So, “When I think of, um, the things that I’ve learned about your faith and where your faith intersects with my faith, one of the things I think about and one of the things that first comes to mind is tradition.”
Rand Paul was uneasily addressing about a dozen Orthodox Jews in a small conference room in Midwood, Brooklyn, at the headquarters of Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools on Monday. It was an odd sight to behold: A sea of men, styled in Orthodox fashion, crowding around the tiny, folksy senator and presidential candidate from Kentucky.
Few attendees were willing to explain why they were here. I walked up to a large man with gray hair who, when I asked his name (after he reminded me he couldn’t shake my hand) said, “I’m a person who was invited here today and I don’t know why.” I asked his name again, and he replied, curtly, “Abe.” Abe what? “Leave it alone, OK? I don’t mean to be rude, especially because you’re too pretty, OK?”
Goldie Goldberger, director of the teachers’ center, said she believed Paul was “a great politician,” but she wouldn’t say whether or not she supported him for the nomination, admitting she knew little about American politics, having moved here just 10 years ago from Israel. “She’d know the answer,” Goldberger said while pointing toward a different woman.
At least Paul knew why he was here: “Tradition,” the central theme of his remarks.
“Freedom requires tradition the same way you could say liberty requires virtue,” Paul says. “Bounded by tradition…a stabilizing force for civilization, a stabilizing force for our country, is our traditions…. When I was in Israel, we went to a Shabbat dinner. I love, uh, just sort of the traditions. A lot of the traditions aren’t necessarily our traditions, but you know, I see things that I ask Dr. Roberts about, like Schindler’s List, placing a rock on the, on the gravesite; the tradition of sitting shiva…”
Paul is not your traditionally slick presidential candidate, and he is perhaps also not a traditional choice to address this particular crowd.
According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, “attachment to Israel” among Orthodox Jews, who are overwhelmingly Republican, ranges from 55 percent to 77 percent, compared with just 30 percent among American Jews in general.
In 2012, Paul proposed ending all foreign aid—including to Israel. (Over the summer, Paul claimed that he never suggested cutting aid to Israel, which is patently false.)
Paul’s father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, was a frequent and vocal opponent of America’s Israel policy, arguing that Israel “created” Hamas.
When an attendee asked Paul where he stands on Israel, he said, “I think Israel is one of our best allies and best friends around the world. They’re the only democracy in the Mideast and I’m very supportive.” Paul dismissed his past position of denying Israel foreign aid as “all the stuff that people try to gin up controversy” over. “One day Israel should be independent and Israel will have stronger defense when they are completely independent.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the first question Paul was asked on Monday, by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, was prefaced with the acknowledgement that many of Lipschutz’s friends believe Paul is “an anti-Semite!”
To ease that concern, Paul has been on a steady, quiet campaign to endear himself to the Orthodox community, and he has enlisted Rush Limbaugh’s rabbi/best friend to help him.
Paul’s campaign has brought on as an informal adviser Rabbi Nate Segal, the son of the late Rabbi Zev Segal, who rose to prominence in the 1960s as the influential leader of Orthodox organizations that actively clashed with “more liberal Jewish alternatives,” in his words. “Rabbi Nate,” as Paul refers to him, is well-regarded in Republican circles, due in no small part to his decades-long friendship with Limbaugh, which began in 1988 when Limbaugh was in hot water for comments some perceived as anti-Semitic. Segal called into Limbaugh’s show, told him he hadn’t said anything wrong, and promised, “I will protect you.”
And now he’s doing the same for Paul.
“Rabbi Nate’s been great at introducing us around the country,” Paul told those populating the conference table. “He’s introduced us, probably, in 10 different cities to Orthodox Jews and leaders in their communities. I’ve been very privileged to be able to meet people around the country through Rabbi Nate.”
In a Q&A period, Paul spoke primarily about foreign policy, repeating themes—or, indeed, whole sentences—that he has been telling crowds for at least a last year and a half.
Paul warned of the dangers of toppling “secular dictators,” even going as far as to say, “I think it was a mistake to topple Hussein.” He used “Hillary’s war” in Libya as an example of what can go wrong when the United States intervenes too much in foreign countries, and summarized his worldview as “first, do no harm,” batting away a suggestion that he is an isolationist.
Paul’s audience was captive, which is, incidentally, how it felt to be in the room.