Rand Paul is describing an episode from his trip to Israel in January: “I went to a Shabbat,” he tells me, “it was the first time I’ve ever done that, and I had a wonderful time. I went to the yeshiva, and all the young men were singing and dancing, they had me dancing around the table. I hope I was singing something that was fine — it was all in Hebrew, so I had no idea what I was singing.”
If there’s any doubt that Rand Paul isn’t his father’s son on the issue of Israel, that trip and his posture afterwards should have ended it. He returned to the U.S. to tell Breitbart News, “Absolutely we stand with Israel. What I think we should do is announce to the world — and I think it is pretty well known — that any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States.”
His father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, recently started a think tank that includes a “NeoCon Watch,” which asks supporters for tips on the latest neoconservative mischief. “If you see something, say something,” the website says. So Rand Paul’s statement came as a surprise to his supporters and detractors alike, and it was the first in a series of such remarks.
The story of Paul’s January trip is the tale of a group of Evangelicals and Jews determined to help get Paul right with Israel, and to take his measure as a man and a politician. Paul says he wanted merely to “learn more about the Middle East,” but he is clearly cultivating the ties among the Jewish and Evangelical leaders whose support would be essential in a GOP primary battle. The trip was a one turning point in the transformation of Rand Paul from libertarian gadfly to viable presidential candidate.
“I’m sure one of the reasons that Rand wanted to participate with me is because he’s interested in the long term,” says David Lane, the prominent Evangelical leader who organized the senator’s trip, his first to the country. “I knew if he spent a week in Israel, his life would change.”
Presidential historian Doug Wead has called Lane a “mysterious, behind-the-scenes, Evangelical kingmaker” and credited him with shifting the 2008 ground game in Iowa toward former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who went on to win a surprise victory in the state’s primary. Lane, who has accompanied Huckabee on two Israeli sojourns, has a reputation for bringing Evangelical leaders together and organizing them politically through what he has termed “Pastors’ Policy Briefings.”
“When I took Rand, my goal was to spend a week with him and figure out who he is, where he is, if he is a believer,” Lane recounts. But he undeniably had politics in view as well. Lane, whose daughter works as a press assistant to Paul, says that he approached the Kentucky senator and told him, “I’ll take you to Israel and, if the Lord blesses it, I’m going to select the key Evangelical leaders to go with you.”
Accompanying Lane and Paul to Israel were not only prominent religious leaders, but also prominent political operatives from early-primary states — among them, South Carolina GOP chairman Chad Connelly and Iowa GOP chairman A. J. Spiker — and longtime Billy Graham spokesman Larry Ross.
At the same time, Paul has courted influential conservative Jews, including Nate Segal, a Staten Island rabbi who serves as an intermediary between Republican activists and politicians and the Orthodox Jewish community. “Our paths seem to cross, so that’s either fortune or planned,” Paul says. “I tell Rabbi Segal that not only do I like him as a person, I consider myself safer when I’m around him because he’s the biggest rabbi I’ve ever met.”
A lumbering six foot four, Segal has the ability both to take center stage and to recede into the background. At last year’s Republican national convention in Tampa, he arranged a meeting between Paul and several black-hatted Orthodox Jews. In a sweltering conference room off the main convention floor, according to a source in attendance, Paul reassured the group that he is a staunch supporter of the Jewish state.
Among those at the Tampa meeting was Richard Roberts, a New Jersey doctor and pharmaceutical executive who recently sold his company. Lane was, at the time, on the search for funding for his trip. “Next thing I know,” Lane says, “I get a voicemail from Rich Roberts. I told him what I do; I told him the Evangelical Christians are the best friends of the Jews. So Rich Roberts underwrote the trip.” Segal and Roberts also flew to Israel with Lane and his group, and made their mark on the adventure.