It was December 2014, and Dr. Ben Carson, considering a run for the presidency, sat in a first-class lounge at Newark International Airport, awaiting a flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. The neurosurgeon had never been to the Holy Land, but to burnish his foreign policy credentials, he knew he had to start somewhere. There was just one problem: Carson appeared to know absolutely nothing about Israel, Palestine or Middle East politics.
“In the United States, we have Republicans, Democrats, and independents,” Carson said to the Israeli guide who was waiting with him for their flight, as GQ magazine reported last year. “What do you have?”
Who can say what went through the young Israeli woman’s head as she considered this question? Perhaps, Who in the world is this man, and why is he thinking about running for president of the United States? Nonetheless, she dutifully told him about the various political parties in Israel, and its parliamentary body, known as the Knesset. To which Carson replied in wonder: “It sounds complex. Why don’t they just adopt the system we have?”
After landing in Israel, Carson’s self-described business manager, Armstrong Williams, wrote that Carson, “a man of many intellectual accomplishments,” was on a “private visit” to “gain a deeper understanding of the many complex forces at play in the Middle East.”
Like so many American politicians eager to demonstrate their loyalty to one side of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, Carson and his entourage received the requisite Israeli “security tour” that candidates of both parties routinely get. Given the “private” nature of the “fact-finding mission,” it’s unknown whether they encountered an actual Palestinian on the trip. Had they, it might have been inconvenient. Williams suggested as much in describing Jerusalem as a “city sacred to Jews and Christians.” (Of course, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and many Palestinians are Christian—though I doubt Williams had those particular Christians in mind.) As an afterthought, Williams added that Jerusalem “has become significant for Muslims, too.”
Well, yes, I reckon Islam’s third-holiest site, Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif—from which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven on a magical winged steed—might be a little bit significant. But by relegating Muslim claims to the land to a distant third, the “Judeo-Christian” nature of Carson’s mission remained intact. This was no doubt appealing to the doctor’s devoutly religious base, many them Christian Zionists, who believe a strong Israel is essential for the return of the Messiah in our current end times.
Back in the U.S., Carson soon announced that he would seek the presidency. Unfortunately for him, the ignorance about the world that he demonstrated in the Newark airport lounge was only the beginning. In the weeks to come, the somnambulant candidate would, among his many gaffes, express confusion about which countries belonged to NATO, blame Islam for events that happened centuries before it existed, claim falsely that China had intervened in Syria, declare that the pyramids were used for grain silos (maybe because the ancient Egyptians loved popcorn?), and prove unable to name any countries he would invite into a coalition to fight Islamic State. (And it wasn’t only international affairs that confused Carson. Asked to name a favorite past Treasury secretary, he mentioned “Andrea Mitchell’s husband”—Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve but never of Treasury.)
Carson’s grasp of the situation in Israel/Palestine was also demonstrably reality-free. Unlike some of his fellow Republican candidates, he actually supported a Palestinian state—but also wondered, “[C]an you sort of slip that area down into Egypt?” Oh, sure, why not? The Palestinians would adore a Sinai homeland, to say nothing of how Egypt would feel about it. The remark prompted Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” to observe, “He thinks the Egyptians won’t notice him walking in—with Palestine?
“This is insane,” Noah added. “At this rate, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that Ben Carson thinks the Gaza Strip is a titty bar in Vegas.”
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