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Sheldon Adelson: ‘Crazy Jewish Billionaire’

No, I didn’t say it. George Bush did. There is this and much more in Connie Bruck’s eye-opening New Yorker expose of Sheldon Adelson’s life as a right-wing political wheeler-dealer and gambling tycoon. The profile is highly unflattering though it does attempt to place some of Adelson’s philanthropy in a positive context. What follows are some of the most salient passages dealing with Adelson’s political commitments, especially those involving Israel.

Bruck describes in great detail Adelson’s campaign to end Ehud Olmert’s prime ministership so that he might replace him with his buddy, Bibi Netanyahu. Adelson doesn’t merely oppose Olmert in the conventional sense that someone might oppose a sitting prime minister. He loathes him. He accuses him of being a traitor and his government as being somehow illegitimate (all these are echoes of the extremist settler movement).  The following is a discussion of the full court press Adelson exerted on George Bush to scuttle the Annapolis summit because right wingers feared it would lead to negotiating away Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem:

Adelson opposed both Olmert and the peace conference, which was held in Annapolis in late November. The Zionist Organization of America, to which Adelson is a major contributor, ran a full-page ad in the Times, headlined, “SECRETARY RICE: DON’T PROMOTE A STATE FOR PALESTINIANS WHILE THEIR 10 COMMANDMENTS PROMOTE TERRORISM AND ISRAEL’S DESTRUCTION.” The “10 Commandments” referred to the constitution of Fatah, Abbas’s party. “Osama Bin-Laden and Hamas would be proud of Abbas’ Fatah Constitution,” the ad stated.

I don’t know about you, but I’m deeply frightened of a mega-billionaire who shares the political views of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Charles Jacobs, Bibi Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky.  There’s no telling how much damage so much money can do in a political process.  The following passage describes Adelson’s nutty-as-fruitcake notion that Haim Saban, one of the AIPAC’s most significant donors, is anti-Israel; and the Fatah rump prime minister is a “terrorist.”  This is so redolent of Frontpagemagazine, Campus Watch and the David Project rhetoric–it’s scary:

In early November, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, who is widely respected in Washington, was scheduled to appear with Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, at the opening of the Saban Forum, an event in Jerusalem organized by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Adelson phoned the event’s chair, Haim Saban, an Israeli-American businessman, and asked him to contribute to a campaign that he was organizing against the Olmert government; Saban declined. Adelson then asked if he would sign an ad; again, Saban refused. Whereupon, Adelson accused him of funding anti-Israel research at the Saban Center. Saban was surprised, but suggested that when the center’s director, Martin Indyk, was next in Las Vegas he and Adelson could talk. Not long afterward, Indyk met with Adelson at his office at the Venetian, on the Las Vegas Strip. According to a person familiar with what happened at the meeting, Adelson berated Indyk for hosting “terrorists” like Fayyad, who he said was a founder of Fatah. Indyk is said to have replied that Fayyad was never involved in terrorism and was not a member of Fatah, and that Adelson’s problem was really with Olmert, because he dealt with Fayyad. Adelson stood his ground, and declared that the Olmert government was an illegitimate government and should be thrown out.

Natan Shanransky is one of Adelson’s darlings.  The former’s One Jerusalem organization has also targeted Olmert with especially incendiary rhetoric.  What is important in the passage below is Bruck’s statement that Adelson is breaking a tacit understanding of American Jewish politics concerning Israel:

Historically, most mainstream American Jewish organizations don’t publicly oppose the government of Israel, but in the weeks before and after the Annapolis conference a number of groups were strongly critical. Among them was One Jerusalem, founded in 2000 to protest any peace accord that would include Israeli concessions on Jerusalem. One Jerusalem has received contributions from Adelson. A week before the Annapolis conference, One Jerusalem’s chairman, Natan Sharansky…announced a major campaign against any division of Jerusalem, and against the peace initiative. One Jerusalem referred to Annapolis as “the Munich Conference of the 21st century.” After Olmert asserted Israel’s right as a sovereign state to make decisions regarding its national security, One Jerusalem posted an article on its Web site, headlined, “OLMERT TO WORLD JEWRY: SHUT UP.” Later, as Olmert’s negotiations with Abbas continued, another piece announced, OLMERT DECLARES WAR ON ISRAEL.”

