February 20, 2019

Adelson and Trump

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a booth at Langer’s Delicatessen, studying the menu and munching on half-sours when an elderly man caught my eye.

He was hobbling toward a table, part of a large family entourage, accompanied by a tall, grim-faced bodyguard. Wow, I thought, that’s Sheldon Adelson.

Norm Langer himself walked over to schmooze with Adelson, who looked up and smiled. And why not? Here was a self-made man of enormous wealth and power, surrounded by his family, fussed over by the owner, about to enjoy a pastrami sandwich better than even the finest restaurant at The Venetian Las Vegas could duplicate. 

My first impulse was to go introduce myself and chat. But I stayed put. I knew I’d never make it past the bodyguard, and, anyway, if you care about food, Langer’s is holy ground, and I hate talking business in shul.

In the weeks since, I’ve often wondered what I might have said to Adelson. Last week, I figured it out. Adelson announced he is unequivocally backing Donald Trump for president. He said he is prepared to spend up to $100 million of his fortune to get Trump elected. Adelson is primarily a one-issue voter, he told a journalist, and that issue is Israel. Trump, he said, “will be good for Israel.”

So now I know exactly what I would say: I know you love Israel, Mr. Adelson, but I want you to consider the possibility that by supporting Trump, you are hurting, not helping, the country you love. If “pro-Israel” means supporting Trump, then it’s time to redefine what “pro-Israel” means.

First, let’s understand that in many ways, you are the face of the pro-Israel American Jew. Nothing to be ashamed of there. You very publicly identify yourself as a one-issue voter, and you lavish millions of dollars on Israeli causes. Some of these, like Birthright, have changed the face of world Jewry and touched the lives of all kinds of people in profound, lasting ways. At a time when the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is trying to rebrand Israel as oppressive, Birthright helps young people experience the country in its beauty and complexity.

But then you go and throw your support, uncritically, with no caveats, conditions or what-have-yous, behind a man whose words and policies attack the democratic values Israel and America stand for, and the people it needs to coexist with to survive.

After Trump called for a “total ban” on Muslims coming into the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to receive him in Israel. A country that is 20 percent Arab, that is bound to live with and among Muslims, that really is the only democracy in the Middle East, cannot single out a minority based on its religion. And, of course, neither can the United States. 

That’s one reason why House Speaker Paul Ryan has so far refused to endorse Trump. So why can the country’s most powerful Republican stand on principle, while a lover of Israel can’t? Frankly, Mr. Adelson (and I would say this to you) it’s embarrassing.

And how is it pro-Israel to support someone who engages in the wholesale denigration of Mexicans? Latinos are the fastest-growing and most powerful minority in this country — one whose support Israel will need in the coming years. To mingle the “pro-Israel” brand with appeals to racism and xenophobia plays directly into the hands of the Israel haters. And Trump’s history of regressive statements on women stands in stark contrast to the freedom, strength and accomplishments of women in Israel.

If you believe the United States is Israel’s most important ally in the world, then you must agree that America’s support for Israel depends, ultimately, on the support of the American people. Trump has deeply alienated women and Latinos. And let’s be very clear: If any leader had said about Jews what Trump has said about Muslims and Mexicans, we would be screaming to repudiate him. And we would expect other groups to stand with us.

So what should you do now? Simple. It’s not too late to make clear to the man with the world’s largest megaphone that your $100 million is contingent on him walking back entirely his policies on Muslims and his statements on Mexicans. All the rest of Trump’s outlandish, often ill-informed and frequently flip-floppy policies are beside the point. Tell Trump you can’t be pro-Israel and pick on minorities. You can’t be pro-Israel and anti-democracy.

I don’t expect you to retract your support, but I do hope you’ll see the damage Trumpism will do to the two countries you love. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism and @RobEshman.