September 19, 2018

Haim Saban quietly pulls out of Campus Maccabees and IAC

Just four months after speaking at a closed-door summit at Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Venetian Resort Hotel Casino marking the creation of Campus Maccabees, a new campus pro-Israel, anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) group, mega-donor Haim Saban has quietly ended his involvement with the group, as first reported by the Forward, as well as withdrawn his support from the Israeli-American Council (IAC), at least for now. Both groups are heavily supported by Adelson, and Saban’s pullback may indicate a potential (although not confirmed) break with Adelson, one of the nation’s top pro-Israel and Republican donors.

Saban is a major supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while Adelson, who has not yet named his favorite presidential candidate in the 2016 race, was among the largest donors in 2012 of Republican presidential candidates.

The two men first teamed up to support Israeli causes in 2013, when Adelson’s money fueled IAC’s nationwide expansion. Saban had been an IAC donor since 2008, when the group was still small (its annual budget is now about $18 million), and at its gala in Beverly Hills last March, he announced that he would add $1.2 million to Adelson’s $12 million raised that night.

For two years, the duo played the consummate political odd couple, sharing similar positions on Israel but on little else, supporting bitterly opposed political parties in the United States, yet sharing the stage to benefit the Jewish state, as they did last year in Washington, D.C., at the IAC’s inaugural national gala.

Now, however, both Campus Maccabees and IAC have confirmed, without further explanation, that Saban is no longer involved.

David Brog, director of Campus Maccabees and the former head of Christians United for Israel, said on Oct. 1 that he was surprised by Saban’s departure but that he believes it had nothing to do with the direction of Campus Maccabees, which is set to launch in the near future and hopes to combat the growing BDS, anti-Israel movement on American and Canadian campuses.

“I can state 100 percent, Saban did not leave us because he had any problem with our plans or our direction,” Brog said. “They have expressed no concerns whatsoever about the direction of Campus Maccabees. They were very much involved in setting that direction.”

Shawn Evenhaim, an IAC board member and the group’s former chairman, released the following statement to the Journal:

“The IAC is very proud that Haim Saban has been a champion and major supporter of our organization since its inception. In the near term, Mr. Saban is focusing all his efforts on the FIDF [Friends of the Israel Defense Forces] and the Saban Forum. We look forward to continuing our work with him.”

Spokespersons for Saban and Adelson did not respond to requests for comment. The Forward reported that a Saban spokesman said in a statement, “Haim Saban is focused on a range of philanthropic activities to promote pro-Israel advocacy and tackle efforts to delegitimize Israel. In the near term, Mr. Saban is also concentrating on the Friends of the IDF and the Saban Forum, both of which have major events in the next few months.”

Sheldon Adelson. Photo by Reuters

Smiling in a side-by-side interview on Israel’s Channel 2 News in June, Saban and Adelson introduced Israelis to their anti-BDS campus initiative, and said they were in sync on all issues Israel. 

“You can take a wild guess that come 2016, Dr. Miri Adelson and Sheldon Adelson and [my wife] Cheryl and I are going to vote for a different president,” Saban said. “With that said, when it comes to Israel, we are absolutely on the same page. Our interest is to take care of Israel’s interests in the United States. Period, over and out. So when it comes to this, there is no light between us at all.”

“He’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican — there’s really very little to do with it. We can use our influence, to the extent that both of us have any, with anybody that we know in the administration or in Congress for the betterment of the relations between the U.S. and Israel,” Adelson said.

But on Aug. 13, one month after a deal was reached between Iran and the United States and other world powers to lift many economic sanctions and weapons embargoes on Iran in return for a temporary curb on its nuclear weapons program, Saban told The New York Times that the deal is a “fait accompli” and that the U.S. and Israel “should focus on the day after and cooperate to make sure that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons.” Days earlier, he told Israeli journalist Ayala Hasson-Nesher that it was “a bad deal,” and that he opposed it.

Since then, U.S. participation in the deal was assured when Senate Democrats filibustered Republican opposition, preventing the Senate from voting on the foreign policy agreement.

Clinton, currently the Democratic frontrunner, has announced that she supports the deal and, while serving as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, had laid the groundwork for negotiations between the United States and Iran. 

Although Adelson didn’t comment publicly on the deal, he’s a major donor for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which lobbied and purchased advertising opposing the deal, and in a 2013 panel at Yeshiva University, he suggested to moderator Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert as a warning against progressing with the country’s nuclear weapons program. Adelson rarely speaks with the media, but his controversial statements are much-repeated — at the IAC’s 2014 gala in Washington, D.C., he and Saban engaged in what sounded like a mixture of banter and business negotiation as they discussed on stage what it might take to purchase The New York Times and Washington Post.

Boteach, who was reached on Oct. 4, said that he was with the Adelsons last week to watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, but he said he didn’t discuss either Campus Maccabees or Saban with Adelson. Boteach spoke at the Campus Maccabees’ Las Vegas summit and told the Journal, “We absolutely want to work with them.” 

The IAC’s operations are unlikely to be greatly impacted by Saban’s departure, even if the departure is permanent. Adelson remains the group’s top donor and the group has a wealthy donor base. At its March gala in Beverly Hills, IAC raised $23.4 million and announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Los Angeles that will serve as a community center for Israeli Americans. Its second annual national gala will be in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 17-19. Not unexpectedly, the Adelsons are listed as speakers, but Saban is not. 

Any potential negative impact of Saban’s departure on Campus Maccabees is less clear. The group doesn’t yet have a website, and Brog wasn’t specific about the group’s plans, although it is expected to operate as a sort of umbrella group to help coordinate many of the pro-Israel campus groups in the United States.

“Despite the good work already being done, our efforts to fight BDS could benefit from more funds, more cooperation,” Brog said. At the Las Vegas summit, groups in attendance included more than two dozen pro-Israel organizations, mostly Jewish affiliated, including StandWithUs, AEPI, the Jewish Federations and Christians United for Israel. 

Adam Milstein, IAC’s chairman and co-founder and one of the Las Vegas summit’s organizers, said in June to Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by Adelson, that if leading pro-Israel groups work together, Campus Maccabees will help them get the money they need. “You no longer have to worry about financing and fundraising. You just need to be united,” Milstein said.

With Saban’s departure, Campus Maccabees may be exposed to similar criticisms about partisanship that pro-Israel groups have recently received, particularly concerning the Iran deal, which was overwhelmingly supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, Israelis and pro-Israel groups in the United States. Brog, however, said Campus Maccabees “will be very much within the mainstream of the pro-Israel community.”

“The only people who will object are those who think that BDS is a legitimate critique of Israel instead of the illegitimate singling out of Israel that it really is,” he said.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, gave one of the first presentations at the summit. She said on Oct. 2 that StandWithUs submitted a proposal about a legal strategy to combat certain actions taken by anti-Israel students on campus (such as when a UCLA student was nearly denied a student government position by other students because she’s Jewish), but she said she hasn’t yet heard back from Campus Maccabees.

“Still looking forward to hearing from them when they’re ready,” Rothstein said. “The sense was that perhaps there would be some coordination, better coordination, which is always great. The other side that’s constantly attacking Israel on campus has more of a lockstep mentality.”

Rothstein said she has no inside information about why Saban left, but she had recently spoken with the Sabans and Adelsons and said, “It seemed like there was going to be collaboration across the political spectrum.”

“I’m sure they’ll still push forward,” Rothstein said. “It’s really unfortunate — I’m sad that Haim is not involved. He’s a good guy. I like him very much.”