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May 25, 2024

Vivek Ramaswamy tailors his message on Israel to fit the audience

Vivek Ramaswamy tailors his message on Israel to fit the audience

When it comes to the Israel-Hamas war, there are three Vivek Ramaswamy messages. 

There’s the one he gives to predominantly Jewish audiences, as he did Saturday in Las Vegas at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit: that the nation of Israel is strong and doesn’t need the U.S. to defend itself.  

There’s the one he delivers on the campaign trail, where he reminds Americans that Israel “isn’t our 51st state” and stresses that an attack on Israel isn’t the same as an attack on the U.S.  

And then there’s the message he uses more sparingly, as he did in an interview in which he argues that clamping down on pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses is a First Amendment violation and that hate speech is also free speech. 

Read the latest updates on the Israel-Hamas war here.

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in early October, Ramaswamy has been trying to regain some of the momentum he had after his strong first debate showing. His comments, which advocate against U.S. military assistance for Israel and question whether the U.S. needs to provide financial aid to its ally in the Middle East after 2028, have pushed him a bit out of the mainstream of the Republican Party position on the issue.

Ramaswamy’s belief that Israel should stand on its own two feet remains consistent, but which variation on that message he chooses to deliver doesn’t. 

Ramaswamy is likely to come under fire from his fellow candidates over his position around U.S. support for Israel at next week’s debate in Miami, at which the Republican Jewish Coalition will be one of the debate partners. (NBC News is hosting the Nov. 8 event.) And a major question is which message he’ll choose to emphasize. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ramaswamy said he hasn’t deviated from his message on Israel.  

“Vivek has been consistent: It’s not our job to defend another nation’s borders, but it’s not our job to stop another nation from defending theirs either,” the spokesperson wrote before outlining Ramaswamy’s specific policy objectives.  

Even before the Hamas attacks on Israel, Ramaswamy questioned how much financial support the U.S. should be giving the country and what the conditions should be. But since the attacks, he has become increasingly skeptical of the usefulness of military and financial aid to Israel.  

“Why the heck did this attack happen in Israel in the first place?” Ramaswamy asked Sunday at a town hall in West Des Moines, Iowa.  

“We’ve been giving Israel aid for decades, and yet still none of that failed to prevent this attack. … It’s a flawed sense of security, a fake security blanket that breeds complacency,” he added of American aid to Israel, implying Israel had become complacent in the lead-up to the Oct. 7 attack.

But the day before, at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit, Ramaswamy described the Israel Defense Forces not as complacent but as strong: “I have full confidence that if left unrestrained, the IDF will be able to get the job done of defending Israel.”

In an interview on his private plane flying to Iowa after the event, Ramaswamy emphasized that it was the only speech he has written out word for word since he launched his campaign.

He also said he was against clamping down on protests on college campuses — even ones viewed as antisemitic. 

“The right answer to bad speech or bad opinions isn’t censorship; it’s more speech,” Ramaswamy said. He later argued that putting an end to the on-campus protests could result in violence.  

Vivek Ramaswamy at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas on Saturday.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Asked at what point free speech becomes hate speech with regard to antisemitism, Ramaswamy argued that hate speech is free speech. 

“Hate speech is the expression of an opinion, and all opinions, no matter how heinous, are protected,” he said, referring to the First Amendment. 

That was a slightly different message from what he emphasized when he spoke to the largely Jewish GOP crowd in Las Vegas. 

There, he condemned Jewish students’ living in fear of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses but spent far less time on free speech issues. 

“We will make sure those students at Cooper Union don’t have to hide in a locked library for fear of violence,” Ramaswamy said. It was a reference to reports from Jewish students at Cooper Union College in New York City, who said they feared violence by pro-Palestinian protesters and took refuge from demonstrators in a school library. New York police said protesters banged on the doors and glass windows of the building but contradicted the claim that the students were locked inside. 

Only once in his 25-minute speech did he briefly say that speaking out against antisemitism “here at home” was done “not by censorship of speech” but through “leadership.” 

While many of the pro-Palestinian protests that have broken out since the start of the war have been peaceful, advocating for the human rights of innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire of war, others have been riddled with instances of antisemitism, prompting President Joe Biden’s administration to take action

Asked whether he would have made more of an effort to reach out to the Muslim and Arab American communities than Biden — who has received flack for not pushing Israel to ensure safety for innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire in Gaza — Ramaswamy evaded the question. And even though he talked about the scourge of antisemitism throughout the day, Ramaswamy refused to directly answer a question about whether Islamophobia is also a significant problem in the country. 

“I don’t want to see anyone face danger for their faith or for their ethnicity,” he said, before he turned to his message about freedom of speech. 

At the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit, Ramaswamy also took a shot at America’s status-quo foreign policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  

“If Israel wants to at long last abandon the myth of a two-state solution, Israel should go ahead and abandon a two-state solution,” he said to rapturous applause from hundreds in Las Vegas.  

On his plane, Ramaswamy was asked why he called the two-state solution a myth.  

“I think that the two-state solution is built on the idea that Palestine was ever a state,” he said, questioning whether “Palestine” ever existed. 

While the U.S. has never formally recognized the state of “Palestine,” 139 members of the United Nations have recognized it with nonmember state observer status, and a Palestinian identity has existed in that region of the Middle East for more than 100 years.

On the campaign trail Monday in Sioux Center, Iowa, a voter asked Ramaswamy whether a two-state solution was possible — and he took a milder tone.

“On the two-state solution question, that belongs to Israel,” he said. “There are pros and cons for Israel. It’s a complicated — an age-old question.”  

Ramaswamy also took a different tack on what sort of revenge Israel should exact on Hamas for its attacks. 

At the summit in Las Vegas, he graphically suggested that Israel take violent revenge on Hamas for its act of unprecedented terrorism.

“I would love nothing more than for the IDF to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border,” Ramaswamy said, leading the crowd to passionate applause. 

On his plane, NBC News asked Ramaswamy whether an aggressive response by Israel has the potential to breed more terrorism among innocent civilians who’ve lost loved ones.  

Ramaswamy pivoted his answer toward the U.S., acknowledging that wars on terrorism may create more terrorists.  

“One of the risks of U.S. involvement is that the U.S. will face the consequences of people who we end up radicalizing,” he said.  

Alex Tabet

Alex Tabet is a 2024 NBC News campaign embed.

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