Ramaswamy alleges ‘open questions’ over Zelensky’s ‘treatment of religious minorities,’ including Jews

The 37-year-old ‘anti-woke’ crusader was unable to cite any specific examples to support his claim

Vivek Ramaswamy, a long-shot Republican presidential candidate whose unorthodox views have drawn headlines, suggested without evidence on Thursday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had mistreated Jews and other religious minorities amid Russia’s invasion.

“I’m going to say some things that maybe are outside of the establishment-approved Overton Window here, but I think we have gotten into this weird habit of holding out Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelensky as some paragon of democratic ideals,” he told Jewish Insider in an interview. “I would just say that there are open questions about his treatment of religious minorities, including but not limited to Jews in Ukraine, that I think should be among the reasons we should stop short of holding him out as some sort of hero.”

The 37-year-old “anti-woke” crusader was, however, unable to cite any specific examples to support his claim. Instead, Ramaswamy criticized Zelensky for dissolving Ukrainian political parties with ties to Russia and combining national TV channels into one state platform under martial law. “That much I’m on firm factual footing on,” he said, insisting that such measures alone “create the risks for” anti-Jewish bigotry.

“The idea of banning political parties or consolidating state media into one arm, I think, is a risk factor that everyone who cares about democracy, including but not limited to those who are concerned about antisemitism, should worry about,” he said. Left unacknowledged was that Zelensky is himself Jewish and a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories promoted by Russia. 

Attention-grabbing assertions are typical of the voluble Republican candidate now seeking the nomination in an increasingly crowded field. In recent weeks, Ramaswamy, an author and entrepreneur currently polling in the low single digits, has positioned himself among just a few primary rivals to have expressed skepticism of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

He has pledged to cease U.S. funding for Ukraine and proposed a deal in which Russia would agree to end its military alliance with China and withdraw its nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad, among other concessions. Meanwhile, the agreement would “cede most of” the occupied Donbas region in eastern Ukraine to Russia and impose “a permanent moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO.”

While some critics have questioned the plan and accused him of promoting a policy of “appeasement,” Ramaswamy, who has never held elective office, characterized his approach as a kind of “prioritization” in conversation with JI. “Preventing China from going after Taiwan — or, for that matter, protecting Israel — are far higher priorities than protecting Ukraine. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “And I think that the top U.S. military threat right now is the Russia-China alliance.” Even if Ukrainians would unlikely be willing to recognize his proposal, he expressed confidence that the U.S. can successfully end the war “on terms that would actually cause” Russian President Vladimir Putin “to exit his alliance with China.”

In a statement outlining the plan, Ramaswamy predicted that his approach to the conflict “will become the key distinguishing issue” in the Republican primary, where most candidates have stressed their continued support for defending Ukraine. The exceptions include former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who recently argued that protecting Ukraine from Russian aggression was not a vital national interest.

The Florida governor, whose remarks elicited fierce blowback from conservative foreign policy hawks, has frequently drawn criticism from Ramaswamy. Earlier this month, for instance, he took aim at a bill DeSantis had touted, on a recent trip to Israel, that criminalizes unwanted displays of “religious or ethnic animus” on private property as felony hate crimes. The legislation, which was largely motivated by rising incidents of antisemitism across Florida, received unanimous support from both chambers of the state legislature in April.

But according to Ramaswamy, the governor had signed a “hate speech” law “at his donors’ request,” he alleged weeks later on Twitter. “I respectfully disagree: the right answer to bad speech isn’t less speech. It’s more speech. That’s the American way.”

“I stand fiercely against bigotry and hatred and harassing speech,” Ramaswamy emphasized. “But the right answer to that is to defeat the bad speech on the merits through free speech and open debate, which I have no trouble doing.”

In opposing the legislation, Ramaswamy aligned himself with a small number of figures on the extreme right, including Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist and former congressional candidate in Florida who has attacked the bill as “unconstitutional.” Ramaswamy, for his part, said he had arrived at a different conclusion. “I did not make an argument about constitutionality,” he told JI on Thursday. “I was drawing a legitimate policy contrast from Ron DeSantis, which is, it’s just a fact that I’m a free-speech absolutist.” The government, he said, “should not be in the business of viewpoint discrimination.”

Still, he fell back on a constitutional argument to bolster his point. “I think the Skokie case was decided correctly,” he said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court decision allowing a Nazi demonstration in the Chicago suburbs 35 years ago — over the objections of Holocaust survivors who lived in the area. He made no distinction, however, between the Skokie verdict, which concerned a march on public land, and the bill DeSantis had signed, which addresses threats on private property. 

Ramaswamy clarified that his unfavorable view of the Florida bill should not be interpreted as an endorsement of hateful beliefs. “I stand fiercely against bigotry and hatred and harassing speech,” Ramaswamy emphasized. “But the right answer to that is to defeat the bad speech on the merits through free speech and open debate, which I have no trouble doing.”

