, said that Paul’s new stature is one reason he deserves a more considered assessment from Republican Jews.

“He is a force to be reckoned with in a presidential race, which I think he is seriously considering,” said Zeidman, a former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who met recently in Houston with Paul.

Brooks declined to discuss the possibility of a Paul presidential run, saying that to do so before the midterm congressional elections would be “premature.”

Paul’s outreach to Jews is consistent with his message that the Republican Party needs to get out of its comfort zone and reach out to constituencies that usually do not back it.

“One of the biggest issues that Senator Paul faced when it came to the Jewish community was the simple fact that there was not a strong relationship,” said Rabbi Chaim Segal, an Orthodox educator and conservative activist based in New York who has assisted Paul in his recent outreach.

Part of Paul’s Jewish problem has been his parentage: His father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), for decades was a critic of Israel, and his eponymous newsletters published pejorative material about gays, blacks and Jews. The elder Paul has since disclaimed knowledge of their contents.

The younger Paul backed his father’s 2012 presidential run. He has picked up his father’s libertarian and anti-interventionist agenda, updating it to heighten its appeal to mainstream conservatives.

Supporters of the younger Paul say he shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of his father.

“If your dad did something, has a view, that has nothing to do with your views,” said Mallory Factor, who teaches political science at The Citadel, a South Carolina military academy, and initiated introductions between Paul and other Jewish Republicans. “That is a straw man. Criticize the guy and his own views.”

Paul’s Jewish supporters point to his outspoken advocacy of ending U.S. aid to potential enemies of Israel. But Paul’s new bill on Palestinian Authority funding has received a mixed reception from pro-Israel groups.

“We are not supporting the Paul bill,” an official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told JTA. “We believe the law currently on the books is strong and ensures that aid is contingent on key conditions that help maintain America’s influence, keep Israel secure and advance the peace process. AIPAC supports a cutoff of aid to any Palestinian government that includes an unreformed Hamas, and this is what is provided for in current law.”

Paul has told the conservative Newsmax media outlet that he finds AIPAC’s opposition to his bill “very troubling.”

“If I were to speak to the 10,000 folks who come up here in support of AIPAC, the vast majority of them would support my bill,” he said.

Paul’s legislation did win praise from the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, whose national president, Morton Klein, noted in an April 30 statement that he had raised the issue of U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority in a meeting with Paul before the senator introduced his legislation.

“We are very pleased to see Senator Paul is taking action on this important issue,” Klein said in his statement.

Paul also has spoken at ZOA events.

But Ben Chouake, president of the New Jersey-based NORPAC, a leading pro-Israel political action committee, questioned the depth of Paul’s feeling for Israel. He noted that Paul is one of only two Republican senators who oppose new sanctions on Iran favored by AIPAC and an array of other pro-Israel groups.

“In terms of having the pro-Israel type of outlook, it would certainly help if he was not one of two Republicans not sponsoring the Iran sanctions legislation,” Chouake said.

Paul, according to a source close to him, opposes increasing punitive sanctions while nuclear talks aimed at keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon are underway. That position would align him with the stance embraced by President Obama and many congressional Democrats.

Whatever differences he may have with pro-Israel activists, Paul has made a sustained effort to build bridges to the Jewish community, enlisting the services of several Jewish intermediaries and finding common ground where he can.

Richard Roberts, a pharmaceuticals executive and GOP donor, helped pay for Paul and a group of Christian Zionists to tour Israel in January 2013. That summer, Roberts hosted Paul for a luncheon at his home in the Orthodox stronghold of Lakewood, N.J., and led the senator on a tour of the town’s Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the world’s largest yeshivas.

In a video of the tour, Paul appears engaged and curious about Orthodoxy.

“Was the Talmud all finished by a certain period of time?” he asks a yeshiva student in the study hall. “Did Rabbi Hillel have anything to do with the Talmud?”

Roberts has called Paul a “man of integrity and authenticity.”

Ahead of Paul’s visits to cities with Jewish communities, Segal arranges off-the-record meetings with local rabbis. More recently, Segal organized a May 8 conference call with what he called 72 “rabbi leaders.”

Speaking after the call, on a video posted on the Jewish Updates news website, Paul suggested frustration with constant questions about his friendship with Israel.

“You know, Meir Dagan is not exactly Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said, referring to the former Mossad chief and the Israeli prime minister, who differ with each other on Iran policy. “You know, they are different people, but that doesn’t mean either one of them loves Israel any less.

“It’s the same in America. Do all Jews have the same exact opinion on every political issue, or even how we should resolve or find peace in the Middle East? No.”

While Paul has managed to build some bridges, it remains to be seen whether he can translate that to support. His foreign policy views remain at odds with those of more hawkish and internationalist-leaning Jewish Republicans, while his mix of social conservatism and economic libertarianism may be a tough sell to the liberal-leaning American Jews more generally.

A top staffer at a pro-Israel group suggested that Paul’s true target in his outreach efforts may be pro-Israel Christians.

“He knows that he has a problem because many of the Tea Partiers who are his natural constituency happen to be pro-Israel,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This stand with Israel act will show up in campaign videos that are targeting the pro-Israel Christian community.”

But Paul may have his work cut out for him with this constituency.

Last September, he drew expressions of outrage from some prominent Christian supporters of Israel after saying in an interview with BuzzFeed that “some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war.”

Paul’s office later clarified that he “was not speaking of any group as a whole.”

David Brog, the Jewish executive director of Christians United for Israel, was among those who criticized Paul’s remark at the time. He told JTA that any serious Republican contender for the presidency must contend with Christian voters who support Israel.

“If he harbors national aspirations, the Christian conservative vote, a top issue in primaries, this becomes one of their core issues,” he said. “Do you share your passion for Israel and concern for Iran, or is there something weaker behind it?”