Again, what is especially noxious here is the notion that an elected Israeli prime minister does not have the right to set Israeli policy if it runs counter to a right wing notion of what it should be.  In other words, Adelson favors Israeli democracy when his man (Netanyahu) is running the show.  When he isn’t, then the other guy is a charlatan and traitor to the nation who should be destroyed like an insect.

Astonishingly and in another major break with American Jewish traditions, Adelson has not been shy in lashing out at AIPAC for being insufficiently faithful to an anti-Palestinian agenda:

…He learned that AIPAC was supporting a congressional letter, signed by more than a hundred and thirty members of the House of Representatives, that urged the Bush Administration to increase economic aid to the Palestinians, an initiative that the government of Israel also supported. Adelson was furious. AIPAC is not accustomed to being attacked publicly from the right; its critics generally charge that its conservative policies toward Israel favor the status quo over a peace accord. But AIPAC has traditionally insisted that it seeks to further a close American-Israeli relationship, whether the government of Israel is left, right, or center. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Adelson said of AIPAC’s support of aid for the Palestinians, “I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they want to jump.”

Bruck, whose husband, Mel Levine is a long-time AIPAC fixture, tacks a little too sympathetically to the AIPAC line that it supports Israeli government policy irrespective of ideological considerations.  On the contrary, AIPAC often sponsors legislation that exceeds, and even conflicts with stated Israeli policy.  But the notion that Adelson would thunder at the group for being too sympathetic to Palestinians is another eye-opener.

I believe that Israel is strong enough that it can withstand the depredations of even people as rich and potentially politically dangerous as Adelson.  But passages like the following do give one pause:

When Adelson was merely rich, he wrote checks for causes that he favored and for politicians whom he supported. Occasionally, he demanded to be heard. But he did not expect to play a significant role in U.S. foreign policy, or in Israel’s strategic decisions, or in the fate of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. That was before he acquired many billions of dollars. (He has assets of twenty-six billion dollars, according to a Forbes list published in March.) His political expenditures and his expectations have increased proportionately. Not long after Bush’s encounter with Adelson last October [in which Adelson railed against Condi Rice’s Annapolis agenda], an Israeli government representative said that Bush, describing it to another Israeli official, had remarked wryly, “I had this crazy Jewish billionaire, yelling at me.”

The problem with a character like Sheldon Adelson is that both his personality and views are so extreme as to invite caricature.  But you don’t have to caricature someone who thinks like this.  The subject has done it for you:

He said that in the waning days of the McCarthy era there were a number of appeals-board hearings of scientists who had had their clearances revoked, and he took down their testimony. “The scientists had been invited to a ‘soirée,’ ” he continued, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “You know, these wine-and-celery affairs, wine-and-cheese affairs—and me, I wanted hot dogs and hamburgers and pastrami sandwiches.” The crowd chuckled appreciatively. “Little did they know that these were Communist-infiltrated cells. . . . But every one of them had the same story,” he said. “They went to soirées, and the conversation consisted of why they were here on earth. And I said to myself, ‘These guys are . . . the greatest scientists in history, and they’re asking themselves, Why are they here on earth? . . . This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. There have been countless billions of people that have lived since the Neanderthal man, and not one person has ever found out why they’re here on earth, with any degree of certainty—don’t they know that?’ ”

Still, he tried to put himself in their place. He imagined himself at a “corned-beef soirée,” trying to figure out why he was here on earth. First, he thought it was to feel good, but then he decided that that was too selfish. What about helping others? “If I make other people feel good, I feel good!” He added, “I literally, mentally, went like”—he paused, brushing his hands together in a dismissive gesture—“it’s over with! I don’t have to think about that issue ever again in my life.”

