The greatest danger to Israel’s standing in the United States does not come from the radical left, the anti-Semitic fringe, or anti-Israel groups on campus. It comes from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is running hard for President and currently leads the pack of potential 2016 GOP candidates in both New Hampshire and Iowa.
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Senator Paul is a congenial man who is friendly toward Jews and has some very nice things to say about Israel. But he opposes foreign aid to everyone—even though he wants aid to Israel to be eliminated in stages rather than all at once. And he is deeply opposed to an activist American foreign policy. Except in the most extreme cases, he does not want America sending troops or military equipment outside of her borders. America stands for freedom, he says, but we cannot bring freedom to other nations; they must fight for it themselves. Nation-building by Americans is not our job and does not work.
And that is not all. Even in cases where our sympathies and values as Americans would seem to cry out for American engagement in far-away places, the Senator argues that we cannot afford it. Interventions cost money that America just does not have. In the current reality, he notes, we are in the absurd situation where “we must borrow from China to send money to Pakistan.”
At one time the Senator’s views were called “isolationism,” and that in fact is what they are. But unlike his quirky and eccentric father, Congressman Ron Paul, the Senator has learned to present his ideas in a more or less palatable form that has a reasonable ring to many voters. Generally speaking, he tailors his argument against American leadership abroad to the group that he is addressing, emphasizing issues that speak to its particular needs and concerns. He assumes that any inroad he makes may lead to another, and that in any case, generating opposition to American activism on any front strengthens his isolationist case.
Thus, in speaking to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group, on June 13 of this year, he argued against aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan on the grounds that all three countries are “haters of Christianity.” Americans, he said, should send neither money nor troops to a region of the world that persecutes its small Christian communities, adding that “I can recall no utterance of Jesus in favor of war or any acts of aggression.” It was a powerful, articulate, and audacious argument—and also an absurd one. If Christians there are vulnerable and under siege, might this not argue for American efforts, of one sort or another, to help and support them? And as Christian leaders and scholars have noted, war is not always wrong in the Christian tradition; sometimes, as Augustine and Aquinas have pointed out, it is both right and necessary.
The Senator has also tried his tricks on Jews—sometimes successfully. When he argued against aid to Egypt on the grounds that President Morsi is an anti-Semite, the Zionist Organization of America endorsed his call, and Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post blasted Jewish leaders for their cowardice in remaining silent. But Paul was not motivated by Morsi’s anti-Semitism; he simply wanted to find every possible excuse for halting aid to Egypt. When Morsi was replaced by the Egyptian military, he called for stopping aid because the military had carried out a coup, despite the fact that a few days earlier he had praised the protestors for standing up to Morsi’s religious zealotry.
When speaking to small government conservatives, Paul makes the case that Presidential overreach is responsible for the land wars in which we Americans have been engaged; if the power to declare war and fund the troops were returned to Congress, things would be different. When speaking to mainstream Republicans, he identifies himself with Ronald Reagan; Reagan, he insists, talked tough, but focused on diplomacy rather than interventionism. The Senator has endless arguments for an American retreat, each one plausible-sounding and artfully put.
Paul will probably not be President, but he should not be underestimated. He has a touch of political genius, and he can change the nature of the national conversation about America’s role in the world; indeed, he is already doing so.
And American Jews are taking note. Why? Because, by temperament and experience, they are internationalist and interventionist in their political inclinations; because the assertion that “America can’t make a difference in the world” strikes Jews as objectively wrong and morally problematic; because Senator Paul shows no understanding of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria, and has no answers for the dangers that Israel faces from Iran; and because American champions of Israel know, despite the real differences between those on the right and those on the left, that without American activism, leadership, and military and foreign aid in the Middle East, no peace between Israel and her neighbors will ever be possible.
Rand Paul has much political skill but little else to offer America. And American Jews, who are already a bit worried about him, should worry some more.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.