WASHINGTON — On Monday, Iowans will gather to launch the 2016 presidential election with an arcane ritual — the caucus.
In living rooms and meeting halls throughout the state, caucus-goers will group themselves into clusters according to which presidential candidate they favor. By the end of the day, two real-life winners will emerge: not a “leader in the polls,” not a “likely front-runner,” but the Democrat and Republican who will have secured Iowa’s delegation to the parties’ respective conventions in the summer.
Iowa’s delegates, who come as a bloc, account for just 1 percent or so of the national total. But their selections will be the first substantive results in what has been a raucous and unpredictable campaign, especially on the Republican side.
A week and a day later, voters in New Hampshire will cast ballots in a more straightforward process, and by the late hours of February 9, the race truly will be on, with the media in hot pursuit. The question still is what it has been for nearly a century: What does all this mean for the Jews?
In that spirit, here’s a look at the leading candidates — their Jewish friends, family, advisers, and donors, their stances on Israel, and their Jewish-related controversies.
Donald Trump, 68, real estate magnate, reality TV star
Jewish connections: Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is married to Jared Kushner, the Jewish publisher of the New York Observer and like her the child of a real estate magnate. She underwent an Orthodox conversion before marrying, and the couple are raising their children as Jews. Donald Trump, a billionaire with a natural gift for generating free publicity, has yet to tap major donors, but given his New York origins and his professional fields — real estate and show business — it’s not surprising that some of his closest associates are Jewish. One of his leading proxies in the media is Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization’s Jewish executive vice president.
Israel: Trump, who made his name as a negotiator playing his cards close to the chest, last month declined to commit to recognizing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, explaining that doing so could pre-empt any bid for Israeli-Palestinian peace. That earned him boos at the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential forum. This month, he said he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Like the other GOP candidates, he does not like the Iran deal, but he is one of several who has refused to say he would scrap it outright.
Controversy: Trump’s Republican Jewish Coalition appearance made headlines less for his refusal to embrace right-wing pro-Israel doctrine than for his joshing with the audience about how skilled everyone in the room was at making money. He likes compliments, and has retweeted flattery, even when it seemingly comes from white supremacists. He also slipped an image of Nazi soldiers into a tweet, pulling the post down in response to protest and blaming a “young intern.”
Ted Cruz, 45, Texas senator
Jewish connections: Much has been written in recent days about the four billionaires funding Cruz’s insurgent candidacy. None of them are Jewish. But Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and GOP kingmaker, says that he and his wife have yet to settle on a candidate, and while Sheldon Adelson favors Marco Rubio, Miriam Adelson favors Cruz.
Cruz has not shied from cultivating Jewish fundraisers. He made headlines last spring when, despite his strongly conservative bona fides, he met with two gay Jewish hoteliers. The “gay” part is what made headlines, but the hoteliers’ pro-Israel interests are what led to the meeting. Cruz’s point man in the Jewish community is Nick Muzin, a rising young political player and an Orthodox Jew.
Israel: Cruz says he would scrap the Iran nuclear deal and move the embassy to Jerusalem as soon as he enters office. He says he also would invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend his first State of the Union address. Cruz has cultivated the pro-Israel right, appearing at Zionist Organization of American events and organizing an anti-Iran rally on Capitol Hill last summer.
Controversy: Cruz has taken to bashing neoconservatives, blaming them for overseas interventions — including the Iraq War — that he says have weakened America. He also has insistently disparaged “New York values.” Some see his references to both groups — neoconservatives and New Yorkers — as coded attacks on the Jews. His supporters cry nonsense, saying his issue is with policy and values.
Marco Rubio, 44, Florida senator
Jewish connections: Norman Braman, a South Florida car retailer, has been Rubio’s principal backer since his days in the Florida state legislature and employs Rubio’s wife, Jeanette, at his family’s charitable foundation. Sheldon Adelson is said to favor Rubio, although he has yet to commit, and late last year Rubio secured the backing of Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who is deeply involved in pro-Israel funding. Those neocons Cruz is running away from? Rubio says bring ‘em on and seeks their advice. He has consulted with prominent Jewish thinkers and Republican administration veterans Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, and Eric Edelman. He also has met with Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state.
Israel: Rubio says he would move the embassy to Jerusalem and scrap the Iran deal. His campaign website has an Israel page, and it faithfully reflects right-wing pro-Israel talking points.
Controversy: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Jewish chair of the Democratic National Committee, slammed Rubio for attending a fundraiser at the home of Harlan Crow, who collects Nazi art. Rubio fired back with outrage of his own, and by most accounts came out on top in the exchange.
Jeb Bush, 62,
former Florida governor
Jewish connections: More than any other candidate, Bush has garnered the support of the Jewish Republicans who backed his brother, President George W. Bush. Among donors, these include Fred Zeidman, a Texas lawyer, and Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate magnate. Jeb Bush’s advisers include some of the most senior Jewish veterans of the second Bush administration, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Israel: Bush also has said that he will move the embassy to Jerusalem, but like several candidates who strongly oppose the Iran nuclear deal, he says it likely would be too late to scrap it by the time the next president assumes office.
