WASHINGTON ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — In the middle of his victory speech on the night of the Iowa Caucuses, Donald Trump said he would end the Israel-Hamas war.
At a recent debate, Nikki Haley avowed that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
At another debate, Ron DeSantis gave a shout-out to the director of the Republican Jewish coalition.
Jewish voters have historically voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from focusing on American Jewry and Israel — both because the Jewish vote in swing states can help determine the election, and because of Israel’s importance to evangelical Christian voters.
This year, all three remaining Republican candidates take the Jewish community seriously enough that they have their own advisers on Jewish issues — trusted team members who possess deep knowledge both of the candidate and of the Jewish community. These Jewish whisperers fulfill a dual role, both steering the candidate on issues of Jewish concern and acting as a liaison to Jewish voters.
Ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary, we spoke with top Jewish advisers to each of the campaigns. Each, predictably, said their candidate didn’t really need their advice — but each also plays a key role in their respective races for the White House.
David Friedman, lawyer-turned-ambassador for Donald Trump
David Friedman was Trump’s trusted bankruptcy lawyer until a snowbound day in February, 2005, when he said he realized he also was the real estate magnate’s close friend. He recalled that Trump traveled more than three hours through inclement weather to sit shiva with Friedman, who was mourning his father Morris, a prominent New York area rabbi.
In 2016, Friedman was one of a trio of close Jewish advisers to Trump, joining Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and another lawyer, Jason Greenblatt.
Trump named each of the three to roles in his administration, appointing Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman’s past hardball rhetoric about the liberal Israel lobby J Street — he called them “worse than kapos” — almost sank his confirmation, but he was approved for the job on party lines.
On his watch, Trump enacted a series of policies celebrated by the Israeli government and its supporters. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized an Israeli right to settle in the West Bank, recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and brokered the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab states. Trump has said Friedman played leading roles in moving the embassy and recognizing the Golan.
As ambassador, Friedman also pivoted from a Trumpian attack dog mode to a more avuncular persona, posting self-deprecating videos about coping with the frantic pace of getting ready for the Jewish holidays in Israel.
Three years after Trump left office amid a firestorm of controversy, Kushner and Greenblatt are no longer advising him. But Friedman endorsed his ex-boss last year. In an interview he said the endorsement — and his current advisory role on the 2024 campaign — were easy calls.
“The most powerful argument, obviously, is his record, and it’s a record not just with regard to Israel but with regard to fighting antisemitism domestically as well,” he said, referring to Trump’s 2019 executive order on federal investigations of universities for antisemitic discrimination.
What about Trump’s reputation for encouraging — or at least not condemning — far-right extremists? Friedman notably called out Trump in 2022 when the former president met with Kanye West, the rapper who made a stream of antisemitic comments, and Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier.
That was an outlier, said Freidman. Friedman spoke with Trump after he made his unhappiness known, but would not describe the phone call. “All I can tell you is that, to state the obvious, that hasn’t happened again,” he said.
How close are they? Trump has confessed to being unnerved when Friedman calls him “Mr. President,” wishing he would go back to Donald.
Fred Zeidman, fundraiser for Nikki Haley
Fred Zeidman has known Nikki Haley since 2010, when he was invited to support her first run for South Carolina governor that year.
“I absolutely just thought the world of her,” he said of Haley, then a state representative in her late 30s. “And so I sort of stayed close. She just seemed like she had it.”
Getting Zeidman on board was a catch for Haley, who was trailing better known South Carolinians at the time. Zeidman is a Texas businessman who was among the first to see presidential material in George W. Bush, and who organized, when Bush was governor, a life-changing tour of Israel for the future president.
Bush had named Zeidman to chair the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, a thankless non-paying job that requires a dedication to the issue — coupled with fundraising chops. Zeidman, who says his mission is “the safety and security of the Jewish people and the state of Israel,” had plenty of both: He has become a sought-after fundraiser for Republican candidates over several election cycles.
In 2016, Zeidman could not stomach Trump’s approach and backed other candidates in the primary. Like some former Trump skeptics, he became a fan when Trump proved his pro- Israel bona fides (in part via Haley, who served as Trump’s first United Nations ambassador). At one point, Zeidman even tore up a t-shirt saying George W. Bush was the greatest ever president for Israel.
But this year, following Trump’s false claims of winning the 2020 election, and the subsequent Jan. 6 riot, he has again chosen Haley. Zeidman is a dedicated Republican, but also longs for healing. He has been outspoken in praising President Joe Biden’s backing for Israel in its war with Hamas.
He says he felt intense pride in being an early backer of Haley’s in 2015, after she brought about the removal of the Confederate flag outside the state capitol in the wake of the mass shooting at a Charleston Black church.
“When you look at the things that she did to demonstrate leadership to demonstrate moral clarity, when after the shooting — You know, she’s got it,” he told (JEWISH REVIEW) this week. “She’s showing what she needs to do. She didn’t capitulate. She stood up of all places in the world at ground zero of the Confederacy.”
Zeidman says that Haley has also shown leadership on how Republicans can handle abortion — sticking to their conservative principles while not demonizing abortion rights advocates.
“She is the first Republican to break ranks on women’s rights, which is a key, key, key, key issue and ought to be a defining issue,” he said.
Zeidman’s son, Jay, also worked for George W. Bush as a liaison to the Jewish community. But he’s departed from his father — and is a leading fundraiser for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. His father describes with pride how they banter about their respective candidates.
Gabe Groisman, Jewish surrogate for Ron DeSantis
Gabe Groisman met Ron DeSantis about a decade ago, when the then-Florida congressman was visiting Israel.
“I immediately understood that he was one of these elected officials who really, really understands the region,” Groisman, a former mayor of Bal Harbour, told (JEWISH REVIEW). “It’s not just talking points.”
Groisman credits DeSantis’s time in the Navy, as an attorney at Guantanamo Bay and then on deployment to Iraq, for how he seems to get Israel. DeSantis’ faith, and his diplomas from Yale University and Harvard Law School, don’t hurt, Groisman added.
“It seems like it’s a mix between his military experience as a JAG officer in the Navy and his education and then also his religion — he definitely has a deep religious connection to the state of Israel,” he said. DeSantis has baptized his children with water from the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee.
That made DeSantis the perfect candidate for Groisman, who feels a calling to persuade Florida’s Jews to vote Republican. Groisman, who accompanied DeSantis when the governor convened his first Cabinet meeting in Israel in 2019, is on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
DeSantis, among the first governors to legislate against dealings with businesses that boycott Israel, is well known for his pro-Israel positions. Groisman wants people to learn more about DeSantis’s domestic Jewish initiatives, including expanding school choice — a potential boon to Jewish day school families — and toughening laws targeting hate crimes against Jews.
He says he’s frustrated by the press linking DeSantis with issues reviled by liberal Jews, including book bans and his targeting of the LGBTQ community.
“Despite lots of press to the contrary, the fact is, he’s with the Jewish community, time and time again,” Groisman said. “He’s helped pass legislation year in and year out to protect the Jewish community, expanding different laws to give police more power to protect the community.”
Groisman is the kind of Jewish leader Republicans hope will become more prominent: As Bal Harbour mayor from 2016-2022, he used his platform to speak out against Israel boycotts and has been an outspoken critic of campus antisemitism. A lawyer, a philanthropist and a consultant on government relations, he is active in the Israeli-American Council.
He gets an activist strain from his Israeli American mother, Judit, a longtime member of the Women’s International Zionist Organization.
“Even though she’s getting older, she spends her life as a community organizer,” he said. “Her attitude is, ‘get things done.’”