This week the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding a conference in Las Vegas, the home of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, its most prominent supporter. Like other prominent conservative political donors, Adelson’s largesse to causes and candidates he supports brought him a great deal of scrutiny in 2012 when he and his wife Miriam singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential hopes alive during the GOP primaries. Undeterred by the fact that most of the people they backed in the last election lost, the Adelsons are thinking about 2016. As the Washington Post reported in a feature about the RJC event, some, though not all, Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to win what some wags are calling the “Sheldon primary.” Anyone who supports Israel and the Obama administration’s liberal economic policies is apparently welcome to try. Perhaps extra credit will be given to those who back the magnate’s crusade against Internet gambling. But lest anyone think they are contemplating backing Newt or another outlier, in this cycle the Adelsons are apparently echoing “establishment” GOP thought by emphasizing an ability to win a general election rather than conservative ideological purity in deciding who will benefit from their generosity.
Their willingness to put their money where their mouths are makes them easy targets for abuse from those who don’t care for their politics. But a particularly low blow against them was struck yesterday by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, whose reading of the Post feature prompted him to comment that the RJC event seemed more like a plot by Adelson and a “bunch of Jewish zillionaires” to “buy the White House” in order to protect the Jewish state against the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe. As such, Goldberg thinks the “Sheldon primary” seems like the sort of thing Jews should either worry about or be ashamed of since he thinks their conduct seems like a classic example of the same kind of anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish wealth being used to subvert American foreign policy that is cited by some of the worst enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. At the very least, the Forward columnist seems to be saying that Adelson’s political activity is providing fodder for anti-Semites, but this is exactly the sort of reasoning that Jews of every political stripe should reject.
Altogether the Adelsons gave a whopping $93 million to 17 different conservative super-PACs in 2012 and that’s not counting direct contributions to candidates that are limited by law (or the tens of millions that they gave to charitable and Jewish philanthropic causes). For those who think money ought to be driven out of politics, this is unseemly or a threat to democracy. But money is, and always has been, the lifeblood of American politics and the last 40 years of attempts at legislating campaign finance reform have proved that such efforts are counterproductive. Spending money on causes and candidates is an expression of political speech protected by the Constitution. The Adelsons are just as entitled to spend some of their billions to support pro-Israel and pro-economic freedom candidates as the Koch brothers are to support conservatives, George Soros is to back liberals, and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer is to fund politicians who toe his particular line on environmental issues.
There should also be no misunderstanding about the fact that both sides of the political divide are doing the same thing. As the OpenSecrets.org site run by the left-wing Center for Responsive Politics recently noted, a list of the largest political donors in the period stretching from 1988 to 2014 reveals that most of the biggest givers were in fact inclined to support Democrats and left-wing causes. Twelve of the top 16 names on the list were unions while the other four were business groups that gave to both parties. Koch Industries, run by the aforementioned brothers of that name who are more hated by liberals than are the Adelsons, ranks a paltry 59th on that list.
As they proved in 2012, the Adelsons can’t buy anybody the White House. Nor can the Kochs, Soros, Steyer, or any combination of unions. But all of them have every right to use their wealth to promote the causes and candidates they support or to oppose the ones they dislike.
To imply that there is something untoward or unsavory about Jewish donors acting in the same way that other Americans do, be they union bosses or liberal financiers, is appalling. The essence of democracy is participation and pro-Israel Jews are just as free to use their wealth as those who are interested in preventing global warming. Goldberg is right to worry about anti-Semitism, but Jews being afraid to step out into the public square to advocate for their causes and to spend money to support those who agree with them will not stop it. Fear of antagonizing anti-Semites is what caused the leaders of American Jewry to fail to speak out during the Holocaust. Subsequent generations who mobilized on behalf of the Soviet Jewry movement and for Israel learned that lesson. That Sheldon Adelson and his friends have also done so is to their credit. Rather than being embarrassed by the “Sheldon primary,” pro-Israel Jews and supporters of free speech, be they Democrats or Republicans, should be cheering it.