By JILL COLVIN
NEW YORK (AP) — Looking to woo New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, Republican presidential contender Rand Paul faced tough questions Monday about his support for Israel and his approach to foreign policy in the Middle East.
The Kentucky senator spoke in front of a group of several dozen rabbis and other Jewish community leaders at the National Society for Hebrew Day School Headquarters in Brooklyn as part of an outreach effort to a community widely courted by his party.
“I think Israel is one of our best allies and best friends around the world,” Paul said. “They’re the only democracy in the Middle East. And I’m very supportive.”
Paul’s past calls to eventually end all U.S. foreign aid, including to Israel, set him apart in the crowded field of GOP candidates for president, who all support such aid, and he has worked hard in recent months to broaden his appeal among those voters who are focused on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
His visit came the day before the Senate begins debate over empowering Congress to review and possibly reject any nuclear pact with Iran. Israel is strongly opposed to a proposed deal between the U.S., five other world powers and Iran, a country whose leaders have vowed to destroy Israel.
Paul spoke at length about his positon on the ongoing negotiations, telling the crowd a letter sent by 47 senators to Tehran — which said any nuclear agreement with the Obama administration that lacks congressional approval could be unraveled by future presidents — actually strengthened the president’s hand at the table.
“I am for negotiations as opposed to war,” Paul said.
Regarding foreign aid to Israel, Paul said that his position is “the same as it’s always been: One day Israel should be independent.” But he added, “I’m also not saying that it has to end now.”
Asked whether he is an isolationist, Paul that this country’s interventions across the Middle East in recent years, including toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, had had unintended consequences. Among them, empowering the Islamic State group that overran large parts of Iraq last year.
“Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos and radical Islam seems to rise,” he said, arguing that the first principle of American foreign policy should be “first, do no harm.”
Paul, who has traveled to Israel in recent years, enjoyed a recent Shabbat dinner at the Plaza Hotel that was referred to repeatedly Monday by his backers. He began his appearance with brief remarks stressing the importance of faith in American life.
“You have to have religion. You need a religious backbone for a culture or for a civilization,” he said, adding that Dr. Richard Roberts, one of his most prominent Jewish supporters, had been teaching him about Jewish traditions, including sitting shiva after the death of a loved one and placing of rocks on grave sites, as he’d seen in the film “Schindler’s List.”
But when the floor was opened to questions, Paul was immediately confronted by a supporter, Pinchos Lipschutz, the publisher of the weekly New York newspaper Yated, who asked Paul to address what he described as “the elephant in the room.”
“How,” in an age of sound bites and poll-tested answers, he asked, “do you explain your position in a way that they will stop writing that you’re an anti-Semite?”
“I’m not your campaign director, but you really have to do something to change that,” he said.
Paul, referencing polling among Republicans in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, tried to downplay the concerns.
“Really we don’t see it as much of a problem as it might have been two or three years ago before people knew me,” he said, adding: “I think we’ve made great progress.”
In an interview afterward, Lipschutz said Paul has yet to do enough.
“I think that he has to come up with a soundbite that really convinces Jewish people that he doesn’t bear any animus toward them,” he said. “He’s going to have to do better.”