Forgive me for looking at this from a lofty height, and for being so boringly establishment-minded: But Sheldon Adelson vs. the National Jewish Democratic Council is not just a bitter personal battle between a philanthropist of the right and an organization of the left. It is a battle between Jewish leaders.
It is a battle that threatens to make Israel, yet again, a wedge issue both in the American political arena and within the American Jewish community. It is a battle that is unhealthy for Jews and for Israel. It is one in which we, as a community, are all losers. And most of all: it is a battle over nothing – no issue of any importance is being debated here, no ideological goal of any consequence is being pursued. Most of us have no dog in this fight. We might be politically inclined to agree with one side of the other, but this fight isn’t about the political issues of the day.
Jewish casino mogul and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson has charged the National Jewish Democratic Council with posting “maliciously false and defamatory” information related to him. On its web site, the NJDC accused Adelson of having “approved of and profited from prostitution” at his Macau casinos. It urged Republicans not to receive his “tainted” money. That Adelson is angry should come as no surprise whatsoever.
Adelson demanded an apology – and was apparently rebuffed. “Under pressure from Jewish groups, the NJDC removed an online petition calling on Republicans to stop accepting money from Adelson—but it would not apologize”. If fact, they made matters worth by insisting that the original posting was based on credible information.
Adelson decided to take legal action. He “filed a $60 million libel lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday” against the Democratic group. I wish he hadn’t – I wish he’d have decided to laugh off this bit of irritation. This mud fight is not an easy one to watch, but short of deciding that he’s willing to see his name defamed, I’m not sure what other choices were open to Adelson. The day after he sued, NJDC’s “lay leader called on the litigious billionaire to drop his ‘silly’ suit and debate him on the issues instead”. I’m not sure how such debate is supposed to solve the problem: Adelson was not suing NJDC over differences of opinions; he is suing for being personally defamed by the group.
Almost a year ago, Adelson received an apology from an Israeli news organization. Channel 10’s Friday night news magazine Ha’shavua was forced to apologize after a 20-minute profile of Adelson included two things that upset him: a claim by an interviewee that Adelson owed him money, and a suggestion by another interviewee that Adelson had received special treatment from the Gambling Commission in Nevada. The battle was quite ugly. Some journalists quit in protest, others complained to the station owners. They said that Adelson’s lawyers – people who aren’t always easy to deal with, especially for a TV channel in financial trouble whose owner, Ron Lauder, wanted it to apologize - dictated the wording of the humiliating apology.
In the end, Adelson won that battle, and got his apology. That many Israelis felt the whole affair was treated with a heavy hand may not matter to him – most of these were probably Israelis with a low regard of Adelson to begin with. To them, he symbolizes Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power. Both his demand for an apology from Channel 10 (whose news programs are most critical of the Prime Minister), and his financing of Israel Hayom - the comically pro-Netanyahu free Israeli daily - seem to them like an attempt to stifle public debate and silence criticism. Other Israelis – those more likely to be supportive of the Netanyahu coalition and less hostile to Adelson - probably felt that the time had finally come for reporters to be held accountable for their mistakes.
So instead of this becoming a detailed debate of the issue itself (Was Channel 10 mistaken? Was it an honest mistake or a malicious attempt to smear Adelson?), what we got was a political battle with all the usual suspects positioning themselves exactly where one would expect them to. The “left” with Channel 10 News, and the “right” against the channel and for Adelson.
One would hope that in Adelson vs. NJDC things would be different. In such a volatile political atmosphere, anyone’s gut reaction is to support their own “camp”. Democrats will reject demands for an apology, claiming that, yet again, Adelson is trying to silence the debate. NJDC ‘s response to the lawsuit seemed to go in such a direction: “We will not be bullied into submission, and we will not be silenced by power. This is not Putin’s Russia, and in America, political speech regarding one of the most well-known public figures in our country is a fundamental right”. Republicans will say that Democrats should not be defending a personal smear campaign against a right-wing philanthropist.
The details will be lost in the fog of battle – the simple details on which this whole matter stands. Did he or didn’t he? Did they or didn’t they?
If the organization is ready to prove the allegations made on its website, that’s fine. But if – as I strongly suspect - it made an error of judgment for which an apology is advisable, it should promptly find a way to apologize and be done with it.
Clearly, such an apology is somewhat uncomfortable. Adelson is the political archenemy, and an apology would be followed by much gloating by Jewish Republicans that would also be painful for NJDC supporters (I hope they will refrain from gloating, but I know they won’t). So this isn’t easy - but one should bear in mind that the DCCC has already apologized for the same allegation, and was a little embarrassed about it.
In the end though, the real damage wasn’t that significant. The apology didn’t make President Obama less likely to win reelection. Moreover: if NJDC truly wants to debate the “real issues” as it so claims, the table should be cleared of all the not-so-real issues.