Iowans weigh in on GOP’s Ron Paul and Israel

I have come from Israel to the United States to witness the Republican candidates’ campaigns for the presidency. Earlier this week, I spent some time reporting from Iowa, including talking to Ron Paul supporters. Of those I met, first one must say they were all very courteous and nice. If Paul’s supporters — now we can start calling them voters — bear any grudge against Israel, they hide it well. At least the supporters here in Iowa do. At least those with whom I was speaking did. And, one must also say, not one Paul supporter refused to speak to me. In the course of four days, but mostly on Jan. 2, I interviewed about a dozen of them. Not all agreed to be named, but many did. They did, even though they probably suspected that I’m not Paul’s greatest fan, as all my conversations started exactly the same way: “Hello, are you a Paul supporter? I’m a writer from Israel, and I would like to talk to you about your candidate and Israel. Would you give me two or three minutes of your time?”

Aaron Storm, 30 and single, works in technical support. He is a staunch Paul voter. Back in 2008, he voted for Paul in the primaries, and he voted for him again in the general election, even though Paul wasn’t officially on the ballot. “I vote my heart and conscience,” he told me — meaning, when Mitt Romney becomes the Republican nominee, Storm should not be counted as a likely GOP voter.

I met Storm at the downtown Des Moines Marriott, where Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), were holding a rally Monday morning. The room was packed with supporters and reporters, and Storm looked happy — his candidate seems to be doing well, better than four years ago.

“So what is it about Paul and Israel?” I asked him. His answer — and this is pretty much what I’ve heard from nearly everyone I’ve been speaking with — was somewhat surprising. It is all a big misunderstanding, he patiently explained. “All the candidates say they will support Israel, but Paul is actually supporting Israel. He is the only one saying that Israel should be able to do whatever it wants to do.” Like bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in the early ’80s. The Reagan administration was very unhappy with this action, and “Paul was the only one that was not against this,” Storm said.

Then he used a phrase that was repeated in many of my conversations. “You [Israelis] are like slaves to the lender.” The U.S. gives you financial support, and you have to do what the U.S. tells you to do. Don’t you want to get off the hook? “We give much more money to Israel’s enemies then we give to Israel; it doesn’t make sense for Israel to want us to continue doing it,” Storm said. Then he made another point that I’ve heard from more than one Paul supporter: “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu told Congress that Israel would never ask America to fight for Israel; why can he say that, and Ron Paul can’t? This is what Netanyahu wants; Paul agrees with him.”

Tim Juang, 18, of Minnesota, is another supporter who pulls Netanyahu’s speech out of the hat. “He said that Israel can defend itself,” Juang reminds me. Juang came here with some schoolmates to volunteer for Paul before the Iowa caucuses. And he is the youngest and most blunt of all my Paul-supporting interviewees. Preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon is “a form of bigotry,” he told me. We Americans “have nuclear weapons, and you”  — Israelis — “also have nuclear weapons. Why can’t Iran also have nuclear weapons? Only because they are Muslims? This is racism.”

During his short speech, minutes earlier, Paul pleaded with his fellow Americans to “stay out of the internal affairs of other nations.”  Juang could not agree more. “We should not intervene; most of our fears are unjustified.”  He did not say anything about Israel that could even remotely be considered antagonistic, but he also didn’t try to portray himself as the biggest fan of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Diana — one of two Dianas with whom I spoke, this one on the condition that her last name would not be printed —  is not at all like Juang. She’s “a devout Christian who loves Israel. I want to have a president that will let Israel do what needs to be done. I want America to stop giving money to Israel’s enemies.” Yes, she knows that Israel is also getting some funds, but, just like Storm, she doesn’t see the rationale behind this double giving. “If we don’t give more money, we all benefit. Americans will benefit, because we need this money and don’t have any to spare to spend on other nations, and Israel will benefit because its enemies will not be getting any money.” 

Diana Burkhalter is the other Diana. She is yet another Paul supporter whom Romney (or any other candidate winning this race, other than Paul) would not be able to count on, come Election Day. “Paul wants all peoples to have sovereignty of land — to America and to Israel,” she said. Other Republican candidates feel that the United States must intervene in other places, so, when Paul says he wants no such intervention, “People interpret this as [being] anti-Israel,” she told me. But it is not — if you care to believe Burkhalter or any one of the other Paul people I’ve interviewed.

“It is all media propaganda,” Storm said of how Paul is perceived. And as we speak, I am reminded of something Newt Gingrich had told me two days before: “As Republicans learn more about Paul’s positions [his support] would drop” — and I am not at all convinced that he is right. The young people I interviewed seem as informed as they want to be. It is not that they don’t know Iran is dangerous; they just don’t see why the United States should be the one doing anything about it. It is not that they don’t respect Israel or its security concerns; they just don’t see why American money should be spent to protect people who have vowed to protect themselves.

Among Paul’s supporters, there are also bigots and anti-Semites, no doubt. And the candidate himself has been accused of saying (which he denied) some nasty things about Israel. In the week before the Iowa caucuses, though, the Paul supporters I had a chance to meet were all patient and cooperative, and, well, quite friendly toward this visiting, nagging Israeli. So much so that when I thanked Storm for his time and his answers, he just nodded and then said, “Shalom.”