His “litmus test” for evaluating the Florida bill is based on a simple formulation, he said. “If there’s something you can place — a book or a flier or anything — that has one set of views printed on it in a certain context, but not a different set of views, and it’s the subject of a government drawing the distinction between the two, that’s a hate speech regulation or a viewpoint discrimination law, and I stand against it.”

DES MOINES, IOWA – JUNE 03: Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy is introduced during the Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride event on June 03, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

He acknowledged that there is “room for reasonable debate” and that he was not trying to engage in a “personal attack” against DeSantis — even as he has otherwise called the governor “uncourageous” and “sloppy” in his effort to compete with Trump’s top rival. The DeSantis team did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

As for his own approach to combating a national surge in antisemitism, “we need to find and revive our national identity,” Ramaswamy asserted. “I think something else has gone badly wrong when people start to resort to the old, tired trope of blaming one group of people who have been a punching bag for much of modern human history.”

The rise of anti-Jewish prejudice “is a leading indicator of a broader decay in a society,” he explained. “That deeper cancer in our country is that we are lost. We have lost our sense of purpose, we have lost our sense of identity, of who we are as Americans,” he added. “I think we need to go upstream and fill that void with something deeper — a vision of American national identity that dilutes this poison to irrelevance.”

To Ramaswamy, a model for his own personal behavior comes from the Jewish community itself. The Cincinnati native said he has long been affiliated with Shabtai, a Jewish leadership society at Yale University, where he received his law degree before founding the pharmaceutical company Roivant Sciences in 2014. His reverence for what he described as “open debate” and respectful disagreement was “one of the core tenets of what Shabtai stood for” and part of what drew him into the organization. “I became one of the most active members during my years at Yale and since then have been one of the biggest backers.”

The Hindu son of Indian immigrants said his experience connecting with Jewish community members at Shabtai events had contributed to a long-standing respect for what he described as “the shared values of the Jewish tradition,“ citing “faith in a true God and the family foundations that come along with that.” Ramaswamy said he particularly admired “the importance paid to tradition,” which underscored “that we have traditions for a reason.”

“You can take religious and even ancient traditions that originated somewhere other than the United States and make that come alive here in the U.S.,” he said. “That’s something that I think the Hindu American community does not, to date, do well, but has given a lot of inspiration to my wife and I and the way we raise our kids and the example we set.”

“The way I think about our commitment to Israel is it’s grounded in the most solid foundation, which is national self-interest,” Ramaswamy explained. “The bedrock of stability in the Middle East starts with Israel.”

He expressed hope that his candidacy would resonate with Jews from both parties. “The way I talk about domestic issues at home from meritocracy and nondiscrimination to foreign policy and America actually standing up with a spine,” he said, “should be, I hope, appealing to many Jewish voters.” 

In the context of his crusade against environmental, social and governance investing, Ramaswamy, the author of 2021’s Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, claimed he has been a fierce opponent of boycott campaigns targeting Israel. “Companies should have no place engaging in selective political engagement here, which is clearly bigoted anti-Israel content masquerading as social responsibility,” he said of the ESG movement, which has faced allegations of anti-Israel bias. “I think that’s noxious.”

He said he would remain “an unapologetic supporter of Israel,” which he recalled visiting multiple times on business trips. “The way I think about our commitment to Israel is it’s grounded in the most solid foundation, which is national self-interest,” he explained. “The bedrock of stability in the Middle East starts with Israel.”

More broadly, Ramaswamy suggested that he would follow the example of Trump — whom he recently promised to pardon if elected — on Middle East policy. He commended the former president for “finally having the spine” to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “That was a move that I applaud, that I stand behind, that I do not apologize for,” Ramaswamy told JI. He also praised “what Jared did with the Abraham Accords,” referring to Jared Kushner, a close friend as well as Trump’s son-in-law and former senior advisor. “These are major, major accomplishments.”

But Ramaswamy became circumspect when asked if he believed that Trump had helped fuel antisemitism by welcoming extremists into his movement — most prominently last November, when he dined with the artist Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, who has praised Hitler, and Nick Fuentes, an outspoken Holocaust denier, at his Palm Beach residence. “I can’t speak to the particulars of who he met and who he didn’t,” Ramaswamy said cautiously. “But I tend to think that actions speak louder than words.”

In addition to his administration’s record of accomplishments in the Middle East, Trump deserved recognition for working with “a diverse coalition that included Jewish leaders” during his four years in the White House, Ramaswamy said. “I think that you’d be hard-pressed to say that that’s the antisemitic president,” he reasoned. “It’s like, if the glove does not fit, you must acquit. And the glove does not fit, is what I would say, so you must acquit, is where I land.”

Still, he added a caveat. “I would make a lot of judgments that are different than Trump’s judgments,” he clarified. “That’s why I’m running for U.S. president.”

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