(JTA) – In a night of standoffs between Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage, one of the fiercest occurred over Israel.
During the first debate of the 2024 presidential campaign season in Milwaukee on Wednesday, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley attacked entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy over his proposal to cut United States aid to Israel. It was the longest conversation about Jewish issues all evening, and brought increased visibility to a topic that, after decades of being a political third rail, has come under discussion on both sides of the aisle.
The debate, which was hosted by Fox News, included eight candidates but not the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. Trump opted for a taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was aired at the same time on the social media platform X, which is popularly known as Twitter.
Beyond Israel, the candidates also invoked Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodomyr Zelensky in a surprising way, and progressive megadonor George Soros, who is Jewish, in an unsurprising one. Here were the big Jewish moments of the debate.
Vivek, Nikki and Israel
Haley lashed out at Ramaswamy over his recent suggestion that he would cut American aid to Israel if elected, leading to tense sparring between the two candidates in which Ramswamy defended his position while asserting that he considered Israel a “friend.”
“He wants to go and stop funding Israel,” Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, said about Ramaswamy, referring to the rising political neophyte’s promise to cut aid to the country after the current funding deal, which gives Israel $3.8 billion annually, expires in 2028.
In response, Ramaswamy sought to clarify his stance on Israel without backing down from his position.
“Our relationship with Israel will never be stronger than by the end of my first term,” he said. “But it’s not a client relationship, it is a friendship. And you know what friends do? Friends help each other stand on their own two feet.”
Ramaswamy went on to reiterate his previous pledge to “lead Abraham Accords 2.0,” referring to the 2020 normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states, by getting other Middle Eastern countries to establish relations with Israel. He added that he would “make sure Iran never is nuclear-armed.”
He also readily rattled off a list of things he said “I love” about Israel, including “their border policies,” “their tough on crime policies,” their “national identity” and “an Iron Dome to protect their homeland” — the latter of which, a missile defense system, is partially funded by U.S. military aid.
But Haley shot back. “He wants to stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to your friends,” she retorted. “It’s not that Israel needs America. America needs Israel.”
The exchange may have helped both candidates stand out. It was a familiar position for the former ambassador to take. Haley, who is trailing Ramaswamy in the polls, built a close relationship with Israel (and with the American pro-Israel establishment), and was known for her vocal defense of the country at the United Nations.
Ramaswamy, by comparison, is an untested quantity in the Israel debate, and his stance on aid differs from the mainstream Republican position, which supports military funding for Israel. Yet during the debate he bragged about his multiple visits to the country, and he has strong ties with a Jewish society at Yale University. The society’s co-founder, Rabbi Shmully Hecht, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Ramaswamy “is the most pro-Israel candidate running for president of the United States.”
Other Republicans on the stage declined to weigh in on Haley and Ramaswamy’s dispute, though several of them have built up their pro-Israel bonafides and one, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, sported a dual U.S.-Israel flag pin on his lapel.
Aid to Israel wasn’t the only foreign-policy issue where Ramaswamy’s position differed from those of his opponents.
During a segment on continued U.S. support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, he accused his opponents of being too loyal to “their pope, Zelensky,” referring to the country’s Jewish president. Ramaswamy has previously claimed, without evidence, that Zelensky has endangered Ukraine’s Jewish population.
His stance was swiftly rebutted by former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who both pledged increased U.S. aid to Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A swipe at ‘George Soros funding’
When the spotlight turned to Ron DeSantis, he blamed rising crime on local district attorneys with “George Soros funding”, invoking the Jewish progressive megadonor who is a frequent target of the right (and of antisemitic conspiracy theories).
The Florida governor, who has attacked Soros previously, also bragged about ousting attorneys in his home state who, he claimed, received funding from Soros.
“You have George Soros funding these radical left-wing district attorneys, they get into office and they say, ‘We’re not going to prosecute crimes,’” DeSantis said, adding to massive cheers, “When we had two out of three district attorneys in Florida elected with Soros funding who said they wouldn’t do their job, I removed them from their posts. They are gone.”
One of the attorneys DeSantis suspended last year was Tampa-area Jewish prosecutor Andrew Warren, who had vowed not to prosecute violations of the state’s abortion ban. The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which supports police officers, has classified Warren as a “Soros-backed social justice prosecutor.”
Blaming rising crime on Soros-backed prosecutors more generally, DeSantis pledged to flush them out of the federal government if he were to be elected. “As president we are going to go after all of these people, because they are hurting the quality of life and they are victimizing innocent people in every corner of this country,” he said.
DeSantis is currently polling a distant second in the primary, just in front of Ramaswamy.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott made the night’s sole reference to “Judeo-Christian values,” a popular idiom on the right.
“Our nation was founded upon the Judeo-Christian values that has made this the greatest nation on God’s green Earth,” Scott declared, quoting the New Testament in response to a question from the moderator about how “faith is on decline in this country.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that the United States gives Israel $3.8 million in aid annually. The correct figure is $3.8 billion.