Does Sheldon Adelson Really Want to Defeat BDS?

Or is he just using the fight to isolate progressive Zionists, and push the Jewish world further right?

Peter Beinart
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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach speaks to Sheldon Adelson as he waits for Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart

I don’t believe Sheldon Adelson is this dumb. It’s kindergarten-obvious that the casino billionaire’s new anti-BDS crusade will not only fail but will quite possibly prove counterproductive. 

Everyone who understands the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement knows that its recruits are progressives, and that what tips them toward BDS is despair that there seems no other way to end Israel’s immoral, undemocratic control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (even though the BDS movement itself wants more than that). 

Enter Adelson, one of the most famous anti-progressives in America, and a man determined to ensure that Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza never ends. To lead the anti-BDS summit he convened last weekend, Adelson recruited Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a former Republican candidate for Congress last seen giving an award to Ted Cruz  and personally insulting National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Boteach invited right-wing organizations opposed to the two-state solution like Christians United for Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, along with the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which recently declared that U.S. President Barack Obama “has gone back and forth between Christianity and Islam like a philanderer in a bar” and accused the Black Lives Matter movement, which was sparked by the 2012 shooting death of African American teenager Trayvon Martin, of being “one of the most destructive, hateful, racist movements in living memory.” 

But Boteach didn’t invite J Street or the New Israel Fund, which oppose BDS but also enjoy some credibility on the left for their work opposing the occupation. To top it off, Boteach announced that the new anti-BDS fighters he and Adelson plan to fund will be called Campus Maccabees

You can’t make this stuff up. Calling Zionism a discriminatory ideology that privileges Jews over non-Jews, BDS proponents generally speak in the universalistic language of full equality irrespective of religion or ethnicity. (Some are more sincere about this rhetoric than others.) Into this debate, Boteach reportedly wants to insert a group of “Maccabees,” students named after the second-century B.C.E. religious zealots who not only rebelled against Greek rule, but also demanded that Jews reject any interaction with foreign cultures.

If Adelson is determined to confirm the BDS movement’s claim that Israel will never allow a Palestinian state of its own and that Zionism is an ideology incompatible with universalistic, liberal principles, he’s off to a terrific start. 

But what if Adelson’s goal isn’t defeating BDS at all? What if he’s simply using the anti-BDS cause to empower himself and his right-wing agenda? If that’s the case, his actions don’t look so dumb at all.

For years now, Adelson has been moving to dominate Jewish politics, both in Israel and the United States. Through his Hebrew newspaper, Israel Hayom, which relentlessly promotes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has made himself a kingmaker in Israeli politics. Since ditching AIPAC over its rhetorical support for the two-state solution, he has funded a series of organizations — the Zionist Organization of America, the Republican Jewish Coalition and Boteach’s Jewish Values Network — that are largely beholden to him. And he has become the biggest donor to the Israeli American Council, an organization for Israelis living in the United States, which offers another vehicle through which to push American policy on Israel to the right. 

Now, as the struggle against BDS becomes a larger part of organized American Jewish life, Adelson is trying to take that over too. After all, it wasn’t only J Street that didn’t attend last weekend’s summit. Adelson’s old foe, AIPAC, wasn’t there either. 

As he builds his empire, Adelson weakens all the Zionists to his left. Israel Hayom has nudged Israelis further to the right. The rising profile of Boteach and the Republican Jewish Coalition has weakened AIPAC. And Adelson’s anti-BDS campaign will weaken those mainstream American Jewish groups trying to combat the movement by convincing progressives there are better paths to a Palestinian state.

Adelson surely isn’t trying to strengthen BDS, but I doubt he believes he can defeat it either. He’s on record, after all, as claiming that “there isn’t a Palestinian alive who wasn’t raised on a curriculum of hatred and hostility toward the Jews” and that “the Muslimswant to kill 100 percent of the Jews.” In Adelson’s mind, the Palestinians —whom he’s called an “invented people” — exist for only one reason: to threaten Jews

If Palestinians and Muslims (Adelson sometimes conflates the two) are latter-day Amalekites, then BDS, or something like it, will always exist. You don’t fight Amalekites by showing sympathy for their plight. You use the threat they pose to build up Jewish resolve. And for Adelson, building up Jewish resolve means replacing appeasement-minded two-staters, both in Israel and the United States, with people who reject all compromise: Maccabees. 

But the original Maccabees took on a new name once in power: Hasmoneans. And through their moral corruption, the Hasmoneans helped destroy the Jewish state that the Maccabees had fought so hard to create. Which name better suits the anti-BDS fighters Sheldon Adelson plans to fund? Decide for yourself.

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