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.
This is not the first time Segal has bridged the cultural divide. Back in the 1980s, when Rush Limbaugh was attacked as an anti-Semite for referring to the “Jewish lobby” on the air, Segal acted as his advocate in the Jewish community. The campaign against Limbaugh reached a climax when he was thrown out of New York City’s Parker Meridien hotel, where he had been staying temporarily after moving to New York City. Shortly thereafter, Zev Chafets recalls in his book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, Segal “got Limbaugh on the phone.” He told Limbaugh, “You haven’t done anything wrong, I will protect you.” Limbaugh in January recalled on the air that Segal “saved me with the New York Jewish community, ‘cause I didn’t know what [‘Jewish lobby’] meant.”
Limbaugh and Segal also traveled to Israel together, and Limbaugh repeatedly aired a highlight reel from the trip — it featured Limbaugh touring Masada, chatting with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, praying at the Wailing Wall, and flying to a military briefing in the Golan Heights, all set to Jewish music — on the television show he hosted at the time. “And here I am about to conduct a Merkava 3 tank,” Limbaugh said as the video concluded. “Note that I look nothing like Michael Dukakis.”
The latest jaunt seems to have had its intended effect. Paul says the experience had an impact on him. “The spirituality of it, the historical relationship with Christianity and Judaism, just the linkage to all the stories of the Bible and just being there, being on the Sea of Galilee, those things are sort of beyond words.” Being in Israel also developed in him “a sense of kinship” with the people. “The one thing I’ve said over and over again is that we should quit sending money to countries that are burning our flag, and that, you know, that’s the one thing I think you’ll never see in Israel is anyone burning our flag.”
He still maintains that foreign aid to all nations, including Israel, should end, though he argues for closing the spigot to America’s enemies first and then gradually reducing the funding for American allies. By contrast, he remains more aggressive than most on the issue of Israel’s settlements. After meeting with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and others, he says, “You get the idea from them that they’re put off that American politicians would come over and tell them where neighborhoods could be built.” Paul argues that such decisions are “completely their business and not ours.” A New York Post column called his statements the most supportive since Sarah Palin’s 2009 assertion that Israel should be allowed to expand settlements.
Though Paul discourages reading too much into his trip — “When you get to Washington, everyone asks you, ‘When do you want to go to Israel?’” — he acknowledges that he needs to strike out on his own, given his father’s well-known foreign-policy views: “I guess I don’t look at it in really a calculated way. I am my own person and as I move forward I have to and want to present to the public . . . in my state and elsewhere, who I am and what I stand for, but it’s not so much that I want to say ‘Oh, I’m different on this, this, and this,’ it’s really getting beyond the comparison just to being who I am.”
Lane left Jerusalem satisfied, having learned what he set out to discover: Paul, he says, is a believer. “When we were there, they had an eight- or ten-year drought going on. The week we were there, they ended the drought, it rained like hell.” En route to Galilee, their bus encountered rockslides and collapsed bridges, and the group was stranded on the vehicle for hours. They turned to the tour bus’s sound system for entertainment. “Rand said that he wanted to hear ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Guns N’ Roses,” Lane recalls. (The senator’s office writes to say the request was actually for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”) Then he requested a song by Aimee Allen, who famously sang “The Ron Paul Anthem” at a concert for the elder Paul during his presidential campaign. Asked about Allen, Paul told Lane, “She’s just gone through awful stuff and she’s turned her life around.”
“So, she’s a believer?” Lane asked. “Yup, she’s a believer,” Paul responded.
– Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.