With all the tragedy of last week, it seems only fitting that this week brings the death of a major figure who fueled the Trump miasma and the ascendancy of a militant Republican movement: Sheldon Adelson. Though Adelson, who was 87, was American by birth and never took Israeli citizenship, he had little use for the U.S. except insofar as it was a guarantor of Israeli security.
Israel was his issue, his only issue (with one notable exception*). Though Adelson had endorsed Marco Rubio in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, once Trump emerged, the casino magnate switched sides and became an ardent admirer and donor. By my rough count, Sheldon and his Israeli wife, Miriam, contributed close to $1-billion to GOP candidates over the past five years or so. Last year alone, they donated over $200-million to its coffers.
He got good value for money:
- Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal reviled by Bibi Netanyahu
- Jared Kushner negotiated the Deal of the Century, which brought normalization of relations between Israel and key Arab states
- Trump aligned the U.S. closely with Saudi Arabia, which had become an ally of Israel in their common fight against Iran
- Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, and declared West Bank settlements legitimate
- Trump closed the Palestinian embassy in Washington DC and cut off funding for both the Palestinian Authority and UNWRA
All of these were positions long sought by the Israel Lobby. None of them had been achieved under any previous U.S. administration. They happened because Adelson essentially bought them. Nor should we forget the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Trump to Mrs. Adelson.
Of course, Trump could have resisted if he chose. But why would he? Trump had no ideological principles or values. His positions were driven by the bottom line: his personal success. That’s why the Trump-Adelson combination was so powerful, productive, and toxic to American democracy. One might argue that Trump could have won election without Adelson. That may be true. But U.S. policy would never have tilted so precipitously toward Israel as it did when Adelson was driving it.
Nor was Adelson’s impact confined to the U.S. In fact, though he served in the U.S. Army during WWII, he once said that he regretted doing so. He would’ve far preferred to serve in the IDF. But as far as I can tell, his own sons from his second marriage never did. Adelson was a key funder of several important organizations including the Israel-American Council, which was founded to marshal the political power of 1-million Israelis living in this country, on behalf of Israel. He also was a co-founder of Birthright, giving it over $400-million over a decade or more. It is designed to imbue American Jewish youth with firm convictions about the State of Israel and Zionism. To transform them into diehard Zionists who would continue their activism politically when they returned to their home communities. He also co-founded the Maccabee Task Force, whose mission is to fight against BDS and other forms of Israeli “delegitimization.” He also supported Ir David, the NGO devoted to ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East Jerusalem via archaeological digs and outright dispossession of long-time residents in place of Judean settlers. Adelson was the key backer of Ariel University, a settler educational institution foisted unwillingly on the Israeli higher education system. It was the epitome of apartheid and highlighted the importance of the academic boycott.
Most important of all was the hundreds of millions he plowed into Israel HaYom, the free Israeli daily also known as Bibiton (“Bibi-Paper”). Netanyahu himself has credited it with making his political career and propelling him to the prime ministership and keeping him there as the longest-serving Israeli PM ever.
Nor is this the end of an era, as it is with some deaths of important public figures. There is no known discord in the family. No members with dissident political views. Miriam Adelson, 75, is equally imbued with a far-right Zionist ideology and will likely continue most, if not all of her husband’s commitments. Their children and his step-children, who will eventually inherit what is now a $30-billion business and estate are equally dedicated to a right-wing Israeli vision.
Yesterday, only a few hours before Adelson’s death, the Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem, published a remarkable report: This is apartheid: A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. B’Tselem has published hundreds of similar reports criticizing Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. It has offered testimony on potential Israeli war crimes during Operation Protective Edge. For this, it has earned the hatred of large swaths of the Israeli populace, especially ultra-nationalists like those in power for most of the past four decades.
But this report was different because it broke new ground. Whereas most Israeli human rights NGOs call Israel’s Occupation illegal and some even label it apartheid; they almost never take the next logical step, and label all of Israel, from the river to the sea, as an apartheid regime. That’s the bold step which B’Tselem took here.
It rejects the argument offered by liberal Zionists, that Israel within the Green Line is a democracy, while everything beyond it is a violation of the principles on which Israel was established. This conception saw Israel and the Occupied Territories as two separate entities. In other words, Israel=good; Occupation=bad.
