Las Vegas Jews Caught in Adelson's Shadow

Despite Economic Woes, Israel Dominates Swing State Debate

Pulling the Handle: With early voting underway, Las Vegas voters are already casting their votes in the crucial swing state of Nevada.
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Pulling the Handle: With early voting underway, Las Vegas voters are already casting their votes in the crucial swing state of Nevada.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 01, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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In Sheldon Adelson’s hometown, Jews are angry about the presidential election.

That contrasts with Jews in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, who will vote despairingly in this year’s race. In Las Vegas, they’ll storm the polls. Audiences at community-sponsored political events here boo heartily. Partisan wars split synagogue listservs. Political lawn signs disappear in Jewish neighborhoods.

Some of the passion here is over the economy. But in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country, the Jewish conversation is focused strikingly on Israel.

Sheldon Adelson
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Sheldon Adelson

At the local Jewish Community Center one morning, a current events discussion group spent an hour talking politics and bruising each other’s feelings. One 78-year-old said that President Obama “has disdain for Israel.” A 70-year-old accused Obama’s Jewish critics of racism and later stormed out in a huff.

The Israel focus is partly the work of Adelson, the casino billionaire who has pledged to spend up to $100 million backing Republicans this cycle. Adelson-funded political ads asking Jews to turn away from Obama, in part over his Israel policies, run incessantly on local TV.

Democrats, too, are playing up the Israel issue. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Nevada, has emphasized her hard-line Israel credentials, drawing distinctions between herself and President Obama.

In other swing states, Jews voice resignation toward this year’s presidential race amid a feeling that neither outcome will fix a broken system. But the Jewish political scene in Nevada today feels like something older, closer to Florida’s Palm Beach County in 2008, where Israel defined the election and communal tensions were high.

“I personally cannot wait for it to be over,” said Rabbi Felipe Goodman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, Las Vegas’s oldest synagogue.


Berkley was fighting the crowd at an evening forum at Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in a Las Vegas suburb.

If anyone knows how to win Nevada’s Jewish votes, it’s Berkley. First elected to Congress in 1999, she previously worked as an attorney for Adelson. The two split acrimoniously, reportedly in a dispute over labor issues, and Adelson now does what he can to spoil her electoral hopes. He’s failed so far.


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