Controversy: Bush raised conservative pro-Israel hackles when he named his father’s secretary of state, James Baker, as an adviser. Baker has clashed with Israel and the Jewish community. It did not help when within a month of his naming, Baker addressed J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, and extolled the virtues of pressuring Israel. Bush has said that while he values Baker’s deep reservoirs of experience — overall, the George H. W. Bush presidency is considered a foreign policy success story — he does not look to him for advice on Israel.
Ben Carson, 64, retired neurosurgeon and best-selling author
Jewish connections: Among his foreign policy advisers is George Birnbaum, who served as chief of staff for Netanyahu during his first term, from 1996 to 1999, and has been a partner to Arthur Finkelstein, the GOP public relations guru and political wizard who also has advised Netanyahu. In speaking of anyone advising Carson, especially on foreign policy, there is an enormous caveat: He does not like taking advice, and some of his advisers have called him out on it on the record — extraordinary, if not unprecedented, during a presidential campaign.
Israel: Carson has said he will abandon the Iran deal and has accused the Obama administration of abandoning Israel. But in real time, he seems less than familiar with the country and the challenges it faces. At the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, he famously mangled the pronunciation of Hamas, making it sound like hummus. More substantively, the speech he delivered — awkwardly, from notes — appeared to suggest that if only Fatah and Hamas learned to get along, peace would be achievable.
Controversy: Carson earned rebukes from much of the Jewish establishment last year when he suggested that gun control was partly responsible for the Holocaust. He refused to back down.
Bernie Sanders, 74, Vermont senator
Jewish connections: Sanders is Jewish and spent time on a kibbutz with his first (Jewish) wife, although no one has been able to figure out which kibbutz — and it’s not for lack of trying, at least by Jewish journalists. Not long after his Israel sojourn, he moved to Vermont, where he would become best friends with two Jewish guys — philosopher Richard Sugarman and Huck Gutman, a professor of literature at the University of Vermont with a fondness for Yehuda Amichai.
Israel: Since his days as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, Sanders has been unstinting both in his criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and in his support of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. He backed the Iran nuclear deal.
Controversy: Sanders’ older brother, Larry, based in Oxford, England, last year tweeted “yes” to whether he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and favors dismantling Israel’s weapons of mass destruction. Bernie Sanders’ campaign won’t comment, but, brothers, right?
Hillary Rodham Clinton, former secretary of state, former senator from New York, former first lady
Jewish connections: Like Trump, Clinton has a Jewish son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, an investment banker whose mother, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, then a Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania, provided the critical vote that passed President Bill Clinton’s first budget in 1993. In Clinton’s world, with its layers of loyalties, this is as tight as it gets. Bill and Hillary Clinton were accruing Jewish fans even before they moved to Arkansas as a couple. Bill Clinton had a Jewish fan base as the state’s governor and attracted Jewish supporters when he ran for president in 1992, many who remain loyal to Hillary Clinton. She also has cornered the party’s Jewish fundraisers, and her rival for Jewish loyalty in 2009, Barack Obama, has given his blessing to his Jewish supporters to back Clinton this election.
Her most prominent backer may be Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment magnate. One of her closest and most loyal advisers is Martin Indyk, whom she met during her husband’s presidential campaign when Indyk headed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank he had spun off from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Indyk, a veteran of the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts of both the Clinton and Obama administrations, now is vice president at the Brookings Institution.
Israel: Clinton has ties with Israel dating back to her days as first lady of Arkansas, when she adopted an Israeli early education program for the state. Since quitting as Obama’s first secretary of state, she has broadly embraced his quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace as well as his Iran policy — indeed, she now credits herself as one of the architects of both policies — but she also has emphasized subtle differences. Clinton has suggested she was not comfortable with making settlements a key point of contention between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, and she says she would monitor Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal closely.
Controversy: Despite her closeness to Israel, Clinton’s decades in the spotlight mean every inflection comes under microscopic examination. Paul Fray, who managed her husband’s failed 1974 congressional race, says she called him a “f•••ing Jew bastard” on election night, although he also acknowledges the Clintons did not know at the time that he was one-eighth Jewish.
Clinton was the first official in her husband’s government to speak openly about the prospect of a Palestinian state. As first lady, Clinton embraced Suha Arafat, the wife of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, after Suha Arafat delivered a speech accusing Israel of poisoning children. Clinton, who was listening to a simultaneous translation, claims she missed that passage.
When last year her private emails were dumped as part of an investigation into her privacy practices while she was secretary of state, it was revealed that one of her Jewish advisers, Sidney Blumenthal, to whom she remains fiercely loyal, kept sending her anti-Israel screeds by his son, Max. Clinton occasionally complimented Max Blumenthal’s writing to Sidney — but there is no evidence she took any of his son’s advice.
JTA Wire Service