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Shabbat at CPAC: The Jewish conservatives who want to ‘Make America Great Again’

Despite media reports of “Nazis” at the conference, JNS found a very conspicuous and proud Jewish presence.

Former President Donald Trump delivers the keynote speech at CPAC in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 24, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.
Former President Donald Trump delivers the keynote speech at CPAC in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 24, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

Two Jewish men meet in a buffet line and start arguing about whether Jews should move from New York City to Oklahoma.

“What’s the weather like?” one asks. “Better than New York!” says the other.

Others join in. Is it even possible to get a good bagel in Oklahoma, one wonders. “That’s why we need a community!” says the architect of the Oklahoma exodus.

This isn’t the setup of a joke. It’s Shabbat dinner conversation at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of mostly American right-wingers that has been a fixture on the political calendar of the Republican Party for decades.

Repeat attendees said that this year’s CPAC, held in National Harbor, Md. just a few miles south of Washington, D.C., seemed to have fewer attendees and less star power than previous years. (CPAC denied that there was any drop in attendance.)

Former president Donald Trump’s keynote address on Saturday was the only one of the events at the three-day conference that JNS attended where the main hall was fully packed to its capacity of about 5,000 people. This year, just 12 members of Congress and one governor spoke, compared with 32 who spoke at the 2012 election-year CPAC, prior to the Trump presidency.

None of the numbers seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the 150 or so Jews who attended Shabbat dinner on Friday or others who spoke with JNS after Trump’s speech.

“It was phenomenal and revitalizing,” said David Shalom, of Los Angeles, after Trump’s Saturday keynote. “I’m super excited for next January when ‘America first’ is back on the national agenda.”

Attendees at CPAC’s Reagan dinner heard from former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and Joseph Strickland, a former Catholic bishop who was forcibly removed from office by Pope Francis. Elsewhere, CPAC’s Shabbat observers heard stories from Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Trump administration, and a call to arms from TV and radio host Mark Levin.

“The other side wakes up every single day trying to figure out how to destroy our country,” Levin said. “We need to wake up like they do, but for the opposite reason. These people need to be crushed. These people need to be destroyed.”

“If you’re Jewish and you vote Democrat, you’re insane,” Levin added, to the loudest applause of the evening.

CPAC
Some 150 people attend a Shabbat dinner at CPAC in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

‘Nazis’ at CPAC

NBC News reported on Saturday that a small group of self-described “national socialists” attended a CPAC happy hour on Friday, shortly before the Shabbat dinner across the street.

“The Nazis introduced themselves to me at a mixer and said they were national socialists, started talking about skull measurements and pushing the conspiracy theory that all races were being controlled by Jewish people,” NBC reporter Ben Goggin wrote Sunday.

Matt Schlapp, CPAC chairman, called the claim that there were Nazis at the event “false, misleading and grossly manipulative—especially coming from a writer who has carried the water for Hamas in much of his reporting on the Israel-Gaza war.”

“CPAC has made it absolutely clear that we stand with Israel and the Jewish people,” Schlapp stated. “Our board and international partners unanimously passed a resolution this week reiterating that strong, clear and unequivocal position. We hosted a special event at CPAC in celebration of and solidarity with Israel, and we are leading an ongoing initiative as an organization supporting Israel.”

“When we come across someone at CPAC peddling any kind of antisemitism, we deal with them immediately,” Schlapp added. “Knowing this, NBC weaved together lies and fabrications to create a false perception, and we won’t stand by idly while NBC engages in willful misinformation.”

JNS spotted five of the apparent neo-Nazis in the hotel lobby of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, where CPAC was being held over the course of three days. Most CPAC attendees wore “Make America Great Again” t-shirts or apolitical street clothes, but three of the five had long coats. Another wore lederhosen, and one of those named in the NBC article wore a lapel pin with a sonnenrad, a swastika-like symbol used by the SS that neo-Nazis have embraced.

NBC reported that the men “didn’t meet any perceptible resistance at the conference,” but one person, who was talking with the five, was removed from the media section of the main hall during Trump’s speech on Saturday for unknown reasons.

The conference included a panel on antisemitism on college campuses and a session with the father of an Israeli hostage whom Hamas terrorists kidnapped on Oct. 7.

A link at the top of the CPAC website notes that “CPAC stands with Israel,” and the website advertised the Shabbat dinner, though the independent Young Jewish Conservatives group organized it.

On Thursday, CPAC hosted a breakout session featuring Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member who is part of the Religious Zionist Party, billed as “a guide to fighting contemporary Jew-hatred.”

JNS did not observe any Nazis among the 40 or so attendees of that breakout session.

Trump speaks

Trump took the stage on Saturday almost exactly one hour later than scheduled. His entrance was preceded by the song “Justice for All,” which combines Trump reciting the pledge of allegiance with a rendition of the National Anthem sung by a choir of 20 men jailed for their actions on Jan. 6, who recorded their part through a prison telephone.

In his roughly hour-and-a-half address, Trump mixed jokes, complaints about his legal cases, stories from his presidency, criticism of the media and calls to “make America great again” in the familiar style of his campaign rallies.

Trump also warned of the consequences if U.S. President Joe Biden is re-elected.

CPAC
A prayer book for the Shabbat dinner at the CPAC convention on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

“Ruthless gangs will explode even more into the suburbs,” Trump claimed. “Hamas and Antifa will terrorize our streets while their brutal ideology—and it is brutal indeed, it is brutal and horrible like nobody’s ever seen before—takes over our schools.”

“Our country is being destroyed, and the only thing standing between you and its obliteration is me,” he said.

Trump also speculated on how world affairs might be different if he was president.

“The attack on Israel would have never happened,” he said. “Remember Iran was broke. They were broke. Ukraine would have never happened. I talked to Putin a lot. I got along with him well. Although he did announce the other day that he’d much rather see Biden as president.”

Iran also featured prominently in Trump’s remarks, with Trump comparing the billions of dollars that the Biden administration has allowed to go to Iran with the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration.

“Iran was broke and they had no money for Hamas and they had no money for Hezbollah,” Trump said. “There were stories that all these terror groups were angry at Iran because they weren’t paying them.”

Israel

CPAC attendees with whom JNS spoke after Trump’s speech gave it good reviews.

“It was fantastic,” said Mark Ivanyo, of Houston. “I think he’s on point and he’s always advancing the ‘America first’ agenda.”

CPAC’s board adopted a resolution on Wednesday that staunchly supports Israel and Jews, but several attendees were skeptical of the Biden administration providing U.S. military aid to the Jewish state.

“The current administration doesn’t have much of a goal other than to just send money to every country,” Ivanyo said. “Now there’s a new war in Israel, they’re gonna send billions of dollars over there.” (Ivanyo clarified that he does ultimately support funding Israel in particular.)

May Hardiman, of Manassas, Va., told JNS she is for a “fair” position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Iraqi-American and a Christian, Hardiman showed JNS her “release the hostages” wristband, adding that what Hamas did was “crazy.” 

Hardiman opposes U.S. aid money because she thinks it should stay in the United States. “You want to give money to war? No,” she said. “It should be here in America to help American people that are poor, homeless, barely living paycheck to paycheck.”

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