WASHINGTON (JTA) — Until the January 6 insurrection, Mike Pence made sure to stay on the same page as Donald Trump — except, sometimes, when it came to the Jews.
Both men delighted the pro-Israel establishment — Trump by fulfilling a long wishlist of Israel’s right-wing government, Pence by proving himself as a stalwart Christian Zionist through years in elected office. But just weeks after Trump assumed office, the difference in how each man approached Jewish anxieties was already stark.
Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions were getting bomb threats, and a Jewish journalist asked the US president what he planned to do about antisemitism. Trump lashed out, accusing the reporter of lying and quipping, “Welcome to the world of the media.”
A week later, Jews in St. Louis were reeling after a vandal knocked over over 150 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. Pence was in town and took the opportunity to condemn the bomb threats and the vandalism as “a sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” Then, he headed over to the cemetery, picked up a rake and helped clean up the mess.
Pence’s bid is the longest of shots. He polls in the low single digits, while Trump leads in the polls. The former president routinely depicts Pence as a traitor for not trying to hand him the election when Pence presided over the certification of the electoral vote on January 6, 2021.
Pence, meanwhile, has said Trump’s behavior that day endangered his family. If Pence does succeed in unseating his old boss, it will be because he’s tapped into a deep thirst among some Republicans for a more conventional candidate to wean the party off Trump.
No matter how he does in the race, here’s what you need to know about Mike Pence and the Jews.
He has been pro-Israel from the get-go
First elected to the US House of Representatives as an Indiana Republican in 2000, Pence made clear from the outset that defending Israel was among his priorities.
“My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,” he told Congressional Quarterly in 2002. “God promises Abraham, ‘those who bless you, I will bless, and those who curse you, I will curse.’”
In his autobiography published last year, “So Help me God,” he credits his interest in Israel and in Jewish issues to his late sister-in-law, Judy, “an elegant, sophisticated young woman from a prominent Jewish family in Milwaukee” who married his brother, Thomas, “a pickup-driving, dirt bike-riding, banjo-playing country boy from southern Indiana.” Pence wrote, “She made him a better man.”
For years, he has placed a quote from the Biblical book of Jeremiah above the fireplace in his personal and then his official residences — in the governor’s mansion in Indiana and then in the vice president’s residence in Washington, DC: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope, and a future.”
“They’re words to which my family has repaired to as generations of Americans have done so throughout our history, and the people of Israel through all their storied history have clung,” Pence told a conference of Christians United for Israel in 2017.
In Congress, Pence took the lead in advancing pro-Israel legislation, especially in defending the barrier Israel built cutting through portions of the West Bank to shield Israel and some of its settlements from terrorist attacks. Together with Representative Ron Klein, a Florida Democrat, and the late Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who was the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, he co-founded the House’s antisemitism task force.
Lantos, Pence said in his autobiography, had a profound influence on him. “He and I almost always disagreed on politics, but I was always inspired by his moral clarity and courage,” he wrote. Klein now chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
As Indiana governor in 2016, Pence enacted the first state law banning state business with firms that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel, known as BDS. The bill also applied to businesses that boycott Israel’s settlements — one of the first pieces of legislation to erase the line between Israel and the West Bank.
Later that year, the Republican Jewish Coalition effusively praised Pence’s selection as Trump’s running mate, calling him “a critical leader and important voice regarding Israel during his time in the House and as governor.”
He attended every policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during the Trump administration; Trump avoided all of them.
His evangelical beliefs shape his domestic policy
One of the most prominent issues of the 2024 election will be abortion, following the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade last year. The decision gave states the authority to determine reproductive rights and led to the swift narrowing of abortion access in many states. On abortion and other issues including LGBTQ rights, Pence departs from most of the Jewish community, where support for abortion access and LGBTQ issues are high.
A number of Republicans — chief among them Trump — believe that the party should take the win and not pursue further abortion restrictions, arguing that the decision last year contributed to Republican losses in the midterm elections.
Not Pence: he wants to ban abortion nationwide. “Having been given this second chance for life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land,” he said after the court’s decision.
