Rand and the rabbis
By Shimmy Blum
The early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination paid a visit the other day to one of the world's most prestigious and among the largest -- yeshivas. He revealed for his audience what Republican primary voters and perhaps the general electorate will hear from him in 2016
AKEWOOD, N.J. If there is one impression that Senator Rand Paul may take with him back to Washington from his two-hour visit here it might well be the admiration he expressed for the chavrusa system he saw in action on a tour of the Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) rabbinical seminary.
The idea that advanced learning can take place without the need for a lecturer or a formal classroom structure was a revelation to the senator from Kentucky, who perhaps also observed that argumentation -- an integral part of that system -- can be conducted in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.
Paul was given an impromptu lesson in the complicated laws of a Talmudic topic from a random student he encountered in the hallway and was probably not too surprised to hear from the BMG leadership that none of its 6,000-plus students hail from his home state of Kentucky.
It is doubtful that the attendees at the luncheon that followed his tour ever visited Kentucky let alone have roots there yet Paul seemed at home. His physical stature is unimposing and his voice soft; a contrast to the often intimidating persona of his father Ron who ran in last year's Republican presidential primaries. Reserved and respectful, Rand Paul spent more time in Lakewood listening than talking, and put more effort into learning about his surroundings than promulgating his views.
Following introductory remarks that included some history of the Jewish People in general and Lakewood -- one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in America -- in particular, Paul's host for lunch, philanthropist and GOP mega-donor Dr. Richard Roberts, drew laughs when he presented Paul with a gift-wrapped $15 toy drone. The memento was a reference to Paul's famous 13-hour filibuster in March in which he criticized the Obama administration's use of drones to hunt down suspected terrorists on US soil.
Dr. Roberts told the crowd which included Lakewood mayor Isaac Akerman, yeshivah and Bais Yaakov deans, community activists, and married students that the senator's unique style is precisely what endeared him when the two met at last summer's Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Dr. Roberts spent some more time with Paul and nearly 100 Jewish and evangelical leaders on a trip to Israel that he sponsored in January. "President Obama tells every group what they want to hear; Rand Paul is the polar opposite," says Dr. Roberts. "We disagree on some issues, but the number one thing we need is authenticity and integrity."
Paul was also introduced to the seventh-grade Tiferes Bais Yaakov classmates of Dr. Roberts' daughter, with Dr. Roberts explaining to the girls that "this man may be president."
While the next presidential election is more than three years away, potential candidates are already jockeying for position. In the most recent national polls, Rand Paul is roughly tied for the lead with Florida senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Paul, a freshman senator who never held elected office prior to his 2010 Senate victory, is ahead of those top potential rivals in key states that vote early in the primary season, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
To succeed in his quest, Rand Paul will need to make his blend of conservative Republican/Tea Party views and libertarian political philosophies palatable to mainstream America.
Libertarian purists abhor government interference of all types and their platform calls for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service, and all federal programs and services not required under the US Constitution.
Paul does not advocate such a radical approach; however he has taken a leading out-of-the-box role on the budget, proposing $500 billion a year in cuts to federal programs. He personally returned over $1 million in unused funds from his Senate office budget to the US Treasury. He supports relaxation of drug-enforcement laws, is skeptical about the scope and role of US military operations and the national security apparatus, and supports a reduced role for government in both the economic and moral wellbeing of everyday Americans.
Rand Paul's record in office has been defined by his effort to come across as a reasonable, though revolutionary, libertarian conservative. He remains steadfastly opposed to all foreign aid, including aid to Israel. He has pushed to prioritize the termination of aid to nations hostile to America and has stressed that Israel will be less beholden to American dictates if it is no longer reliant on US military aid.
Yet Paul's balancing act is often seen as contradictory to his own positions, at times delighting and upsetting both supporters and skeptics.
Senator Paul initially joined fellow Republican senators in refusing to allow the Senate to vote on the confirmation of former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense (who was perceived as being anti-Israel and soft on Iran) but when the nomination eventually came up for a vote, Paul angered some hawks by being one of only four Republicans who voted to confirm him.
In response to a question about a military strike against Iran, Paul told the Lakewood luncheon: "I'm always a believer that all options must be on the table. I believe that going to war is a last resort, but that does not make me a pacifist." He then ticked off a list of logistical challenges of and potential repercussions from attacking Iran. He spoke of the need to engage Russia and China to help halt Iran's nuclear program short of military means.
For Jewish voters, Paul faces the additional hurdle in proving his independence from his controversial father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president in 1988, 2008, and 2012. The senior Paul, for instance, had disseminated a racist, anti-Semitic newsletter in the 1980s, claimed that there was "glee" in White House after the 9/11 attacks, has associated with "9/11 truther" conspiracy theorists, and recently set up a "Neocon Watch" in his think tank to track the activities of mostly Jewish foreign policy hawks.