B’Tselem rejects Israel’s self-definition as a democracy because equal rights are not offered to every citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity. For example, the Nation State Law, inscribed last year into the State’s Basic Law (a quasi-constitutional set of guiding principles). It declares that Israel is a state specifically for the Jewish people. It renders non-Jews as an after-thought, if that. Arabic, which had been one of the country’s two national languages, lost its protected status. Even groups like the Druze, an offshoot of Islam, whose members served loyally in the IDF since the founding of the State, were trashed.
For many decades, Israel had adopted pro forma rules and regulations which discriminated against Palestinian citizens in housing, health, jobs, education and more. Sometimes the rules were written down and sometimes they were enforced by custom. For example, though Palestinians serve in the Knesset as MKs, none had ever been prime minister, president, or Knesset speaker, and no Palestinian party ever sat in a coalition government. There’s no law against this. But no Jewish Party would dare invite a Palestinian Party into a ruling coalition. Why? Because of Israeli Jewish racism. All of it constituted a system of Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subordination.
Israel always preferred to see Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as separate from those who were Israeli citizens. The latter were accorded, or so the story went, full rights of Israeli citizens. While the former were not because they had once been Jordanian, but never Israeli, and hence couldn’t claim such rights. This seemed to satisfy any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the notion that they are separate classes.
But Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank has destroyed this notion. There are 800,000 Israeli Jews living outside the Green Line (East Jerusalem and the West Bank). They constitute nearly 10% of Israel’s overall population. They are not an afterthought. They are at the heart of the State itself. Unlike occupied Palestinians, Jewish settlers vote in Israeli elections. They are governed by Israeli civil law. Their settlements are funded by the State itself. The economy and businesses of the settlements are tied into the State economy. Roads and transportation are aligned with the Israeli highway system to serve Jews in the settlements and bring them to and from their jobs inside the Green Line. The settlements and Israel proper are a single integrated whole.
This is the very definition of apartheid. To many of us, it comes as no shock. We’ve been using the “A-word” for years. You’ll remember the sturm und drang that greeted Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which had the temerity to suggest that Israel’s Occupation (but not Israel itself) constituted apartheid. The poor man was tarred and feathered. But he was right. We’ve known it all along.
B’Tselem’s report is so crucial because it affirms the disparate voices of pro-Palestinian groups and the BDS movement saying that Israel is apartheid. It is the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Now that a major Israeli human rights group has endorsed this view, it will be come a consensus view in the world community. Instead of being smeared as anti-Semites for saying it, activists will be able to point to a respected Israeli NGO which has affirmed it.
Returning to the Adelsons, they represent a Zionism based on money, power and political influence. They buy their politicians, who in turn pledge fealty to Israel and its interests. The Adelson’s lodestar is an Israel that is dominant militarily and politically, both in the Middle East and in the US. An Israel that is exclusively and militantly Jewish.
But B’Tselem and its report represent an entirely different, and no less powerful, approach. It is based on international law and ethical values. It is based on the concept of justice and the rule of law. It is based on globalism, not religious supremacism. It is not backed by billions, or even millions. There are no political bosses sitting in smoke-filled backrooms doing deals with B’Tselem lobbyists.
While the Adelsons have the money, the human rights movement, represented by groups like BDS, have the people. They have the grassroots. Increasingly they have the ear of the media, which used to be (and still is largely) in the pocket of the Lobby. The more support and credibility they gain, the more they will cut in to the political territory which used to be sacrosanct to the Lobby. The increasing power of The Squad in Congress, which treats the Lobby with skepticism, and rejects its claim to be Holy Writ, augurs well for the future of Palestinian rights in U.S. politics.
While the Adelsons may be powerful and may wield that power for decades to come, it will eventually wane as the arc of history bends toward justice for Palestine.
Nathan Thrall has just published an essay at the London Review of Books that expands upon the ideas in the B’Tselem report.
- Adelson’s other major interest was stopping online gambling. He employed lobbyists, spending millions to pressure Congress and State legislatures to outlaw this venture, because he believed it would cut into profits from his casinos.