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The Shalom Center is inaugurating the GOLDENCALFAWARD, to be presented to someone who has become a devout, persistent, and renowned idolator.
Today we are presenting one candidate. At the end of this report we will explain the next steps in making this award. (A little suspense here, like the Oscars…)
Our first candidate:
SHELDONADELSON: From Vegas to China to Tel Aviv to the White House?
In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life…. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas.” (See sources at the end of this Shalom Report.)
Written almost half a century ago, this passage could practically be a description of Sheldon Adelson, a present-day billionaire owner of gambling palaces in Las Vegas and Macau.
Adelson’s hotel casinos in Las Vegas became seed money for far more profitable casinos in Macau; and the profits from Macau are the principal source of the billions that have made Adelson Number 12 on the 2012 “Forbes 400” list of the 400 richest people in America, with a fortune of $20.5 billion. From this money he has given scores of millions of dollars to right-wing politics in the US, Israel, and the American Jewish community. Before we look at these gifts, let us look more deeply at their source.
What began in Vegas did not stay there. Gambling there – beginning with the Sands Casino — gave Adelson the millions to invest in Macau, so as to take billions out.
For many years, all the major Las Vegas hotels and casinos had been unionized. But when Adelson closed the Sands to build a far more lavish center, the Venetian, he refused to rehire the union workers. In 2008, a New Yorker profile of Adelson described how this anti-union stance had led to his vituperation of a rabbi who had refused to cross a picket line of the Culinary Union, and to his revoking a pledge of $350,000 to that rabbi’s synagogue building fund.
Shelley Berkley, a former Adelson staffer, broke with him over his anti-union stance. “My relationship with him began to sour the moment I urged him to hold jobs open at the Venetian for former [unionized] Sands workers. The more I encouraged cooperation with the workers, the more I incurred Mr. Adelson’s wrath,” she wrote. “Over time, I observed Mr. Adelson plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any ‘opponent’—great or small—into submission.”
In 1998, Berkley was elected to Congress as a Democrat, after rejecting an offer from Adelson to fund her campaign if she would run as a Republican. She is now running for the US Senate in Nevada. He has opposed her in every campaign.
Back to Macau. It is a “special administrative region” of China, like Hong Kong. In Macau, gambling is legal even though it is prohibited in the rest of China. For Chinese citizens to cross from the rest of China into Macau requires approval from Chinese officials.
Because of this special and precarious role of his Macau casinos, Adelson is a deeply involved tummler in Chinese government policy toward gamblers in Macau. His operations there are under US Federal investigation of possible money-laundering and overseas bribery.
We don’t yet know whether the old saying “Garbage in, garbage out” is justified in this case. “Millions in, billions out” surely is. But public scrutiny of the “Millions in” part of the equation has been minimal, compared to coverage of “Billions out.” Most public reporting has been limited in scope when it comes to the inquiries by the S.E.C. and the Justice Department into the money Adelson has put into the China gamble – and whether that money was spent illegally.
Investigative reporting on those questions has been done mostly by such off-beat journalists as ProPublica, working jointly with PBS’ “Frontline” and the Investigative Reporting Program of the University of California at Berkeley.
Adelson’s key connection-maker and personal guide to the Chinese establishment has been Yang Saixen, who (along with tens of millions of dollars in payments Adelson’s casino made through him in China), is the focus of a wide-ranging US federal investigation into potential bribery of foreign officials in China and Macau. Evidently, some investigators are trying to discern whether there might have been payoffs to Chinese and Macau officials to keep the borders wide open for would-be gamblers from China proper to enter Macau. Adelson and his lawyers have denied any such payoffs..
Yang has said he was paid $30,000 a month by the company before he was fired in 2009.
More recently, further allegations against Adelson emerged in connection with an ongoing wrongful dismissal lawsuit against Sands filed in 2010 by Steven Jacobs, former C.E.O. of Sands China. The suit turned up Emails and other documents that were made public by ProPublica in July 2012. They raised questions about the role of Leonel Alves, a legislator in the government of Macau who was hired as an outside counsel to Las Vegas Sands.
The Emails suggest that Alves submitted a bill for services at three times the normal rate. But the general counsel at Las Vegas Sands warned that he could not be paid in full because “we were worried that there could be F.C.P.A. issues related to this.” (The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, forbids US companies to bribe foreign officials.) But Adelson instructed that the bills be paid. A month later, the general counsel quit.
Even more worrisome, the Emails include letters from Alves that Chinese officials in Beijing were requesting $300 million to deal with the business concerns of the Adelson empire. The emails did not make clear what was done about the request for this money.
Meanwhile, the Nevada lawsuit alleging unlawful dismissal of Adelson’s staffer, out of which these Emails emerged, goes forward. Adelson’s lawyers claimed that some key documents were in Macau and could not be brought to America because of Macau laws mandating confidentiality. But the Nevada court discovered that the documents had been in the US all along. So most recently, Nevada District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez ruled on Sept. 17 that Las Vegas Sands Corp had withheld key documents in the wrongful termination case. Judge Gonzalez fined LASC $25,000.
Now Adelson is pursuing the possibility of building a huge casino, provisionally called “EuroVegas,” in Madrid, while Spain is wracked with a deep economic depression.
Sands executives have presented EuroVegas as a giant resort aimed at the whole European community: twelve hotels with a total of 36,000 rooms, six casinos with 18,000 slot machines, and three golf courses. The Spanish press reports that Adelson has demanded exemption from local taxes, laws against smoking in public places, and zoning regulations limiting the height of buildings.
