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An Annual Gathering of Jewish Republicans Takes on New Urgency

For years, the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition has been a routine stop on the presidential primary trail, an opportunity for would-be presidents to demonstrate their foreign-policy credentials while plying donors with requisite one-liners.

But nothing is routine this time.

With an escalating conflict in Israel that threatens to spread across the region and a rise in tensions and antisemitism in the United States, the meeting will be like none of the others in the organization’s decades-long history. When Republican officials, lawmakers and candidates gather in Las Vegas this weekend, they will come together at a moment of unique peril for Israel and, many attendees believe, for American Jewry.

Security has been tightened and seats added to accommodate a wave of new attendees who decided to come after the Oct. 7 attacks. An empty Shabbat table will sit in the middle of the room, honoring the more than 200 people being held hostage in Gaza. Along with the American national anthem, attendees will sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and offer special prayers for those who are missing and wounded.

And while the overall tone will be subdued, members of the organization said they expected nothing short of full-throated, unequivocal support for Israel and the protection of Jews in America from the 2024 Republican field.

“I would venture half the room, if not more than half, has relatives who are in the I.D.F.,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary under President George W. Bush and a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “They don’t want to see a single weak knee, elbow or joint. They want to see support for a nation that’s in trauma against the modern-day equivalent of Nazism.”

All eight major candidates running for the Republican nomination, including the dominant front-runner, Donald J. Trump, are expected to attend, a reflection of how the attacks have thrust foreign policy into the center of American politics. On Wednesday, the House passed a resolution vowing to give the Israeli government whatever security assistance it needs, the first legislation taken up by the new speaker, Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana.

Speakers at the Las Vegas gathering will also include Senator John Thune, the second-ranking Senate Republican; Gov. Sarah Sanders of Arkansas; Gov. Joe Lombardo of Nevada; and a number of congressional lawmakers.

“The eyes of the world are going to be on this event this weekend,” said the chairman of the organization, Matt Brooks, who expects the entire leadership of the Republican Party to “articulate an unwavering commitment to the people of Israel and our security.”

Eric Levine, a New York lawyer who is also on the board of the organization, said that he hoped to hear the candidates affirm America’s commitment to Israel, but that he also wanted to hear their plans for dealing with Iran. “I want them to tie together, in a meaningful way, the China, Russia, Iran axis of evil,” he said.

Mr. Levine, who has backed Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina in the G.O.P. presidential primary, said that many in the organization believed that Iran should be “punished” and were looking for the right candidate to do it. “It’s time,” he added, “to set up a red line that really means something.”

While President Biden’s speech condemning the “evil” perpetrated by Hamas and his wartime visit won surprising praise from Jewish conservatives, Republican presidential candidates tried to blame the president in the days after the attack. Many drew a tenuous connection between the surprise assault and a recent hostage release deal between the United States and Iran.

As part of a complex deal for the release of five Americans held in Tehran, the Biden administration agreed in August to free up $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenue funds for humanitarian purposes. The money was transferred to a restricted account in Doha, Qatar, and the administration has emphasized that the money could be used only for “food, medicine, medical equipment that would not have a dual military use.” None of the money had been distributed at the time of the attack, administration officials said.

While nearly all the candidates back broad military and financial support for Israel, Vivek Ramaswamy, who has cast his campaign as “America First 2.0,” has argued that American aid should be contingent on a review of Israel’s invasion plans.

The candidates have also tussled over their rhetoric. At a campaign event this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said the U.S. should not accept any refugees from Gaza because they are “all antisemitic.” Nikki Haley, who also opposes accepting refugees from the area, pushed back on his claim, saying, “America has always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists.”

In recent days, several of the candidates have turned their attention to the home front, with Mr. Trump and others saying they would revoke the student visas of Hamas sympathizers. Mr. DeSantis ordered state universities to ban a pro-Palestinian student organization. Ms. Haley said she would change the official federal definition of antisemitism to include anti-Zionism, allowing her to pull a university’s tax-exempt status if it fails to crack down on anti-Israel organizations. Mr. Scott said he would withhold Pell grants from universities that failed to stamp out antisemitism.

Mr. Trump has spent several weeks trying to repair the damage from an early comment in which he criticized Israeli intelligence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as weak just days after the attack. Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Scott strongly denounced those remarks, and Mr. Trump spent several days walking them back.

Mr. Trump’s record, however, appeals to many attendees. As president, he brokered the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries; moved the United States embassy to Jerusalem; and ended decades of U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements. He also cut aid for Palestinians, and his administration took steps to designate a campaign to boycott Israel as antisemitic.

Marc Goldman, a Boca Raton, Fla., investor on the group’s board, said he backed Mr. Trump in 2020 and was likely to support him again.

“When you really look at the fact of the matter,” Mr. Goldman said, “what Trump did in his four years for America and for Israel was way bigger, way more, than anyone else has accomplished.”

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