Ron DeSantis was a sensation at the 2022 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) in Las Vegas. A lot has happened since then. The Florida governor attended the meeting of the influential Jewish lobby as the favorite to defeat Donald Trump in the race for the White House. But the former president leads in the polls despite facing 91 charges in four open indictments in court. However, on Saturday, Republican presidential hopefuls tried to stand out as they pledged support for Israel in its offensive against Hamas.
“We are here in dark times. We are here in challenging times.” With these words, RJC chair Norm Coleman kicked off the event on Friday night. “The RJC was created for a moment like this—to ensure that America has Israel’s back to do whatever it takes to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, however long it takes,” the former Minnesota senator said. The importance of his message was underscored by a couple of videos from Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, to which the audience responded with applause.
The RJC event in Las Vegas served as a forum where the eight Republican presidential hopefuls, along with other high-profile politicians, paraded across the stage to pledge their commitment to the Jewish cause.
Return of Trump
Last year, the former president attended the event virtually. In a video, Trump assured the audience that no administration had done more for Israel than his. He highlighted the actions he took, including moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and officially recognizing the Israeli colonies established in the Golan Heights, in line with the demands of the most hardline sectors of American Jews.
This year, Trump appeared in person and received the warmest response from the attendees. He described the conflict between Israel and Hamas as “a fight between civilization and savagery, between decency and depravity, and between good and evil.” His speech was met with a standing ovation and cheers of “Beat Biden!”
Trump once enjoyed the support of one of the RJC’s most influential men, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Sands casino and a major donor to the Republican Party. Adelson died in 2021, but his widow, Miriam, remains a central figure in the organization thanks to her fortune of around $30 billion. Unlike her husband, she prefers to stay on the sidelines and not openly support any candidate.
In Iowa, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, described the Israel-Gaza conflict that began on Oct. 7 in similar terms to Trump, arguing it was a “clear-cut case of good and evil.” She added: “We need leaders who stand on principle, without apology and without exception. And nowhere do we need that kind of leader more than in the Oval Office.”
Vying for second place behind Trump, Haley and DeSantis have both placed the Middle East conflict at the center of their international policy narrative.
Attacks on universities
The Republicans also attacked universities such as Princeton and George Washington, arguing that they harbor and tolerate anti-Semitism by allowing pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
“I don’t care what some imbeciles on a college campus say… I don’t care what liars in the media say. I don’t care what reprobates at the United Nations say,” said Ron DeSantis at the conference on Saturday. “We stand with Israel! The United States will have their back!”
DeSantis also promised to strip funding for universities and cancel visas for pro-Palestinian foreign students in his state. On Thursday, CNN and the Associated Press reported that Florida was facilitating arrangements for third parties to ship drones, ammunition, combat armor and helmets to Israel for use by the IDF. A spokesman for the DeSantis campaign confirmed this report, indicating that Florida has not used state funds to purchase these items and that the assistance is limited to expediting transportation permits.
“We need cultural chemotherapy to fight this cancer,” added Senator Tim Scott, another presidential hopeful. “Any student with a visa who calls for genocide should be deported.”
“College campuses are allowed to have free speech, but they are not free to spread hate that supports terrorism,” said Haley. “Federal law requires schools to combat anti-Semitism. We will give this law teeth and we will enforce it.”
“What’s going on in our college campuses today is not free speech,” said Chris Christie, the Republican candidate who received the coldest response due to his opposition to Trump. “It is hate speech.”
Mike Johnson — who became the speaker of the House on Wednesday after 22 days of chaos and four candidates in a display of internal Republican tensions — also attended the RJC. The new Speaker of the House is an evangelical Christian, a group that represents one of the Republican Party’s most loyal bases. The war against Hamas has become one of evangelical voters’ most pressing concerns, as reflected in some polls in Iowa, the state that will hold the first Republican caucus in January; religious voters have a significant presence there.
The annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition is one of the most important events for candidates to raise donations. The group is among the most important pro-Israel lobbying groups. The organization represents the third-largest funder, after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street. According to Open Secrets, money from this group has increased considerably since 2018, going from $130,000 to over $320,000 last year.
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