Amid all the twists leading up to the 2012 election, Jewish stories turned up at each bend in the road. From the perpetual use of Israel as a political football to the little-known Jewish presidential candidate (the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who beat out the better-known Jewess Roseanne Barr for the nomination), the election season provided much material for Jewish politicos, reporters and comedians alike. Here are the three biggest Jewish stories of this political year.
Sheldon Adelson’s millions
Remember last December when Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” dismissed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Presidential Candidates Forum as a “tuchis kiss-off” of “incredibly religious Christian presidential candidates fighting over who loves Jews more”?
Well, who’s laughing now? Less than a month after Stewart roasted Republican Jews, RJC board member and political mega-donor Sheldon Adelson made his first $5 million contribution to the super PAC backing then-candidate Newt Gingrich, catapulting the Las Vegas casino magnate into the spotlight as quite possibly the most generous single political donor in American history.
Adelson and his wife would ultimately give a total of $16.5 million to Winning Our Future before Gingrich dropped out of the race, extending the former speaker’s doomed presidential bid by a couple of months, time that may have allowed Mitt Romney to hone his debating skills and also may have helped cement the eventual nominee’s embrace of many of Adelson’s preferred policies on Israel.
The Adelsons’ contributions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC likely pushed Romney into declaring his “severely conservative” credentials in an effort to win his party’s primary, and may have made it tougher for him to tack back to the political center in the general election, but the $5 million Adelson gave to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future in June certainly strengthened the ties between Adelson and the former Massachusetts governor.
The Adelsons gave the pro-Romney super PAC another $10 million in October, saying that with President Barack Obama, labor unions and Jewish billionaire George Soros aligned on the other side, their money was an effort to “level the playing field.”
Adelson, who owns the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which supports many of the current Israeli government’s policies, has said his reason for supporting Gingrich’s bid was due to the former speaker’s sharing Adelson’s Israel policies. Adelson has reportedly urged Romney to come out in favor of the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, which Romney thus far has not done.
In September, Adelson told Politico that one major reason for his outsized political spending was his fear that, should Obama win a second term, the president might engage in “vilification of people that were against him.” Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice on allegations of foreign bribery. (A separate probe by the U.S. Department of Justice involving alleged violations by Las Vegas of money-laundering laws appeared to be moving toward a settlement, the Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 28.)
The Romney-Ryan tax plan likely would benefit Adelson, his relatives and his companies directly. Under a Romney presidency, the Adelson family and Las Vegas Sands Corp. could avoid paying as much as $2 billion in taxes, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.
Although Adelson has not publicly spoken about how much Romney’s proposed policies could benefit him personally, he has been a vocal advocate of lower taxes, and his company recently distributed pro-Romney “voter guides” to its 8,500 employees in Las Vegas. According to The Huffington Post, the guides, which do not overtly endorse Romney, “suggest that Obama’s policies on energy, health care and taxes will hurt working people, while Romney’s will lead to working-class prosperity.”
Adelson has publicly pledged to spend up to $100 million to unseat Obama this election cycle and, together with his wife, is known to have given to date more than $50 million to the Republican Party and its candidates.
Of the mega-donors who have helped change the way American election campaigns are run, Adelson arguably has had the biggest impact. His donations have advanced the hyper-politicizing of U.S. policy toward Israel that has characterized the 2012 race, making him the biggest Jewish story of the election.
Rabbis consider the issues
In August, more than 613 rabbis from across the country signed onto a list of Rabbis for Obama, which led almost immediately to an outburst of criticism, as other rabbis argued that religious leaders shouldn’t weigh in on political matters.
Many of the rabbis opposing Rabbis for Obama also professed their opposition to the president’s policies, even as they presented their dislike for the rabbis group as a principled stand against partisanship from the pulpit.
