Senator Rand Paul’s still unofficial presidential campaign reached a small but significant milestone in early January: The executive director of the Orthodox Union’s advocacy center, Nathan Diament, publicly praised him in an official press release.
For many candidates, that might not mean much. But for Paul, the O.U.’s January 6 statement, lauding his sponsorship of a bill to defund the Palestinian Authority, marked something new. Long shunned by the organized Jewish community as hostile to Israel, Paul is attaining a degree of acceptability, if not yet embrace, in at least some quarters of American Jewry.
It has been a steep learning curve for the up-and-coming libertarian. On top of his own longtime views against foreign aid to any country, the Kentucky Republican labors, justly or not, under an additional burden in the eyes of some Jews as the son of a former congressman who has been associated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Yet within less than two years, the Kentucky senator has gone from pariah to pareve in the eyes of many Jewish GOP supporters. And the O.U.’s statement meant something more: a first-time nod from an avowedly nonpartisan national Jewish group. The group stressed, however, that its statement was limited only to Paul’s legislative initiative and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Paul’s quest for a kosher stamp of approval has been long and thorough, and is still far from complete. Among other things, he has walked back, time and again, his call for eliminating aid to Israel. He has become a leading pro-Israel voice in the Senate. And last year he took a family trip to Israel and donned a yarmulke when paying visits to traditionally observant Jewish donors.
“It’s clear that he is working very hard to find points of common ground with Jewish Republicans and Jewish libertarians,” said Marshall Breger, a founding member of the Republican Jewish Coalition who served in the administrations of presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Still, even among conservative Republicans, Paul is not quite there.
“I do not believe that Rand Paul has really changed his positions,” said Ned Siegel, an RJC board member and Republican donor who served as ambassador to the Bahamas during the George W. Bush presidency. Siegel, a supporter of Florida governor Jeb Bush who is now exploring a possible 2016 run, said Paul’s newly adjusted views on Israel reflect political expediency. “The man is running for president and he’s sizing up what needs to be done,” Siegel said. “The Jewish community needs someone who was a loyal supporter of the State of Israel regardless of elections.”
Paul’s route to attracting Republican Jewish support departs markedly from the path almost every other GOP candidate travels. For others, the starting point is an established record of hawkish, security-centered pro-Israel views that will appeal to the Republican Jewish establishment. Paul, lacking these credentials, began instead by reaching out to the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox margins of the Jewish community, where activists are often less singularly focused on Israel when engaging with politicians who can help advance their domestic goals. From there, Paul has been seeking to work his way to the mainstream.
In June 2013, this journey took the senator to an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, where he strolled through the learning hall, taking an interest in the Talmud studies and in the future plans of the students huddled over their books. His host was Dr. Richard “Kasriel” Roberts, a wealthy Orthodox Republican donor. “Rand Paul,” Roberts said as he welcomed Paul, “is real. He’s authentic.” Roberts also paid for Paul’s trip to Israel and accompanied him there.
This was far from Paul’s only foray into this world. In the past two years, Paul has made a point of giving interviews to Orthodox radio shows and of meeting frequently with delegations, donors and activists from the Orthodox community.