Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and other 2016 Democratic hopefuls attended a large political event hosted by an Arab-American titan of industry, jockeying for his financial support in the upcoming presidential primaries.
Suppose that this kingmaker had a long history of making anti-Semitic comments and financing propaganda hostile to Israel. Then imagine that this billionaire recently called on Barack Obama’s administration to drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in Israel’s territory to prove that it was serious in its diplomatic negotiations.
The reaction from the press and political organizations would be furious. It would erupt into a huge scandal, broadcast across the networks — “Democrats jockey for support from leading anti-Semite.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman would be leading rallies. Mayors from New York to Los Angeles would be distancing themselves from all involved.
Thankfully, the Democrats are not courting such an extreme figure. But the Republicans are falling over themselves to win the favor of the anti-Muslim equivalent.
Over the past week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republican bigwigs attended the Republican Jewish Committee’s spring leadership meeting, hosted by casino baron Sheldon Adelson at his Venetian Resort Casino in Las Vegas.
The political-star-studded event has attracted plenty of media fanfare. "Can 2016 hopefuls hit the jackpot?" wondered The Hill. "Today is the first Republican primary of the 2016 presidential election," opined The Washington Post's The Fix. "Republican billionaire looking to back mainstream candidate," CBS News reported.
But what the news media didn’t do is ask whether Adelson deserves to be the arbiter of mainstream Republican politics. These outlets ignored his long history of extreme statements on foreign policy and instigating Islamophobia.
Adelson’s latest agenda is rooted in the headlines: President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking negotiations with Iran. Shortly after those talks with Iran started to bear fruit, Adelson appeared at an event at Yeshiva University in New York and suggested the United States drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert to show “we mean business.” It’s no surprise that none of the leading Republicans who appeared with Adelson at his Vegas extravaganza have endorsed Obama’s talks with Iran, and it would not be surprising if they tacked far to the right on the issue if they chose to run. After all, Adelson spent more money in the 2012 election cycle than any other American.
Adelson has been open about his extremist views, and thanks to his deep pockets, those views have influence. He’s already appearing to have an impact on Christie, who has been one of the stronger Republicans in confronting Islamophobia. Despite the fact that he vocally defended the appointment of a Muslim judge at Adelson’s meeting, Christie later apologized for referring to Palestinians’ lands as “occupied territories” — after objections from Adelson and other attendees. Christie comes from a state with a large Muslim American population, which may explain his past defense of Muslims’ civil rights in the face of NYPD spying abuses — but now he has his eyes set on a higher post.
Adelson’s influence was especially evident in his 2012 courting of Newt Gingrich. One of the great chameleons of American politics — having never met a position he couldn’t switch soon after taking it — Gingrich adapted well to Adelson’s hard-line pro-Israel politics after Adelson spent millions trying to get him elected in 2012. Gingrich reversed his former position that imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was a traitor and shouldn’t be released “under any circumstance,” saying his new “bias is towards clemency.” In a 2005 article in Middle Eastern Quarterly before Adelson funded him, Gingrich said that the “U.S. government should become the protector for the Palestinian’ people’s right to have a decent amount of land. The desire of some Israelis to use security as an excuse to grab more Palestinian land should be blocked by Washington even if that requires employing financial or other leverage to compel the Israeli government to behave reasonably on the issue of settlements.” After he received Adelson’s support, Gingrich had a real change of tone, calling the Palestinians an “invented” people.
Shortly after Gingrich made his remarks denying Palestinian nationhood, Adelson chimed with his approval. At an event celebrating the Taglit Birthright program, which funds trips to Israel for young Jews, Adelson said, “Read the history of those who call themselves Palestinians, and you will hear why Gingrich said recently that the Palestinians are an invented people. There are a number of Palestinians who will recognize the truth of this statement.” A huge donor to the program, Adelson also made a request of the hundreds of Jewish youths about to make their Birthright trips to Israel: “When you return to your countries of origin, speak in support of Israel. Don’t let Muslim student organizations take over the campuses. Learn history, go back to the Ottoman Empire and the First World War, and know the issue under discussion, and when you return to our homes, you will remember that you are good-will ambassadors for Israel.”
Adelson’s extremist influences aren’t limited to elections. For example, his foundation gave $250,000 to the Counterterrorism and Security Education and Research Foundation, which finances leading Islamophobe Steve Emerson, who has claimed that Islam, “which has more than 1.4 billion adherents, somehow sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as part of its religious doctrine.” Most recently, Emerson claimed he has “certain classified information” that a Saudi national was involved in the Boston bombing attacks; he made a similar false claim after the Oklahoma City bombing, saying that the city was “one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East.”
Perhaps to Adelson such statements are not so radical. He has said Muslims “want to kill 100 percent of the Jews.” One of his greatest fears is that young Jews are intermarrying with non-Jews and has fearmongered that there will be “no need for anything Jewish” in “two more generations, maybe three” because intermarriage will be “our undoing.” For him, this sectarianism is simply normal.
Ultimately, the Republicans’ willingness to fundraise with Adelson despite his repugnant views may say more about the state of American politics than about the casino mogul. In 2012, two months before the presidential election, I attended the ultra-conservative Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit. While there, I witnessed conference speakers describe Islam as “the most dangerous ideology of our time,” saying that the religion is “rotten to the core.” Speaker after speaker defamed Muslims and informed the audiences of this nefarious threat within. What made the summit particularly noteworthy was that this wasn’t just some fringe group off in a remote corner of America. This conference took place in Washington, D.C., and was addressed by both Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. The Islamophobic far right and the mainstream Republican Party appeared to be no longer at odds; they had merged.
The question is whether this merger is permanent and whether there will be political costs for leading politicians to take cash from sectarian extremists like Adelson and then doing their bidding. If the media fail to point out the obvious, the answer will be no.