The field at last night’s GOP presidential primary debate, co-sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition and held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, had narrowed to five candidates. (Seven took the stage at the previous debate and eight appeared at the first one. Frontrunner Donald Trump again opted to share a different stage with no one.)
All five candidates—Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott—were unequivocal in their support for Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas after its horrendous October 7 terrorist attack. Stressing Israel’s absolute right and need to go after the group, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2005, one candidate after another urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish the job,” “wipe Hamas off the map” and “smoke those terrorists.”
Chris Christie was comparatively staid in his pledge that “America is here no matter what it is you need at any time to preserve the state of Israel.” Later in the debate, he talked about how, as U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the aftermath of 9/11, he did outreach to synagogues and mosques alike and made fighting hate crimes a priority. This was in response to NBC moderator Lester Holt asking about the Palestinian-American mother and her young son who were stabbed (he fatally) by their landlord in Illinois last month. None of the candidates talked about Palestinians, keeping the focus on Hamas.
Matthew Brooks, CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, appeared virtually to pose several questions to the candidates, including one about rising antisemitism on college campuses. All the candidates expressed strong sympathy for Jewish students fearful of antisemitic repercussions over Israel’s war in Gaza and lambasted other students who have demonstrated in support of the Palestinians. Tim Scott said those students were “supporting Jewish genocide,” and Ramaswamy characterized them as “siding with Hamas.” Of course, in addition to peaceful demonstrations calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, there have been ugly protests and antisemitic incidents on U.S. campuses. But off the debate stage, not everyone agrees they constitute a wave of antisemitism.
Lest we fail to appreciate that American politicians across the spectrum can be counted on to denounce antisemitism, historian Michael Brenner examines events that transpired 100 years before last night’s GOP debate. November 8, 1923, was the night of Hitler’s failed beer hall putsch. It’s common knowledge that Hitler failed to strong-arm the Bavarian leaders that night and was jailed, but the antisemitic violence that accompanied the attempt may be less well known—and the involvement of American diplomats even less so.
Back in Miami, as she has in past debates, Nikki Haley demonstrated a deeper knowledge of foreign policy than most of her rivals and offered full-throated support for continuing U.S. military aid, not only to Israel but to Ukraine in its defensive war with Russia. Ron DeSantis remained somewhat vague on Ukraine, expressing skepticism about continuing aid, and Ramaswamy suggested letting Russia keep areas it has taken. He called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “comedian in cargo pants.” It also sounded as if he called him a Nazi, which the Ramaswamy team later walked back. Ramaswamy certainly wasn’t wrong about the Ukrainian president having a comedic background, but these are serious times for Zelensky. Fortunately, Jewish humor endures.
By skipping the debate, Trump avoided having to weigh in on any of it and is probably telling himself he got the last laugh. But in not joining his fellow candidates on these debate stages, is he leaving Jewish voters to wonder where he stands?