The workers at the Washington Hilton couldn’t believe their eyes or ears on Sunday night. Way past midnight, long after the hotel bar was to have closed, a few hundred ecstatic Israelis were raising a ruckus, stomping their feet, waving their hands and shouting a well-known Israeli song “Whoever believes is not afraid.” In the middle of their circle, like a Hassidic rabbi with her disciples, stood Miriam Adelson, smilingly soaking up the energy.
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The Adelsons were the unrivalled royal couple of the Second Annual Conference of the Israeli American Council (IAC), the relatively new body of Israeli expats living in the USA who were now paying tribute. There was hardly a speaker at the conference that didn’t thank the couple warmly from the podium, with the crowd getting up for a standing ovation each and every time. One or two of the speakers even placed Sheldon Adelson in the same mythological line as Rothschild and Montefiore, the mega-philanthropists of recent Jewish history.
The gratitude and platitudes, self-serving as they were, are well deserved. Adelson’s decision to devote millions of dollars to the organization set up eight years ago with a modest donation by Haim Saban has turned it from a small local and relatively obscure outfit in Los Angeles to a national organization that has undergone phenomenal growth. More than 1300 delegates showed up at the IAC’s second conference, twice as many as its first and half as much, organizers pledge, as planned for its third, next year. They hail from nine regional branches that IAC has set up in cities throughout the U.S. that have sizeable Israel expat populations.
After decades of geographical dispersal in the U.S. and complex feelings of distance, resentment and stigmatization to from their homeland, Adelson has now given Israeli expats a vibrant and well-endowed central body that carries out and/or finances extensive social and cultural activities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The group’s leaders boast of serving over a quarter of a million Israelis and of propping up 40 affiliated educational and cultural groups, including the American branches of the Israel Scouts Movement.
In the conference’s closing plenum, Adelson recounted how he had secured Benjamin Netanyahu’s blessing for the organization. Would you be willing to recognize Israeli-Americans as Israelis to all intents and purposes, he asked the prime minister, who replied: “Of course, because otherwise we’d have to send emissaries to do the jobs that they can do.” Which raises the question: emissaries representing who, exactly, and to what purpose.
It’s true that in addition to coalition Ministers Steinitz and Shaked who spoke at the conference, centrists such as Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog and MK Erel Margalit were also invited, though no representative of the left were present. The four Congressmen who attended represented both parties, supposedly: Democrats Brad Sherman and Elliott Engel voted against the Iran deal just like their GOP counterparts Ed Royce and Peter Roskam. In their presentations, the two “liberals” divided their tasks so that Sherman tore into the Obama administration for its nuclear deal with Iran, while Engel lambasted it for its statements on Palestinian violence.
In a breakout session on BDS on campus, only groups identified with the right, some financed by Adelson, were on the podium. David Brog, who left his job at the Evangelical Christians United For Israel (CUFI) to head Adelson’s Campus Maccabees campaign against the BDS movement, gave an early indication of how he intends to win the hearts and minds of wavering students: “The Palestinian narrative is based mostly on lies,” he said. His mission, he added, would be to fight the “post-modern, multi-cultural” view that is corrupting millenials throughout the land.
Spokespersons for the IAC vehemently deny any political bent or intent, despite the fact that the group recently participated in the campaign against the Iran deal, calling on its members, AIPAC-style, to lobby their local Congress members. There was a consensus on this matter in Israel, they explain, ignoring the fact that in their adopted abode in America, the Iran deal was a matter of heated political debate and bitter controversy.
But the heavier shadow now lingering over the IAC’s true mission arises from the recent disclosure that Los Angeles billionaire Saban had severed his ties to the group. IAC officials ascribed the move to the sensitivity created during presidential elections by Saban’s support for Democrat Hillary Clinton, though no such problem seems to exist for Adelson’s far more visible identification with the GOP. A message of clarification from Saban that some had promised this reporter failed to materialize before the conference ended on Monday.
Saban’s absence deprived the conference of a rerun of last year’s joint session of the two billionaires, which supplied a bevy of news headlines, including Saban’s recommendation on Iran policy (“bomb the sons of bitches”) and Adelson’s on Israel’s true priorities (“democracy is overrated”). Instead, Adelson was teamed up with veteran Boston community leader Barry Schrage in an uninspiring session that dealt with Birthright, the history of the Jews and Adelson’s fatherly pride in his young son Adam, who had promised to come to Israel’s assistance the moment he’s needed. “If we don’t take care of each other, no one else will,” Adelson said.
Some Jewish community leaders ascribe less altruistic motives to the Las Vegas tycoon. Like many others in the American Jewish right, they say, Adelson is unhappy with AIPAC’s performance in recent years, especially its perceived failure in scuttling the Iran nuclear deal. According to press reports, Adelson has confronted AIPAC in the past over its support for a two-state solution and opposition to cutting off American funding of the Palestinian Authority. There are voices now in the conservative right that are calling for a reassessment of AIPAC’s insistence on bipartisanship, which often dilutes its message as well as its effectiveness, they claim. A much wiser investment would be in the Israel-supporting Republicans alone.
A group such as IAC could provide a platform that would threaten or even replace AIPAC in the future: that could be one explanation why the hall in which the group held its conference seemed like a miniature copy of an AIPAC venue. Theoretically, with Adelson’s clout in both the GOP and the Israeli-American community, he could turn the IAC into a dual-purpose vehicle: concurrently with his significant philanthropic contribution to the welfare of Israel’s expat community, to which his wife Miriam belongs, he would also have at his disposal a well-oiled and well-funded lobby to do his distinct political bidding.