Helping others is the key to the meaning of life…imagine that.  After reading this profile. if you really believe that Sheldon Adelson’s life is governed by this principle you should have your head examined.

Until I read this article, I had no idea Adelson thirsts to bring gambling to Israel.  Of all the things that Israel needs, it needs gambling like a hole in the head.  Thankfully, the idea of gambling is repulsive to Orthodox Jews making it difficult to see how he will ever succeed in his dream of relieving poor Israelis and other Middle Easterners of their hard-earned savings.

Bruck spends considerable time discussing Adelson’s foray into tabloid journalism with the founding of HaYom, a free competitor to other Israeli dailies.  I was tickled by the fact that an Olmert representative refused to call HaYom a newspaper.  Instead he called it “printed matter.”  The paper is known for its incessant shilling for Bibi Netanyahu and its lurid diatribes against Olmert.

To my recollection, it is entirely unprecedented for an American Jew to meddle directly in internal Israeli politics.  That’s why the following passage shook me:

…Adelson had met with two ministers in Olmert’s coalition government—Avigdor Liberman, of the right-wing Israel Beytenu Party, and Eli Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party—to try to persuade them to leave the coalition, a move that would likely bring down the Olmert government. In February, pamphlets were delivered to the synagogues attended by Shas voters throughout Israel, urging them to tell Yishai to leave the government. A spokesman for Shas said that the pamphlets were distributed by One Jerusalem, which is funded in part by Adelson. (One Jerusalem denies involvement.) Liberman left the government in January. He said that he did not discuss his departure with Adelson…

Right, and pigs can fly.

The following passage describes how cynical and monomaniacally pro-Israel is Adelson’s politics:

Pooya Dayanim, a Jewish-Iranian democracy activist based in Los Angeles, chatted with Adelson. Recalling their conversation, Dayanim observed that Adelson was dismissive of Reza Pahlevi, the son of the former Shah…because, Adelson said, “he doesn’t want to attack Iran.” According to Dayanim, Adelson referred to another Iranian dissident at the conference, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, whom he said he would like to support, saying, “I like Fakhravar because he says that, if we attack, the Iranian people will be ecstatic.” Dayanim said that when he disputed that assumption Adelson responded, “I really don’t care what happens to Iran. I am for Israel.”

Adelson wants to invade Iran and topple the ayatollahs solely to benefit Israel.  Of course, Adelson neglects to consider that attacking Iran might actually harm Israel in the long-run given the potentially negative long-term impact of such a military adventure.  How many ways can we spell S-C-A-R-Y?

Here is Adelson’s prescription for ending the Palestinian demographic threat to Jewish predominance in Israel as offered at a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres:

At a formal dinner attended by more than a hundred senior officials of various Israeli and Jewish organizations, guests were offered the opportunity to tell Peres what they considered the biggest challenge facing the Jewish people. Adelson, according to Ha’aretz, declared, “I think Jews should have lots of sex. That is the solution to our demographic problem.”

The more I think about this, the more I think Adelson’s psyche is worth a once over from Jon Stewart or even Al Franken, in his pre-political days:

Adelson has not been shy about his new wealth. According to a guest at a reception in Washington a few years ago, Adelson remarked to President Bush, “You know, I am the richest Jew in the world.” He also introduced himself that way to a former Israeli official recently. The investment banker Ken Moelis said that when he saw Adelson not long ago he was surprised to hear him refer to himself as “Sheldon Adelson III.” “I said, ‘I never realized your father was Sheldon Adelson II,’ ” Moelis recalled. “And he said, ‘He wasn’t! But I’m the third-richest American!’ ”

Adelson is also dabbling in American electoral politics through the creation of the 527, Freedom’s Watch, an offshoot of the Republican Jewish Coalition:

