Donald Trump joked about Jewish stereotypes, declined to affirm his support for a united Jerusalem, and told his audience they wouldn’t back him because he did not want their money. Reading from a prepared text, Ben Carson repeatedly pronounced the name of the Palestinian group “Hamas” as if it were a delicious spread made with chickpeas.
The performance of these two outsider candidates left attendees at Thursday’s summit of the Republican Jewish Coalition amused, but not impressed. With the RJC, an influential group of donors and activists that prioritizes American policy towards Israel, the neurosurgeon and the businessman faced a more politically sophisticated crowd than either is used to, and one more concerned with the nuances of foreign policy.
I don’t think either one helped themselves particularly,” said Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary to George W. Bush, who attended the event.
While many agreed with much of the substance of his Carson’s speech, the neurosurgeon’s decision to read from a prepared text and his repeated mispronunciations of “Hamas” only hardened the perceptions of those in the hall that he does not fully grasp the complicated dynamics of the Middle East.
Trump began the day in a hole with this crowd after questioning Israel’s commitment to making peace with Palestine in an interview ahead of the summit. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal – whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things,” Trump told the Associated Press of the prospects for peace in the region. “They may not be.”
His speech – in which he joked about Hillary Clinton’s “interesting friendship” with Muslim aide Huma Abedin, cited his appearance in a campaign ad for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and led with his daughter’s Jewish husband – kept the audience laughing and clapping throughout. It did not generate much political support.
“He’s funny. And if I went to the Catskills for vacation I’d love to see him,” New York attorney Eric Levine said of Trump. “But as president his lack of knowledge is disturbing to me … He’s a circus act.” Of Carson, Levine, who has given money to Marco Rubio, said, “He’s flat-out scary. I think he’s a wonderful man … But he’s totally vapid.”
As for Carson’s mangling of “Hamas,” Levine found comic relief in it. “I needed some carrots to dip,” he said.
Trump took a risk by winking at Jewish stereotypes, telling the crowd, “I’m a negotiator like you, folks,” and, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.” But throwing out political correctness worked for Trump here as it has throughout his campaign and the audience received the jokes warmly.
Instead, it was Trump’s suggestion that the people in the room would not support him because he did not want their money that raised hackles. “It was offensive,” said Fleischer.
More troubling to many in the room was Trump’s unwillingness to affirm his support for a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Instead, the businessman has insisted that his negotiating position will be strongest if he refuses to divulge his plans. “You know what I want to do? I want to wait until I meet with Bibi” before discussing specifics, he said. The answer received scattered boos.
“He said, ‘Trust me, I’ll do good for you.’ That may be of concern to people in the community,” said Alan Berger, a gynecologist from Englewood, New Jersey, who said he is friendly with Trump’s Jewish in-laws the Kushners but took issue with his reluctance to affirm his support for a united Jerusalem. Berger said he is partial to Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and to Ted Cruz, for whom he was scheduled to co-host a fundraiser in New Jersey on Thursday night.
Already, Trump’s comments about Israel ahead of his speech had angered conservative Jews. “Donald Trump’s absurd and factually inaccurate claim that a successful peace deal with the Palestinian Authority dictatorship “has to do with Israel and whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things” makes clear that Trump doesn’t have a clue, knowledge or understanding about what has transpired during the ongoing Arab/Islamic war against Israel,” wrote Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein, an influential activist who did not attend Thursday’s summit, was an organizer of the September rally against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington attended by Trump and Cruz.
Rachel Berg, a philanthropist from Monsey, New York, said today’s speeches have led her to count Trump and Carson out and focus instead on Rubio and Cruz. Along with her husband Milton Berg, a money manager, she has given to many candidates, but plans to narrow her support to one. She called Carson a “special person.”
“I feel bad to say it,” she said. “I don’t see him as the president.”
This article was originally published in POLITICO and may be read here