Analysis

Adelson Has Hijacked the Israeli-American Community for His Hard-right Agenda

New political pressure group will outflank AIPAC and fragment the Jewish establishment

File photo: Sheldon Adelson.
John Locher/AP

Sheldon Adelson has hijacked the large Israeli expat community in the United States. He has recruited them under what can arguably be described as false pretenses, and is now planning to use them for his purposes. After years in which officials of the Israeli-American Council denied any such intention, Adelson spilled the beans at the group’s annual convention now being held in Washington DC.

>>This powerful Adelson-funded Israel lobby could soon rival AIPAC’s influence in Washington

Rather than a benevolent group catering to cultural and social needs of the community of former Israelis, which numbers anywhere between half a million and a million, Adelson all but made clear that the primary purpose of the group is to serve as a political pressure group which, when push comes to shove, will promote the hard-right ideology to which Adelson himself subscribes.

To paraphrase the casino billionaire, his IAC won’t be anything like wishy-washy AIPAC. It won’t support a two-state solution or continued aid to the Palestinians, two of the AIPAC positions that created an enduring rift between Adelson and the pro-Israel lobby. Adelson’s promise - that IAC  “won’t even question whether or not we should support Israel” - means that the group won’t question government policy, as long as it adheres to Adelson’s own core beliefs. It’s hard to see any group funded by Adelson supporting a centrist or leftist government that may come to power in Israel, no matter how “unquestioning” it supposedly is. 

The emergence of IAC as a political lobby comes at a time that the American Jewish community is already reeling in the wake of the bitter internal strife that accompanied the 2015 Iran deal, the unprecedented crisis in relations with Israel over pluralism and the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews as well as the ongoing shockwaves produced by the very election of Donald Trump, whom most Jews voted against.

Adelson has had his doubts but ultimately emerged as one of Trump’s few big backers in the Jewish community. He enjoys unrestricted access to the White House as well as the numerous GOP lawmakers that he has funded and now has a potential private lobby at his command. If he decides to deploy it to further his political ideology, the internal conflict and disarray in the American Jewish community could reach epic proportions.

Adelson’s accomplishment is nothing less than astonishing. He took a small California-based Israeli expat group established in 2007 and within three years of becoming its chief benefactor in 2014, made it into a powerful national organization encompassing tens if not hundreds of thousands of expat Israelis.

In the process, he coopted scores of small community groups, both local and national, which cater to Israelis who now live in America, and brought them under his IAC umbrella. For cash-strapped groups such as the Israeli Scouts Movement in America, the possibility of surviving with the help of Adelson’s handouts was an offer they could not refuse. For homesick Israelis seeking a genuine taste of home, the IAC’s galas and activities were irresistible.

Senior officials in the Jewish establishment were well aware of Adelson’s designs from the outset. He wants to have his own mass membership lobby so he can outflank AIPAC from the right, a well-connected figure in the New York Jewish world told me in 2014. But Jewish leaders did nothing to stop Adelson because they were otherwise preoccupied, because he funds many American-Jewish groups as well but mainly because they were and are afraid of him. Given a choice, the last thing any American Jewish leader wants or needs is to take on the formidable and feisty Las Vegas billionaire.

Successive IAC leaders and officials have consistently denied that they would end up as a political pressure group, either because they were part of a planned subterfuge or were simply being duped themselves.

At the IAC conference in DC, Adelson opened the bag and let the cat out. To put it another way, he outed IAC and forced it out of the “we-only-care-for-Israeli expats” closet.

The IAC, which has indeed strengthened and expanded community services to many Israeli expat communities, actually began to delve in politics in 2015, participating in general protests against Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. But it has shied away from taking prominent public positions on other issues that divide Israel and the Jewish community, including the two-state solution. Adelson’s statement makes clear on which side of the divide IAC will ultimately stand.

The IAC, by its very definition, delineates between American citizens who are former Israelis and other American Jews. Its mission purpose assumes that ex-Israelis won’t assimilate easily into the larger American Jewish community. Now Adelson has added a political tinge to the delineation: The American Jewish community might prevaricate and equivocate, but Israelis, through their representative IAC, won’t ask questions and won’t cast doubts. 

The only remaining question is how the thousands of Israelis who naively joined IAC and its activities out of a mistaken belief that it is only a benevolent apolitical group will react, now that they have been apprised of their true purpose. Even though many hold views that are diametrically opposed to Adelson’s, they are now, as his wife Miriam said, “our soldiers.”