As Adelson began to focus on the 2008 Presidential election, he apparently decided that his recent megabillionaire status would allow him to play a more prominent role than he had in the past. In early 2007, at a meeting in Florida of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Adelson and many of his allies resolved to create Freedom’s Watch. As a nonprofit 501(C)(4), the organization can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals without any disclosure…

Some conservatives have heralded Adelson as their answer to George Soros, the financier who has donated large sums to the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, and there were press reports that Adelson might spend two hundred million dollars on the 2008 elections. Last summer, Freedom’s Watch spent fifteen million dollars on a nationwide ad campaign supporting the troop surge in Iraq, and in the fall it held a conference on radical Islam and Iran. But then Freedom’s Watch seemed to recede, and, in April, articles in Mother Jones and the Times suggested that the organization had been so plagued by infighting, and by micromanaging on the part of its prime benefactor, Adelson—who since its inception had reportedly contributed some thirty million dollars—that it might not be a player in this fall’s elections, after all…In late April, however, Freedom’s Watch reappeared, running ads against Democrats in special elections…

I know that Barack Obama is prepared for the racist mud that someone like Adelson is prepared to fling at him.  But $200-million worth of it still scares the hell out me.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Bill Pearlman June 25, 2008, 5:36 AM

    First of all Scharansky did a stretch in the gulag, and is deserving of respect, despite what you think. Second, guys like me have Adelson and Scharansky. Guys like you love Soros and Finkelstein. What’s the big deal?

  • tzvee June 25, 2008, 7:31 AM

    Adelson is nothing more than a three-card-monte con man – writ extraordinarily large.He’s made a life of taking other people’s money all the while creating absolutely no value in the world. The social ruin that his gambling empire has caused is not even estimable.I don’t want such a person who has no scruples about destroying families, communities and societies now escalating his meddling to destroy nations too. Especially when it involves nations that I care about like the US and Israel. Adelson has every right to run for office or involve himself with those who run for office and arrogate political power to himself in the manner that other arrogant billionaires have followed in the past. In a democracy the people have the right and obligation to impede the efforts of the arrogant destroyers and to rally behind those who know better.

  • Richard Silverstein June 25, 2008, 9:50 PM

    @Bill Pearlman: Natan Sharansky WAS deserving of respect when he did his time in the Gulag. He no longer deserves respect. He’s nothing but a authoritarian Jewish supremacist.

    You can have Adelson & Sharansky. Only I wish you’d go off & create yr own separate religion so I didn’t have to be associated w. it. Your wishes that Israel would kill Finkelstein & the hare-brained notions of Adelson bring all Jews into ill-repute.

    I don’t love Finkelstein. I don’t even always agree w. him. I respect him though.

  • Shoded Yam June 30, 2008, 10:37 AM

    Of course Shelly’s interests do not coincide with that of the average Israeli. Simply put, peace is a non-starter for American Jews for whom an Israel at war is and has been the entre to corridors of power and influence, and have placed them at the the top of the american political ziggurat. I suggest, that there is a concerted effort by an American Jewish propaganda machine that is hell bent on depicting the State of Israel as one settler-loving, palestinian-hating, monolith. Given whats in the balance, this is understandable. An Israel that is at peace with it’s neighbors, an Israel that is reconciled to the reality of a two-state solution, an Israel that is committed to social justice for all of its citizens, an Israel not torn apart by social dysfunction, is simply not in the interests of American Jews, either from the left or the right side of the political spectrum. Without an Israel on a perpetual war-footing, without an Israel as a supplicant client state, without an Israel that is willing to subordinate its own interests to that of the United States, without the perception that it is necessary for American Jews to intercede with the American government on Israel’s behalf, (American Jews become a political non-entity (much as they were prior to June 1967), with the attendant loss of power and influence that would entail. In short, American Jewish support has nothing to do with Israel’s welfare, it has to do with its own.

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