In the world of politics and diplomacy, we are accustomed to understatement and a fair degree of obfuscation in much of the public discourse that unfolds around us. So when someone says what’s really on their mind, and does so in a direct and unvarnished fashion, it gets our attention. That is so particularly when the speaker is a politically active billionaire. Recent incendiary comments by one in particular presents a case in point.
At the Nov. 9 Israeli-American Council Conference in Washington, D.C., Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and longtime Republican supporter, questioned the need for Israel to remain a democracy. “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. … Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”
So what? Really?
By belittling Israeli democracy, Adelson undercut one of the pillars of U.S. and American-Jewish support for Israel. But, according to a report in The Forward, not a single significant beneficiary of Adelson’s largesse was willing to comment publicly on his outburst. That includes such noteworthy national and international organizations as Birthright Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Israeli-American Council — none of whom are normally bashful about expressing opinions. The exception was the sometimes equally outrageous Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, who suggested that Adelson was joking.
The only rebuff from the organized Jewish world came from the ADL’s Abe Foxman, who called Adelson’s comment “disturbing on many levels.”
“The founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state,” said Foxman. “Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill serve the state and people of Israel.” We agree.
And on the issue of Israeli democracy, there is an ironic note: A recent bill in the Knesset designed to shut down the Adelson-owned Israel Hayom newspaper sailed through its first reading. Those favoring the measure argue that Adelson is unfairly trying to sway public discourse by distributing a free periodical. Those opposing the measure accuse it of being anti-democratic.
We encourage Adelson, as we do the Jewish state, to err on the side of democracy.