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The Time Chris Christie Stood Up to Sheldon Adelson

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It was clarifying indeed to watch the rush by Chris Christie over the weekend to make up for the sin of using the term “occupied territories” in his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, where Christie and three other 2016 contenders had assembled to court billionaire casino magnate and profligate political donor Sheldon Adelson. Never mind that Christie’s comments were couched in a strongly pro-Israel riff, or that the term “occupied territories” has been used, at various points, by the U.S. government, then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Supreme Court. No, Christie was harshly scolded for his language and issued an apology for his transgression to Adelson.

What made Christie’s penitence especially striking, though, is that not that long ago, he had been willing to stand up to the Adelson camp. In 2011, he spoke out vehemently against conservatives criticizing his nomination of a Muslim Indian-American for a Superior Court judgeship in New Jersey on the grounds that the nominee, Sohail Mohammed, would prioritize shariah law over the laws of New Jersey and the United States. In remarks that went viral on YouTube, Christie decried the “ignorance” behind the criticism. “Shariah law has nothing to do with this at all. It’s crazy,” Christie said. “The guy’s an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in New Jeersey, swearing an oath to uphold the law of New Jersey, the constitution of New Jersey and the constitution of the United States of America….This sharia law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background…There’s nothing to any of this stuff. I’m not going to talk about sharia law because sharia law has nothing to do with Sohail Mohammed…I’m happy he’s willing to serve after all this baloney.”

Sheldon Adelson did not weigh in on the nomination of a judge for a Passaic County judgeship. But he has been credibly linked to an outfit that has for some years now been busy fanning the flames of Western paranoia about Muslim encroachment, the Clarion Fund, the distributor for an incendiary 2005 film called “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” Haaretz reported in 2007 that Adelson had personally distributed copies of the documentary to participants in the Taglit-Birthright Israel project, which allows young American Jews to visit Israel and to which Adelson has pledged $60 million. The New York Times reported, in a 2012 article about another anti-Muslim film distributed by Clarion Group, “The Third Jihad,” that the first film had “attracted support” from Adelson, but did not elaborate on whether that support went beyond his distribution of the film to Birthright participants to include actual financial backing. (“Obsession” had considerable financial heft behind it, given that it was distributed to millions of Americans before the 2008 election as an insert in swing-state newspapers.)

The bottom line is that just a few years ago, Chris Christie was willing to ruffle feathers of the likes of Sheldon Adelson when he stood up, in typically pugnacious fashion, on behalf of a Muslim-American lawyer who had defended fellow Muslims picked up in the overbroad FBI sweeps following the September 11 attacks. Yet here he was in Vegas hurrying to make up for his dread mistake of using the “o” word. There are two ways of looking at this. One is that we’re simply seeing the inevitable tension that would arise as a relatively moderate, independent-minded Republican tried to conform to the strictures of pleasing various funders and interest groups thought necessary for a presidential run. (Leave aside the irony that Adelson's purported goal for 2016 is to find an electable Republican to back, regardless of whether he checks all the ideological boxes, only to have coverage of his big Vegas summit dominated by a candidate's apology for deviating from orthodoxy.)

But the other way of looking at it is that what we are witnessing is more fallout from the scandal over the politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. Had Christie still been riding high following his big re-election victory and solidifying his standing as the GOP establishment favorite in the run-up to 2016, he might’ve felt less need to plead forgiveness over a single reality-based utterance in the presence of Sheldon Adelson. But he is not riding high, and may have decided that he cannot afford forthrightness as much as he could have just a short while ago. Which again raises the question some of us have been asking since Bridgegate broke: without his famous forthrightness, what, exactly, does Chris Christie have to offer?

Addendum, 4:30 p.m.: It is worth noting that Christie was asked at the Las Vegas event about his nomination of Mohammed and that he stood by his 2011 comments. "Sohail Mohammed knows as much about jihad as I do, being an Irish-American kid from Newark, New Jersey," Christie said. "It is ridiculous and insulting that because I nominated Sohail Mohammed, that people somehow think that means I'm for sharia law. It's crap. And I will not ever apologize for making him a judge. In fact, I'm proud of it." Challenged directly about the "sharia" issue, Christie could hardly climb down from his strong 2011 defense, and is to be commended for not trying to do so. The larger question stands: why continue to stick up for the common-sense rationality he deployed against the "sharia" bogeyman in 2011, while at the same time scrambling to placate Adelson, who is so closely associated with some of the anti-Muslim fear-mongering Christie was mocking back then?