Establishing his role as President Trump’s unofficial envoy to the Jewish community, Vice President Mike Pence found himself in Las Vegas on Friday, delivering greetings from the President at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Shabbat dinner.
“I wanted to say Shabbat shalom to you all,” Pence opened, moving on to a carefully crafted speech that touched on all issues Jewish Republicans may feel uneasy about: anti-Semitism, Israel, and the future of the Middle East. By doing so, Pence managed to disarm any lingering concerns while winning over the crowd made up of Jewish donors, activists and politicians gathered for the event.
The gathering, a first chance for Jewish Republicans movers and shakers to convene since the elections, brought together a group that had been slow to hop on the Trump train but is now working its way to the president’s camp. Trump’s dealings with the outburst of anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. since his election have raised concerns among some Jewish Republicans, but the president’s denunciation of anti-Semitism this week and Pence’s subsequent visit to the vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri, helped quell these concerns.
“Let me be clear: we condemn these vile acts of vandalism and those who perpetrated them in no uncertain terms,” Pence said. “Hatred and anti-Semitism have no place in America.”
“We got answers, they made their position clear,” said Shantal Razban Nia, a college student participating at the event after listening to Pence’s speech. Razban Nia, who describes herself as young, Jewish, and conservative, said that the statements by Pence and Trump on anti-Semitism, have made her “very hopeful.”
RJC’s executive director Matt Brooks expressed his hope that Pence and Trump’s remarks will put all questions to rest. “There is a professional complaining class in the Jewish community that no matter what President Trump will say or do, they will attack him,” Brooks said. “Those who have an open mind will find that he is responsive in a very positive way.”
The annual RJC leadership meeting took place at Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian hotel and casino, where top Jewish Republican donors and activists can add a traditional poker game to their schedule of meetings and speeches, and where Elvis impersonators cross path with former administration officials and aspiring politicians. Organizers estimated the participants at 500-600, slightly more than in previous years, and several members noted the younger profile of the crowd and the abundance of Orthodox participants, distinguished by their kippahs. More than 100 of them took part in Shabbat services before the dinner.
Speaking at the CPAC conference on Thursday, Pence celebrated the victory of conservative values and the new direction America will be heading under Trump, promising a roaring conservative crowd that “this is our time.” His message Friday night, however, was tailored to Jewish Republicans who tend to identify less with the conservative social values but care deeply about Israel.
“Let me assure you of this,” Pence said. “If the world knows nothing else, the world will know this: America stands with Israel.” The vice president did not offer much in terms of details on how the Trump administration will back Israel. Pence mentioned Trump’s intention to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians and noted that he himself had discussed the issue with Adelson before the dinner. Trying to walk around Trump’s pre-election promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Pence offered a new formulation, stating that the administration is “assessing” when the embassy should be relocated.
“The best thing about this new administration is that I don’t have to wake up every day and worry about what [former White House press secretary] Josh Earnest said about Israel,” said Mark Levenson, a New Jersey Jewish activist who stated he is still a registered Democrat, but “on Israel, my views are where Republicans are.”
Adelson, RJC’s chief sponsor, was Trump’s biggest Jewish donor and is responsible, to a great extent, for bringing Jewish Republicans to coalesce behind Trump despite their early reservations. Speaking at a private dinner he hosted Thursday for RJC board members and top Republican politicians, Adelson reportedly said Trump is likely to be “the best president for Israel ever.” Adelson was joined by fellow Jewish casino magnate and Trump supporter Steve Wynn in a conversation that focused mainly on business and their experience in Vegas’s gambling scene. Among the participants at Adelson’s home were Nevada Senator Dean Heller, House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Ed Royce and RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel.
“One year ago many of us only dreamed we will keep our majority and win the White House, but sometimes dreams come true,” said RJC board member Michael Epstein. Pence, in his speech, thanked Jewish Republicans for their support, ignoring the fact that many of them were not on board with Trump until after the elections. “You all took a lot of flack for your courage, but you stuck with us,” Pence said, then turning director to Sheldon and Miriam Adelson sitting and praising them for their “patriotism and leadership.”
Adelson, who lists Israel among his top interests in politics and in philanthropy, met with Trump at the White House days before the president hosted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Attending RJC’s gathering were also some of the other early adopting Jewish donors who stood alongside Trump before the elections, including Lew Eisenberg who chaired the Republicans’ finance committee, Mel Sembler and Elliott Broidy.
The RJC announced Friday the installment of its new top lay leader. Former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman will take over as national chairman, replacing David Flaum. In a statement, Coleman praised the recent RJC electoral achievements. “Beyond a unified Republican government, this past election cycle, the RJC helped double the number of Republican Jewish voices in Congress.” By doubling the number, Coleman was referring to the number of Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives increasing from one to two.
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 Ha’aretz 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. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman