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What Biden and Trump said about Israel — and Hitler — during the first presidential debate

Moderator Dana Bash asked Trump whether he favored the creation of a Palestinian state

Two Jewish journalists, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, moderated the first 2024 presidential debate Thursday night, and neither asked President Joe Biden or former President Trump about rising antisemitism. But the debate touched on other topics of particular interest to Jewish voters. Here are a few, plus one Jewish comedian’s take on the spectacle.

What did they say about Israel, Gaza and a Palestinian state?

When Bash asked the candidates what more could be done to press Israel and Hamas to end the conflict in Gaza, Biden said “the only one who wants the war to continue is Hamas,” and pointed to its rejection of a proposal for a hostage-ceasefire deal accepted by Israel, the U.S. and the U.N. He also explained his decision to halt a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel. “We’re providing Israel with all the weapons they need and when they need them,” he said. And he said Hamas “should be eliminated.”

Biden added that he’s “the guy” who mobilized allies to stop Iran’s missile attack on Israel. “No one was hurt, not one Israeli was accidentally killed and it stopped,” he said, referring to the interception of more than 300 ballistic missiles and drones launched by Iran on April 13. “We saved Israel. We are the biggest producer of support for Israel of anyone in the world.”

Trump said the war would never have happened under his watch. He said Israel wants to continue the war in Gaza until Hamas is defeated, and that the U.S. should allow it to “finish the job.”

Trump also described Biden as a “bad Palestinian” who wants Israel to lose the war. “He’s become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian. He’s a weak one.”

Trump declined to say whether he’s in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. “I’d have to see,” he said. 

A fan of Hitler?

Biden reminded voters of his 2020 campaign theme, uniting a divided nation, and pointed to Trump’s “both sides” comment about the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “What American president would ever say Nazis coming out of fields carrying torches singing antisemitic bile while carrying swastikas are fine people?” he said. He also accused Trump of praising Adolf Hitler.

“This is a guy who says Hitler has done good things,” Biden said. “I’d like to know what they are.”

Trump fired back that his “both sides” comment had been “debunked.” Video from the time confirms that Trump did say that about the white supremacist rally and a counter-rally, in which a counter-protester was killed.

Biden responded: “It happened. All you have to do is listen to what was said at the time.”

Trump also accused Biden of using the Charlottesville rally “as an excuse to run” for president.

 Biden said that was a reason, and that he also decided to run “because I was worried a guy like this guy can get elected.” 

Trump on the campus protests 

Trump said in his closing statement that pro-Palestinian protests across the country are far worse than the Charlottesville riots, and accused Biden of failing to address them.

“We have the Palestinians and we have everybody else rioting all over the place,” he said. “This is a hundred times Charlottesville — one thousand times. The whole country is exploding because of you, because they don’t respect you.”

Biden did not address the protests during the debates. He has defended the right to free speech but has also criticized protesters for engaging in violence and antisemitism.

A promise to free a Jewish journalist

Trump said he would free a Wall Street Journal reporter “as soon as I win the election.” He was referring to Evan Gershkovich, a Jewish journalist who Russia has imprisoned for the past 15 months on charges of espionage which have been denied by the U.S., the newspaper and his family. Tapper had not asked about Gershkovich, whose trial began Wednesday, but about how Trump would help American struggling with drug addiction.

Trump instead turned to one of his favored topics, illegal immigration across the Southern border. He said “it’s just like just like when you have a hostage,” and faulted the U.S. for overpaying to release Americans imprisoned overseas. “Now we have a hostage,” Trump said. “I think a good guy, and he’s over there because Putin is laughing at [Biden], probably asking for billions of dollars for the reporter.”

The Biden administration has been pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to release Gershkovich. 

A Jewish comedian gets semi-serious

Comedian Alex Edelman, whose one-man show about crashing a meeting of neo-Nazis spent made it to Broadway, wrote on X during the debate that “it’s crazy how the takeaway is going to be “Trump is lying every time he talks but he just sounds so VIGOROUS when he does it.”

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