Recipients of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s largesse are dodging questions about his latest salvo against Israeli democracy.
Adelson, a leading Republican donor, has long stood out among American Jews for his conservative views. He may have stepped farther outside of the American Jewish mainstream than ever before, however, in statements at a conference in Washington on November 9 in which he seemed to write off Israel as a democratic state.
“I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state… Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”
While Anti-Defamation League national president Abraham Foxman has slammed Adelson’s remarks, leaders of groups that have taken money from Adelson have not responded to requests to address his statements.
“Mr. Adelson is certainly entitled to his views,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Foundation and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. “The question is whether he seeks to impose those views on the not-for-profits he supports, and whether he seeks to determine their educational message.”
A spokesperson for Birthright Israel, whose group gets $32 million a year from Adelson, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the Israeli American Council, all of which have received major funding from Adelson.
Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, which Adelson also supports, suggested that Adelson’s comments may have been an attempt at humor. “I know Sheldom for maybe 15 years,” Klein said. “This is Sheldon Adleson humor, sarcasm, an attempt at humor… Of course he’s a fervent supporter of democracy.”
A spokesman for the Israeli consul general in New York declined to comment.
This is not the first time that some Jewish charities that take Adelson’s cash appear to be avoiding discussion of his political views. “What it comes down to is, the people that work with him and for him don’t always agree with his political and israel position, but he does so much good with his money that they just go along,” said a person involved in Jewish philanthropy who asked not to be named because some of what he was relating had been told in confidence.
But a challenge to Israel’s democratic character by such a prominent funder of Jewish causes and advocate for Israel interferes with the very message many of those groups seek to convey.
Mainstream American Jewish leaders have long made Israel’s democratic character key to their arguments in favor of the Jewish state. And while many have warned of fading democratic values in Israel, mainstream voices who openly state that they oppose democracy in Israel are less common, particularly in the United States.
Three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe that Israel “can be both Jewish and democratic,” according to a 2013 Israel Democracy Institute report. A recent survey by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Planning Institute found that attitudes in the Jewish Diaspora are similar to those in Israel, and that those who believe that “Israel should be ‘only Jewish’ or ‘only democratic’ are outside the consensus view of Diaspora Jews.”
“There should be no question out there that the mainstream consensus position is support for Israel’s Jewish and democratic character,” said Martin Raffel, the recently retired senior vice president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, who continues to consult for the group.
In his comments, made during a high-profile appearance in Washington at the inaugural national conference of the Israeli American Council, Adelson appeared to brush all that aside. The council, which received some 40% of its funding from Adelson in 2012, hosted Adelson in a discussion with Democratic Jewish mega-donor Haim Saban, another major donor to the group. Saban told Adelson that he supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because any other resolution would imperil Israel’s democratic status. Adelson disagreed, disparaging Israeli democracy. Israel, he urged, should build “a big wall” around its borders.
The ADL’s Foxman, who at times has taken a hard line on Israel-related issues, pushed back strongly against Adelson in a statement to the Forward.
“Sheldon Adelson’s comment suggesting that it’s not so important that Israel remain a democracy is disturbing on many levels,” Foxman wrote. “In fact, the founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state. Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill-serve the state and people of Israel.”
The American Jewish Committee, the community’s other large domestic advocacy group, did not respond to several calls requesting comment.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.