on the hill

Rand Paul takes over as ranking member of Senate Homeland Security Committee

Jewish Insider spoke to Kentucky Jewish leaders who have worked with Paul and his office in the past about the senator’s elevated role on a key committee

Greg Nash/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is seen in the Senate Reception Room before the fifth day of the Senate Impeachment trials for former President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill on February 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Despite past disagreements with the Jewish community — most recently in 2021 over Iron Dome funding — Kentucky Jewish leaders expressed hope to Jewish Insider that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) will support efforts to combat antisemitism as the new ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Paul replaces retired Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) as the top Republican on the committee — which oversees the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other issues in the national security arena. Portman had been a close ally of Ohio’s Jewish communities and worked closely with Democrats on issues related to Jewish community security, including the Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, the chairman of the Kentucky Jewish Council, told JI “that there have been many times where Dr. Paul supported our community” in response to antisemitic incidents, noting specifically that the senator was one of the first lawmakers to speak out out following an attack on pro-Israel students at Duke University, Paul’s medical school alma mater.

“The fact that he’s willing to speak out on those issues, I think, is tremendously valuable,” Litvin said. “I think unfortunately a lot of people get caught up on the issues that we disagree on.”

Melanie Maron Pell, the American Jewish Committee’s chief field operations officer, who lives in Kentucky, told JI, “I don’t really have any concerns about his approach to antisemitism.”

Matt Goldberg, who spent more than 10 years as the community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Louisville, told JI, “He seemed receptive to our thoughts and our stances regarding antisemitism and dealing with his staff over the years, his staff has been very open to us and very receptive to our concerns and thoughts.” Goldberg said he had only met once with Paul personally in the early 2010s, but was in frequent contact with the senator’s staff.

Pell, likewise, said that Paul’s staff “express real concern about the rise of antisemitism,” are “interested to understand the way it is manifesting” and “are interested in seeing it diminished.”

In response to emailed questions from Jewish Insider about his plans for combating antisemitism as ranking member on the committee, Paul referenced America’s founding values.

“George Washington provided perhaps the most inspirational statement on religious freedom in America and wrote that all possess alike liberty of conscience and that our government gives to bigotry no sanction,” Paul said in a statement. “As Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I will continue my work to protect religious freedom. Ensuring Americans across Kentucky and the nation are safe in their right to worship remains of utmost importance.”

It’s unclear whether Paul — who was outspoken last year against legislation supported by the Jewish community to combat domestic terror threats — would support new legislation to combat antisemitic threats and help secure community institutions. Paul focused his remarks during the committee’s organizing hearing earlier this month on oversight of the federal COVID-19 response — a subject about which he has publicly clashed with public health officials. (Paul is an ophthalmologist.)

Litvin, who has met more frequently with the senator, said he has only discussed the issue of security grants, which help Jewish nonprofits and houses of worship increase their security, in abstract terms with him. Pell said that she anticipates that “we would probably disagree that we need more funding towards things like hate crimes legislation.”

“I think he would see that as unnecessary,” Pell continued, “and we think more resources need to be directed toward this. We think more resources need to be directed towards protecting Jewish communities and Jewish institutions.”

Paul did not address a question from JI about security grants specifically, including whether he would support expanded funding and authorities. He also did not address a question about Israel’s bid for inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program, which falls partly under the purview of the Homeland Security Committee.

Jewish leaders have also emphasized that Paul and his staff are consistently willing to engage in discussions, even when Paul disagrees with their positions.

“There has never been a time where Dr. Paul wouldn’t give me the time to explain my point of view, and only explain his support or opposition for whatever I was going to speak about,” Litvin said. “He could explain it coherently from his point of view, which I appreciate… And we can work toward solutions. We’ve worked toward areas of compromise.

Pell was hopeful that Paul could be supportive of some issues of importance to the Jewish community as the Homeland Security ranking member.

“Despite our disappointment in the way Rand Paul has approached some of the issues that are important to us, he has demonstrated that he is capable of working across the aisle, that he is capable of working in a bipartisan fashion,” Pell said. “It is our strong hope that he will find ways to work with his colleagues across the aisle. Because these issues are going to be so important.”

She also said that “the issue of oversight,” which Paul prioritizes, “is incredibly important and we believe in oversight… but not if that oversight ultimately leads to efforts to completely obstruct.”

In an area of greater friction with the Jewish community, Paul blocked a resolution expressing support for Iranian anti-regime protesters from passing by a fast-track process in the Senate late last year. The resolution also called on the U.S. to work with European allies to crack down on malign activities being operated out of Iranian diplomatic missions, with the aim of shutting them down.

Pell called Paul’s opposition “very disappointing,” adding “this is a terrorist regime that needs to be treated as such.” She also noted that his approach to the Iran issue is “not unrelated” to his role on the Homeland Security committee.

Paul did not address a question from JI about his concerns with the legislation or whether there might be changes that would allow him to lift his objection. The legislation has been reintroduced this year, and already passed the House, with only Paul’s fellow Kentuckian, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) voting against it.

Litvin said he hadn’t had a specific meeting with Paul about the Iran legislation, but said that Paul has broadly “not always been supportive of the idea of sanctions and the success of sanctions” in past conversations about Iran policy.

“Senator Paul will often want to see who is this sanction affecting, what is the goal of the sanction, how do we see this sanction affecting it?” Litvin explained. “He likes to be presented with an exact plan. This is what we’re doing. This is how it hopes to accomplish. And without that he’s very reluctant to vote on any sanctions because he likes to see that direct approach.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.