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O My America: The Billionaire King and His Consort

October 23, 2013
“Who is mighty? The one who turns an enemy into a friend.” —Pirkei Avot “But not Iran.” —Pirkei Adelson ShowImageEvery once in a while I listen to rightwing talk radio, just to remind myself of people’s capacity for deceit — and to challenge mt own faith in humanity. Last night, I moved beyond the radio dial to see the gambling-empire billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, in the flesh, discussing whether my people the Jews have a future. They were joined by Bret Stephens, conservative opinion columnist (Pulitzer Prize this year!) for the Wall Street Journal, and by Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva U (and former head of national Hillel), where the forum was held. The auditorium was crowded, with about 20 percent of the seats blocked off by screens to make the place look truly filled. I would estimate that there were 800 people, 30 percent of them students — not bad for a Tuesday-night event organized in only one week (mostly with a full-page ad in the New York Times), in response to what Boteach called the “devastating” Pew survey about Jewish identity in America. There were fewer beards than I anticipated, even closely-cropped beards, which was surprising, given that the audience was at least 70 percent male. There were also a fair sprinkling of guys without kippahs — but nearly all of them, apart from the male Yeshiva students, wore business attire, suits and ties. The four men on the stage were . . . men. They were going to discuss the crisis of Jewish identity in America, and how to build a future for the Jewish people, without any women in the conversation. (“Whatever I say applies to my wife,” Adelson said from the stage, with no trace of self-consciousness.) Shmuely Boteach was referred to as “America’s Rabbi” at least five times in the course of the evening, and struck me as a classically short (maybe 5′6″), world-conquering megalomaniac. He could not suck up enough praise, and could not control his “wit.” He harassed his “good friend” Bret Stephens with “friendly quips” all night, and referred to him as the man who “stole my Pulitzer.” I wasn’t there to see Boteach, however — I can read his best-selling words of wisdom any time. I was there to see Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who seems to think that the future of the Jews and Jewish values relies on getting Newt Gingrich and/or Mitt Romney into the White House. Adelson is, according to Boteach’s introduction, the world’s greatest Jewish philanthropist, possibly in all of history, certainly since Moses Montefiore. As the panel began, I kept imagining what it would take to prompt me to stand up and shout out a statement of protest while the six security guards standing at the front of the auditorium rushed me. Even before Adelson began, I imagined crying: Which Jewish values do the Republicans represent, Mr. Adelson? Elitism? mercilessness? racism? punishment for the poor? Fundamentalist Christianity? I held my peace, however — even when Adelson recommended that the U.S. greet the new Rouhani government in Iran by firing a “nuclear missile from Nebraska” to land “in the desert somewhere” as a demonstration of what’ll happen to them if Iran dares to develop a nuclear bomb. I held my peace, also, when Bret Stephens stated that “with nuclear weapons, possession is use.” WHAT? He explained that a nuclear-armed nation is able to “get attention” and to be “invulnerable to attack, to regime-change,” and went on to describe why all the repressive actions of Iran towards women and gay people disqualify them for the Bomb (all of these guys invoked Muslim repression of gay people as a casus bellus, as though they and their comrades have been lifelong champions of gay liberation). I saw myself yelling out something about the American nuclear bomb arriving when our country was awash in acute racial segregation, backed by white supremacist terror — America may be good to the Jews, but it hasn’t been so good to everybody else, fellas! — but the thought would’ve been too complex to express with guards tackling me . . . War, war, war. They call it “peace through strength,” but “strength,” to them, means the capacity to kill people, period. Here’s what an investment banker said to me during the VIP reception prior to the event (to which I was invited as a member of the press): We all want peace, he said, but some of us believe it’s won only through strength. We all want peace? I replied. No. Some of us want land. And some of us want to use military power as a tool of policy rather than real self-defense — like George Bush invading Iraq. None of these hawks, I would wager, have children in the U.S. military. Rabbi Boteach has nine children, some of whom are students at Yeshiva University — but they ain’t at West Point. Easy to say “War, war, war,” when it’s not about your own children. Me, I always I ask myself, Would I send my son or daughter for this cause? Nearly always the answer is No, there must be another solution. The Iranian “discussion” filled nearly an hour, and by the time they turned to issues of assimilation as the other “bomb” threatening the Jewish future, I had to go home (a two-hour drive) so that I could wake up this morning and work on our own little anti-assimilation tool, Jewish Currents. Richard Joel had eased me a bit by observing that “Jewishness today is an option, not a condition,” and that those of us who work in the fields of Jewish identity must be responsive to that reality — and that Yeshiva University’s goal is “not to make the world frum, but to be a force for Jewish values in the world and the Jewish world.” At which point I was sauntering out the door and should’ve yelled, “Jewish values? The Jewish future? Nu, get a few women up on that stage!”