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Sheldon Adelson and the Jew Card

Is it possible to write critically about Sheldon Adelson without being anti-Semitic?

The answer is not as obvious as it immediately seems. Adelson is an extremely rich Jew who is proud of this fact (“You know, I am the richest Jew in the world,” he told President Bush). He has made most of his many billions of dollars overseas, and in an industry considered more unsavory than most—casinos. He is extremely litigious. His own children have accused him of cheating them out of money. He is a massive political donor—he has given or pledged more than $70 million to Republican groups this cycle—who once got former Rep. Tom DeLay to quash a bill condemning Chinese human rights abuses while he was looking to do business in China. His paramount political concern is a particularly hawkish brand of support for Israel.

These are all indisputable facts—you can find them in Connie Bruck’s New Yorker profile. They also are all, indisputably, grist for anti-Semitic caricature. Surely in some soiled, dank corner of the Internet, someone has used these facts to paint Adelson simply as a rich international Jew trying to buy politicians. But you do not need to be an anti-Semite to worry about the impact Adelson could buy himself—particularly given that his company is being investigated by U.S. and Chinese authorities for allegedly illicit business dealings. And in fact, in mainstream discourse, Adelson is spoken of as an anti-Semitic caricature less frequently by his critics than by his defenders, who use the stereotype as a shield to protect him from legitimate inquiries.

I was one of the critics, and now I’m apparently one of the anti-Semites. Responding to a post I wrote about Adelson last week, David Frum retorted, Adelson is “no puppet master—to borrow a phrase from Glenn Beck's attacks on George Soros—and it’s wrong, misleading, and even potentially sinister to misrepresent him as such.” If you need help translating “potentially sinister,” Frum’s headline was, “Jews Are Always News” (well, only when they donate high-eight figures). A couple days later, the New York Times published an editorial echoing what I had written, prompting Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin to allege that the Times was focusing on Adelson because, y’know. “Adelson,” Tobin wrote, “may be an easy target but the campaign to demonize him using language about politicians being ‘in thrall’ to him has an unpleasant odor of prejudice.”

Frum and Tobin made straw men of us. I focused on how much money Adelson gave (which can be used very effectively in the post-Citizens United climate), what people credibly say his company has done, and how in one instance he used political connections for ostensible personal gain. Despite the fact that Frum spends the majority of his post on the topic, I pointedly did not mention Adelson’s Israel beliefs—not to avoid offending, but because it is plain that a President Romney would not pardon Jonathan Pollard, not completely abandon the peace process, and—I will bet you any sum—not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The Times, too, specifically opted not to go there: “it is legitimate to ask whether he has motivation for supporting the Republican ticket so lavishly, beyond his sharp disagreement with the Obama administration’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” it parsed (italics mine). Yet that didn’t stop Tobin from questioning the Times’ language, just as it didn’t stop Frum from insinuating I had trafficked in anti-Semitism.

So what are we to do with Adelson? A model might be his liberal mirror, George Soros, who also lent himself to anti-Semitic caricature—wealthy, a huge donor, cosmopolitan (his first language was Esperanto!), a global financier—but who was a relevant person to discuss because of the more than $25 million he gave to defeat President Bush and because he has been accused of manipulating currencies and was in fact convicted in France of insider trading.

Soros definitely had anti-Semitic critics. One was Glenn Beck, who (as Frum mentioned) said all manner of nasty things on Fox News: that Soros is a “puppet master” endeavoring to exploit the international financial system to bring the globe under one government; that he “is literally destroying the lives of people” (he quoted someone else saying he “sucks the blood from people”); that he “help[ed] send the Jews to the death camps” (born in Hungary, Soros was a survivor). These criticisms had everything to do with the stereotype; almost nothing to do with the facts (currency manipulation was touched on); and nothing to do with the reasons why we should care (the amount Soros donated in 2004).

Soros’s more responsible critics, like Ira Stoll, focus on facts (the millions Soros was forced to repay in France), not caricature. One can do the same with Adelson (which means not eliding, as Stoll admittedly does, the reported U.S. investigation). One can acknowledge that at this point the allegations against Soros are more credible, and that at this point Adelson is the much bigger donor. Liberals regularly defend Soros without calling their opponents anti-Semites. Why are Adelson’s defenders not similarly confident?