November 21, 2018

So right, yet so wrong: The truth Sheldon Adelson told us

The media has covered casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s address to the Israeli-American Council, a recently formed organization of Israelis who live in the United States, many of whom have truthfully become Israeli Americans.

When asked what to do about the land and what to do about the Arabs, Adelson said, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. … God talked about all the good things in life. … He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?” 

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) outstanding outgoing director, Abe Foxman, courageously pounced on Adelson’s statement. It takes courage for the head of a Jewish organization to publicly dissent from one of the most powerful and one of the — if not the most — philanthropic Jews today. But to his credit, Foxman did not hesitate.

He said, “Sheldon Adelson’s comment suggesting that it’s not so important that Israel remain a democracy is disturbing on many levels … In fact, the founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state. Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill-serve the State and people of Israel.”

Foxman is right, but we must also concede that Adelson is right. 

The Bible says nothing serious about democracy, though it does have the phrase “acheri rabim l’hatatot, which can be roughly translated as majority rules. And the Torah relies on God’s sovereignty and Moses’ charismatic leadership. But Judaism is not only a biblical religion. 

Any student of Jewish history, even the most Orthodox among us, will recognize that rabbinic Judaism is distinctly different from biblical religion, even if it is its worthy successor. Midrash makes clear that Moses would not have recognized what Rabbi Akiva taught in his name. 

And Judaism has evolved since talmudic times. As Gerson Cohen has demonstrated, it was the genius of Judaism and of Jewish thinkers to acculturate into the societies around them, adapting ideas, patterns of thought, even values from the world around them and incorporating them into Judaism. Maimonides cannot be understood without Aristotle and Averroes, Philo without Plato, Saadiah Gaon’s Emunot v’Deot without understanding Greek philosophy and the entire Judeo-Arabic culture of his time. The Talmud itself grapples with, accepts and strenuously rejects parts of Greco-Roman culture.

That is how our tradition evolved, and that is one of the major secrets of our survival.

Democracy is a concept, whose origin is secular, on how to govern a population. Israel’s founding fathers made it a pillar of the nascent state. It shaped its Declaration of Independence. It is fully articulated in Israel’s basic laws, in its parliamentary procedures and in its Supreme Court. It is essential to Israel’s support in the West. 

I would argue that not only is democracy a value cherished by Jews, by now it has become a Jewish value.

We must, however, concede that Adelson is telling us a second truth that most of his supporters and many of his admirers would refuse to admit. He was candid, perhaps too candid. It is a truth of the left, rejected, fudged or simply ignored by the right.

Israel faces a stark choice. Israel can remain a Jewish state and a democratic state only if it cedes the major Arab population centers in Gaza, the West Bank, Judea and Samaria. The one-state solution for the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can be a Jewish state or a democratic state — or neither. It cannot be both Jewish and democratic.

Israel’s founding fathers understood that when they wrestled with the issue of partition in 1937 and when they founded the state in 1948. The question is whether their grandsons and granddaughters will accept that today.

Adelson’s point was reinforced by an opinion piece published in The New York Times by Israel’s minister of economics, Naftali Bennett, who offers the Palestinians a non-state that will neither control its borders, nor be allowed military control of its own borders, nor be allowed a military. Israel, he suggests, will be generous in building roads and offering economic opportunities and local self-government, but there is no mention in his piece about democracy, citizenship or even civil rights.

It is good that this discussion, which for so long has loomed just beneath the surface, comes out in the open. Those who advocate taking over the territories or even the status quo must confront the issue as to how Israel can remain a Jewish state and a democratic state. They may wish to follow Adelson and dismiss democracy as an alien non-Jewish value.

I am not alone in believing that democracy has been good to the Jews, is the least unjust system of government in history and that, by now, democracy has become an essential and sacred Jewish value.

Let the debate begin.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his blog at