Pence also has a long career of opposing LGBTQ rights. When he was governor, he sought to exempt Indiana from a Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriages. As a congressman, he opposed funding for outreach to HIV patients that he said promoted gay lifestyles. (His handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana is understood to have worsened it.)
As Indiana governor in 2015, Pence signed one of the most far-reaching state laws allowing businesses to decline to serve LGBTQ customers. Businesses threatened to boycott the state, and he soon signed modified legislation that increased protections for LGBTQ people.
Months later, Pence was facing questions about why he pushed through the law from the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that trends moderate on social issues and whose director said members had “a lot of questions” about the legislation. His tone was apologetic. “Ultimately we adopted a few reforms and made it clear this was a shield, not a sword,” he said of the bill.
He was the Trump administration’s top trauma whisperer for the Jews
During his time as vice president, Pence was often the favored spokesman when tragedy befell the Jews.
In 2018, at a Trump administration religious freedom event, Pence singled out the threats of violence faced by Jews in Europe, including in countries seen as allies by Trump.
“While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships,” he said “They can, and do, arise in free societies, as well — not from government persecution but from prejudice and hatred.”
The same year, he said he was “sickened and appalled” at Nazi graffiti on an Indiana synagogue he knew well.
In 2019, he and his wife visited the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, after a deadly attack by a white supremacist. “We had to come,” he told the rabbi.
The same year, he toured Auschwitz and the next year, he attended the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
Some efforts to mark Jewish tragedy went awry. In 2018, when Pence marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jewish figures chided him for imbuing Christian imagery in his celebration of Israel’s founding in the wake of the Holocaust. “A few days ago, Karen & I paid our respects at Yad Vashem to honor the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust who 3 years after walking beneath the shadow of death, rose up from the ashes to resurrect themselves to reclaim a Jewish future,” he said on Twitter.
It was not the last time a Pence event would bring Christian themes into Jewish mourning. Pence was scheduled on Oct. 29, 2018, to campaign in Michigan for a Jewish Republican running for Congress, Leah Epstein.
Two days earlier, a gunman massacred 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst-ever attack on Jews in US history. Epstein invited a Messianic Jewish leader to deliver a prayer. Messianic Jews, who call their spiritual leaders rabbis, believe in the divinity of Jesus, and Jewish groups took offense. That led Pence’s folks to scramble to tell reporters that he was unaware that the rabbi was not, in fact, Jewish.
Pence was not among the many Trump administration figures and supporters who urged the president to walk back his “very fine people on both sides” equivocation after a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 in which a counter-protester was killed. The vice president defended his boss: “I stand with the president,” he said when asked about Trump’s statements.
Trump-Pence vs. Trump
Pence, increasingly at odds with his former boss since their January 6, 2021, falling-out, has a unique way of distinguishing Good Trump from Bad Trump: He portrays the administration’s wins as “Trump-Pence” policies, while the not-so-salutary stuff is Trump’s alone.
That dynamic was in evidence last November at the annual conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, when Pence was among an array of presidential prospective candidates to speak, including DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Trump himself.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem? “Trump-Pence.” “It was the Trump-Pence administration that kept our word to the American people and our most cherished ally, when we moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the state of Israel,” Pence said.
As for Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election? Pence didn’t directly name the former president, but differentiated himself from him.
“The American people must know that our party keeps our oath to the Constitution even when political expediency may suggest that we do otherwise,” Pence said then. “We must be the leaders to keep our oath even when it hurts.”
Will he get Jewish funding?
Until filing papers on Monday, Pence’s main vehicle for fundraising has been a 501(c)4, a political advocacy group that is not required to reveal donors or extensive financial information. Advancing American Freedom has said its aim is to raise tens of millions of dollars to promote Pence’s favored conservative causes.
Now that he’s in the race, it will be interesting to watch where Pence draws Jewish support. One clue may be in a plane ride: Last year, Pence went on a campaign style tour of Israel and Ukraine. Loaning him the plane was Miriam Adelson, the widow of casino magnate and Republican kingmaker Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson has since said she’s not planning to get involved in the GOP primaries.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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