Rand Paul Talks Saddam Hussein, Iran, and Anti-Semitism with Jewish Leaders

The candidate takes questions on the Iran deal, school choice, and negative portrayals of his relationship with the Jewish community.

Presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, R, KY, speaks to leaders of the Jewish community at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools at Torah Umesorah in Brooklyn, NY, Monday, April 27, 2015.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

He didn't make it to this weekend's Las Vegas conference of Jewish Republicans, but he made it to Brooklyn. On Monday, in a small conference room at the National Society for Hebrew Day School’s headquarters, Kentucky Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul was grilled by members of the Orthodox community. He was given a chance to clarify not just his positions, but his reputation as an isolationist and, as one attendee put it, an anti-Semite. 

"When I was in Israel, I went to Shabbat dinner, and I loved the traditions," said Paul. "I asked Dr. [Rich] Roberts about things like Schindler's List, placing a rock on the grave site. The tradition of sitting shiva. Things like that, that are important."

Paul opened up the floor, and took four questions so wordy that the rabbis started joking about their inability to be concise. The most pointed question came from Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the editor-in-chief of the Jewish newspaper Yated Ne'eman, who recalled that friends had warned him against talking to Paul, and he was happy that he did not listen.

Presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, R, KY, speaks to leaders of the Jewish community at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools at Torah Umesorah in Brooklyn, NY,  Monday, April 27, 2015.

Presidential candidate Rand Paul speaks to leaders of the Jewish community at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools at Torah Umesorah in Brooklyn on April 27, 2015.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

"They said, 'He's an anti-Semite!'" said Lipschutz. "'Haven't you read about him?' It's the elephant in the room, so I'm bringing it up... everything they write about you is really not true."

Paul insisted that any negative image he had was rooted in political gaming—and in a little misunderstanding. "People have to recognize that people who say things in the media, who are your competitors, will sometimes say things aren't true to gain advantage," he said. "It's complicated, even within the Jewish community."

One example of the complication came when Paul attempted to leapfrog other supporters of Israel and introduced legislation that would have cut off all American aid to the Palestinian Authority. "AIPAC doesn't support me on the bill," said Paul. "In fact, they lobbied against me on the bill. Mitch [McConnell] or somebody said something about—what is the saying? Two Jews, three opinions?"

Also on Bloomberg Politics: The Definitive Rand Paul Scouting Report, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann 

When the laughter subsided, Paul explained, as he often does, that he did not want to cut off aid to Israel. He just imagined a day when Israel was stronger without it. "I tell people, one day Israel should be independent, and Israel will have a stronger national defense when they are completely independent, because we force them to buy US-made manufacturing for their military," he said.

A question about Iran, which could have been thorny, was framed as a friendly way of getting Paul's take on the deal. Instead of walking through which amendments were and were not acceptable, Paul said he was pushing to get Congress a big, bipartisan role in approving the deal. He wanted a deal; he just worried that the Obama administration was naive about what might happen when the ink was dry.

Presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, R, KY, speaks to leaders of the Jewish community at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools at Torah Umesorah in Brooklyn, NY,  Monday, April 27, 2015.

Presidential candidate Rand Paul speaks to leaders of the Jewish community at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools at Torah Umesorah in Brooklyn on April 27, 2015.

Photograph: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

"I will tell you, the most worrisome statement was the president’s spokesman last week saying, ‘Well, of course they’ll probably still be involved in a little terrorism,'" said Paul. "And it’s like, how are we to believe the agreement, if they’re really going to try to be part of the civilized world and not have a nuclear weapon if they’re just going to dabble in a little bit of terrorism?”

Paul did not call for new conditions before a deal, however, and warned that hawks who wanted to bomb Iran failed to consider the possible blowback. "It could be that it steels their resolve and they have a nuclear weapon within a year," he said.

After a meandering exchange about school choice—Paul's for it—the senator was asked whether he is a foreign policy isolationist. He quickly batted the suggestion down, saying that only a more realistic approach to the Middle East, like his, could get a buy-in from the key players. As he's done in the past, Paul said that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was a "mistake" that rattled the region, and that realpolitik was better than war.

"Saudi Arabia is an ostensible ally," he said. "They have supported radical Islam in our country. They have supported radical Islam across the world... we've got these rich sheikhs that do nothing but spend their money making things worse."

According to Paul, Americans need to involve other countries in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and stop assuming that American guns would solve every problem. "This is absurd, but think about if we sent the Orthodox community over to fight them," he said. "You think they'd be happy about the Orthodox community being the new government in Mosul? No, that would be absurd." That was the reason why Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis needed to be supported and given autonomy, Paul said.

After the event, Lipschutz explained that he wanted to give Paul "an opportunity to explain" that’s he not against the Jewish community, despite the way he’s been portrayed in the media. "I don’t think that he put the question to rest."

Lipschutz argued that Paul needed to be more aggressive with his messaging. “It’s not really a policy thing. I think that he needs to a guy to come up with a soundbite that answers it,” he said.“He should be saying ‘It’s a lie, it’s not true,’ just simple … [h]e has to confront it."

Not everyone agreed. Michael Fragin, 41, a local political strategist attending sitting in the audience, called it an “unfortunate” question.

“I don’t even know why that was a question, because I don’t think anyone in this room comes in here thinking he’s an anti-Semite,” he said. “If you did, you wouldn’t come.”

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