Regarding Israel, Paul related some of the discussions he held with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, as well as his observation that there is unlikely to be major change in the peace process any time soon. He instead suggested unilateral Israeli measures such as increasing commerce and tourism opportunities for Palestinians to further reduce their motivation for terrorism.
Not one to shy away from injecting himself into the midst of controversial issues, Paul has placed himself at the forefront of national debate after the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting the telephone and Internet communication data and credit card transactions of all Americans through its PRISM program, in the name of detecting potential terrorist patterns.
In response, Paul has reintroduced his Fourth Amendment Restoration Act to protect Americans from warrantless collection of their private data and has threatened to lead a class action lawsuit against the NSA. A successful effort to protect against perceived government overreach could help burnish his populist credentials and endear him to many voters, particularly young ones, who lean Democratic but might be very receptive to a libertarian message.
In response to a question posed over whether he'd oppose the PRISM program if it could have prevented the 9/11 attacks, Paul avoided a direct yes or no answer. Instead, he contended that conventional police work and "not hard to get" judicial search warrants when there is reasonable suspicion are sufficient national security tools when used effectively. He pointed to the fact that an FBI agent had placed over 70 requests for a warrant to search the computer of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in the month before the attacks, which might have been prevented if the conventional law enforcement apparatus had done its job and pursued the warrant.
Paul warned against trusting government claims that secret information-collection programs have prevented actual terror plots, saying such claims are based on classified information that the public cannot examine. He further warned that minority groups would be most susceptible to government abuse of power. "I don't mean to admonish anyone," he summed up, "but this community should think about what can happen without due process."
TEMPEST IN A TEA PARTY
At the luncheon, that delicate balancing act was clearly on display, with his nuanced and lengthy responses to all policy questions. When asked about President Obama's declaration that the "war on terror" is over, he replied: "I don't think it is over, but I wouldn't call it a war on terror so much. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't try diplomacy." At the same time, Paul criticized the Obama administration's reluctance to point to radical Islam as the source behind some recent domestic terror attacks.
Actually reaching the White House might seem like a stretch for the 50-year-old father of three, but Paul's brief political history includes lots of defying the odds.
In 2010, as an ophthalmologist who never ran for political office, Paul began as a longshot but beat experienced elected statewide officials in both the Republican senate primary and the general election. Although Kentucky is not a swing state in national elections, it has elected many Democrats for statewide office in recent years.
"The last Republican presidential nominee who ran on a strong libertarian platform was Barry Goldwater in 1964 and he got 38 percent of the vote in the general election," conservative political analyst Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller tells Mishpacha. "Libertarianism is a fine philosophy but can easily be painted as extreme."
At the same time, Lewis notes that if anyone can buck the trend, it may be Rand Paul: "Rand is an incredibly talented, smart politician. He has managed to argue his positions in a way that is inclusive and inspiring."
IF HIS FATHER COULD SEE HIM NOW
Now that he has scaled down his business activities, Dr. Roberts has assumed a greater-than-ever activist role in the national political scene, becoming a top donor to various Republican and conservative causes.
Dr. Roberts and Rabbi Nate Segal are the two Orthodox Jews who share the closest relationship with Senator Rand Paul. Dr. Roberts takes pride in the fact that many mainstream media outlets detected a far more pro-Israel bent in the senator since he returned from the trip to Israel he sponsored.
"His more positive views are not due to political expediency," Dr. Roberts stresses. "What I've seen in Senator Paul is a highly intelligent man who is open to evolving his position when he learns new information."
More than just helping familiarize a potential presidential candidate with Israel's realities, Dr. Roberts points to the fact that he has helped acquaint Paul with America's Orthodox Jewish communities, something he had little opportunity to do during his early years growing up in Texas, or in his current home state of Kentucky.
At the luncheon, Senator Paul seemed particularly amused as he listened to Dr. Roberts read through the Lakewood Yellow Pages list of local nonprofit gemachim, offering everything from boys' tuxedos to radar detectors.
Reflecting upon all the quality time they spent together, Dr. Roberts recalled the Sabbath meal they enjoyed in Jerusalem, where a group of Mirrer Yeshivah students joined and helped form a dancing ring while singing traditional uplifting Sabbath songs. While dancing, Dr. Roberts placed his hands on one of Senator Paul's shoulders, with the students doing the same on the other.
"I whispered into Rand's ear, 'If only your father could see you now,'" Dr. Roberts recounts with a chuckle. "He laughed hysterically."
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