Republican Congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote in the Journal that he would decline to join a Rabbis for Romney group; another New Jersey-based rabbi, Bernhard Rosenberg, who actually set up such a group, said his move was inspired not because he particularly liked the Republican nominee but because he was so dismayed by the perception that Jews and their rabbis would overwhelmingly back Obama (even though polls show that Jews are likely to do just that on Election Day).
And what of the rabbis actually on this much-discussed list?
Los Angeles is home to a few of the most prominent of the rabbis backing the president, including Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR; indeed, Brous devoted part of a High Holy Days sermon this year to pushing back against the notion that rabbis ought not speak about political matters from the pulpit.
Brous did not endorse a candidate from the pulpit on Yom Kippur, but her sermon — which described the destroyed city of Sodom as a place where nobody “would step forward to take care of the weak, the sick and the elderly,” a city that barred foreigners from entering and where those who sneaked in were brutally victimized — left little doubt about the rabbi’s own politics. (Full disclosure: This reporter, a member of IKAR, was present for Brous’ sermon.)
Brous said in an interview that she doesn’t know how she could be any other rabbi than the politically vocal spiritual leader she is today.
“When I hear rabbis say that they’re willing to share words of Torah, Talmud and halachah, but they don’t believe that rabbis should engage in political matters, I wonder what they really mean,” Brous said. “Are matters of justice, righteousness, compassion and social responsibility irrelevant in the religious community because they don’t dwell exclusively in the realm of theology and philosophy, but deal with actual social realities? Is that realm not also a matter of religious concern?”
Other rabbis in Los Angeles who have not endorsed a specific candidate also waded into political waters through their High Holy Days sermons. Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who delivered a benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September, gave a sermon just a few weeks later in which he declared himself a “one-issue voter,” pledging to cast his ballot for the candidate he feels is most likely to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“If Iran gets a nuclear bomb,” Wolpe said on Rosh Hashanah, Israel will “face, simultaneously, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”
Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation also sent a political (if not explicitly partisan) message on Rosh Hashanah, declaring the holiday a time to take the “questions we have been asking about the candidates and the country — and ask them of ourselves.”
Foremost among those questions, Topp said, is one that reverberated throughout the speeches delivered at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August: Is our country better off now than four years ago?
“The gift of Rosh Hashanah is that we can start again and have a great year,” Topp wrote to this reporter in an e-mail. “We can be better than we were four years ago. We can write a new story for ourselves. [Rosh Hashanah] is the time to think about creation and re-creation.”
Rabbis have long argued over what they and their colleagues should and should not say. But this year’s iteration of this long-running debate proved particularly heated, and at times enlightening — which is why it makes this list.
The swiftly disappearing Jewish politician
Consider the following image, from the 30 Years After Civic Action Conference held in downtown Los Angeles last month: During a session about politics held near the end of the day, sitting on the stage was Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who announced a month earlier that he will retire at the end of his current term and not run for mayor of Los Angeles. Alongside him were two other Jewish politicians whose futures are up in the air right now.
On Yaroslavsky’s right was Rep. Howard Berman, who is locked in a closely watched and hard-fought re-election race against another Jewish Democratic incumbent, Rep. Brad Sherman. (Sherman, who had grabbed Berman during a bizarre altercation at a debate a few days earlier, appeared at the conference earlier in the day.)
To Yaroslavsky’s left sat Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who must abandon his seat in Sacramento as a result of term limits, and is just getting started on his race for Los Angeles City Attorney, his second bid for that job.
Whether Berman or Sherman wins, there will be one fewer Jewish Congressman representing the San Fernando Valley in January 2013.
Assemblymembers Bob Blumenfield and Bonnie Lowenthal both will be forced to follow Feuer out of the Assembly in 2014, setting up the possibility that the 80-member body could soon be without a single Jewish representative.
Of course, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom could beat incumbent Assemblywoman Betsy Butler in the race to represent the 50th District in Sacramento, but the trend of Jews leaving public office seems pretty unmistakable.