There are many ways to woo a Jewish political audience, and Donald Trump ignored them all.
Instead of usual applause lines, The Donald chose to invoke borderline anti-Semitic stereotypes and bypassed Middle East policy softball questions that are dear to this audience.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump teased the crowd of 700 Republican Jewish Coalition activists and top donors gathered in Washington to hear all 14 presidential candidates give their spiel. “You’re not going to support me even though I’m the best thing that will ever happen to Israel,” Trump went on, explaining that Jewish voters “want to control” their politicians by the donations they give them.
Trump, seemingly unaware of the stereotypes he had been referring to, sought time and again to establish a kinship with the Jewish audience based on shared negotiating skills. “I’m a negotiator, like you folks,” Trump said, later turning to the crowd and asking: “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”
For the most part, Trump’s jabs were met with bemusement from the Jewish audience. (He was later booed, however, when refusing to answer a question about the status of Jerusalem in a final peace deal). But Trump’s magic, while effective enough to survive the RJC audience, did not quell the distaste many Jewish Republican leaders feel toward his candidacy.
“He frightens me at the same time he entertains me,” said Susan Sager, a longtime RJC leader who hosted George W. Bush and his family for their first ever Passover seder at her Austin, Texas home. “I don’t think of the celebrity being any more relevant to the presidency than someone being a community organizer.”
But no one could deny the entertaining value of Trump’s address. Trump boasted his support for Israel by talking of his experience as Grand Marshal of the annual pro-Israel annual parade on Fifth Avenue; he questioned President Obama’s refusal to talk about “radical Islamic terrorists,” suggesting that “there’s something going on with him that we don’t know about,” and Trump attacked Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, saying she doesn’t have “the strength or energy” to support Israel.
Stepping up to the podium hours after his interview with the Associated Press in which he expressed his doubts about Israel’s will to compromise for peace, Trump tried to correct the impression of criticism by avoiding any direct question regarding the Middle East conflict. According to Trump, a good negotiator knows not to reveal his positions before sitting to the table.
The RJC tried to frame the candidate forum as an opportunity to present a strong alternative to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In a not-so-subtle message to the press, organizers chose the phrase HillaryIsWrongOnIran as the password needed to enter the press wireless internet network.
But on stage, while spending time attacking Obama’s views on Israel and tying Clinton to Obama’s policies, most candidates sought to distinguish themselves from others in the GOP presidential pack, hoping that top Jewish donors and voters will give them a leg up over their rivals.
Jewish Republican donors’ priorities are somewhat different than those of the broader GOP voter base. Many prefer to steer clear from hot button conservative issues, including abortions and immigration. Several have pinned their hopes on Jeb Bush, while others showed interest in Marco Rubio and John Kasich. Ted Cruz enjoys support among more traditional Orthodox Jewish donors.
Michael Epstein, a former Scott Walker supporter from Maryland who is now shopping around for a new candidate to back, found some attractive candidates on stage, singling out Rubio, Kasich and Graham for praise.
Trump, he believes, was no more than entertaining. “He was Kim Kardashian on stage,” he said. Ben Carson, was “totally unimpressive.”
It wasn’t an easy task for some of the candidates, who struggled to pronounce words that could pave a way to the hearts of Jewish pro-Israel voters.
Ben Carson’s Hamas sounded more like hummus. Marco Rubio butchered Mahmoud Abbas’ name. And little-known Jim Gilmore did his best to pronounce the word “kishkes” admitting that he had to Google the term to find out exactly what the term means.
Ted Cruz, who opened the eight-hour session, provided the audience with a theme that would later be repeated by other candidates: a pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to “rip to shreds” the nuclear deal with Iran. Cruz sought to convince centrist Jewish Republicans to support him despite his right wing stance on values issues.
“It’s a mistake to run from the middle,” Cruz said. “Central question is how to you inspire and bring back to the polls 54 million evangelicals who stayed home in 2010.”
Marco Rubio, who is hoping to win over Jewish donors who may be growing disaffected with Jeb Bush, went through the entire pro-Israel checklist in great detail, vowing to fight attempts to boycott Israel, criticizing the European Union and the U.N. and addressing the issue of de-legitimization of Israel that has been on the mind of many Jewish Americans for the past years. “Calling for the destruction of Israel is the same as calling for the death of Jews,” Rubio said.
Rubio’s potential key donor, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, was not in the audience to hear the Florida senator’s pitch. Adelson, who is travelling abroad, was reportedly leaning toward backing Rubio, although no decision has been made. In the 2012 elections, Adelson’s cash helped keep candidate Newt Gingrich in the race for months despite low polling numbers. For Rubio, it could be the financial edge that will allow him outlive his rivals.
Jeb Bush, an early favorite of Jewish donors, came to the event to try and ensure these supports don’t desert him in light of his overall low numbers in the polls. Bush, accused by critics of being soft in his presentation and lacking energy, made a clear attempt to change tone.
“I think you’re looking at the next Republican nominee and here’s what I promise to you: should I win this nomination, I will take it to Hillary Clinton and I will whup her,” Bush declared, winning louder applause than other candidates.
Bush is hoping that his message, a combination of hawkish views on Israel and national security and a moderate approach to domestic issues, will resonate with Jewish Republicans fearful of a right-wing shift in the party. Several activists, speaking in the hallways, expressed their belief that Bush can still perform well in the early primary states, paving the way for a successful campaign. If he fails, the donors will move on, possibly to the Rubio camp.
And while the leading candidates left the forum hoping they’ve won over new supporters, for some lagging behind it was an opportunity for more a more candid approach.
“Give me a chance. I’ll win,” Senator Lindsey Graham pleaded with the listeners at the closing of his address. Graham, who has less than 1% support in the polls, felt free to distance himself from others in the race. Donald Trump, he said, is “destroying the Republican party’s chance to win,” and Ted Cruz’s pivot to the evangelical voters is, he believes, mistaken because the focus should be on Hispanic and women voters. “You think you’re gonna win an election with that kind of garbage?” he asked.
Graham, a longtime foreign policy wonk who has struck a hawkish pro-Israel tone in his years in Congress, managed to provide his Jewish listeners with a pledge that goes way beyond promises to move the embassy or do away with the Iran deal. A Graham administration, he jokingly said, “will have the first all Jewish cabinet in America.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.