But Tomás Gómez, the regional leader of the opposition Socialist Party, said his political group would investigate whether the government had agreed to any “secret conditions” to attract Mr. Adelson. “The law must be equal for everybody,” Gómez said.
Now let us turn to the “Billions out” side of the equation. From the money Adelson made in Macau, he has given scores of millions of dollars to right-wing politics in the US, Israel, and the American Jewish community. There has been a great deal of media coverage of what Adelson has done with this money in the recent Presidential campaign, and more muted coverage of his actions in Israeli and American Jewish politics. In 2007, even after the US occupation of Iraq had gone sour in the mouths of most Americans, Adelson gave millions of dollars to Freedom’s Watch, a group promoting President Bush’s commitment to “staying the course” in the war against Iraq. By 2012, he was upping the ante for right-wing politics as an addicted gambler might imaginably have done in his own casinos in Las Vegas. First he gave scores of millions to the presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich, perhaps the furthest right-wing of the “serious” candidates — and then when Gingrich failed, he promised up to one hundred million dollars to help Romney defeat Obama. (Because of Super-PAC secrecy, it’s not clear whether he has fulfilled his commitment.)
Meanwhile, in Israel, Adelson was paying millions to set up a free newspaper, Yisrael HaYom (“Israel Today”) that has heavily slanted its news coverage to support Prime Minister Netanyahu and the right-wing Likkud Party. In part because it is free, with Adelson picking up the financial losses, Yisrael Hayom has driven almost out of business the previously popular center-right newspaper Maariv (“Evening”) and has become the largest-circulation paper in Israel.
In American Jewish life, Adelson has focused his money on organizations that parallel Likkud. He has given large sums to the Zionist Organization of America, the furthest right-wing of the whole spectrum of Zionist groups. (ZOA has recently lost its tax-exempt status for failure to file the necessary forms several years in a row. It is not known whether Adelson’s contributions before and during those years were listed as tax-deductible.)
Adelson has long been a major donor to the right-of-center “pro-Israeli-government” American lobby AIPAC. But in 2007, he was furious that AIPAC was not right-wing enough. He vigorously objected to its support for a congressional letter that urged the Bush administration to increase targeted assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
The proposed aid was aimed at beefing up public safety in the West Bank (especially Palestinian police action against militant anti-Israel groups). The idea, as supported by the Bush Administration and the then center-right government of Israel under Ehud Barak, was intended to strengthen Israel’s security.
But for Adelson, “center right” was not “right” enough. He opposed any aid to the Palestinian leadership. He likened AIPAC to a friend assisting Israel’s suicide. “I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they say they want to jump,”” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Adelson directly connected his Israeli right-wing politics and his American right-wing politics in two recent actions:
§ He sat at Romney’s right hand when the presidential candidate held a fund-raising party at a hotel in Jerusalem.
§ As a major donor to the Jewish Republican Coalition, he helped pay for an ad in several major American Jewish newspapers that attacked Obama as weak in support for Israel, on the grounds that several “Rabbis for Obama,” out of several hundred, had criticized the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli war against Gaza. The ad aimed against two targets: Obama, and any rabbis who refused to toe the official line about Israeli government policy.
If we apply Rabbi Heschel’s litmus test of menshlichkeit to Adelson’s actions –- Heschel’s litmus test of compassion for the poor around the world, along with spiritual embarrassment at the building of lavish hotels in Las Vegas –- what does that test reveal?
Compare Adelson’s values, as expressed in his actions:
§ Insistence on more Israeli settlements in the Occupation of the West Bank. That has meant not only the denial of basic political, economic, and cultural freedom to millions of people, but also everyday degradations like the capture of Palestinian drinking-water and cooking-water supplies to use for Israeli-settler swimming pools, and the dumping of settlers’ environmental waste on Palestinians’ backs;
§ Support for Netanyahu’s recent intervention in the US election in the hope of strengthening Romney;
§ Support for Romney in the hope that if elected he will support Netanyahu, Likkud, the Israeli Occupation, and possibly in the hope he will end Federal investigations into Adelson’s business dealings with China;
§ Support for whoever and whatever else will protect his own billions from increased taxes for billionaires and from union organizing on behalf of better wages and working conditions in Macau or Las Vegas that might decrease his gambling profits. (After all, the saying goes, “The house always wins.” And more is more.)
As for Rabbi Heschel’s concern that “luxurious hotels in Las Vegas” will trump compassion toward the poor who are suffering in “slums, disease, and starvation all over the world”? As for “embarrassment at [one’s own] pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit”? “Embarrassment at the profanation of life”?
These values that Rabbi Heschel set forth stand utterly counterposed to those of Adelson, who has — without embarrassment — boasted that he is the richest Jew in the world, and has not visibly acted to lighten suffering throughout the world.
These two sets of values are profoundly at odds. Not only must Jews choose between them, but so must all Americans. And Chinese. And Europeans, beginning in Spain. For as we have seen, what begins in Vegas does not end in Vegas.
So that is the evidence about one candidate for the first GOLDENCALF Award. We invite you to vote for Mr. Adelson or propose other candidates, with explanations of why they deserve the Award. Remember: to qualify, your nominee must be a devout, persistent, and renowned idolator. Please write Office@theshalomcenter.org to send us the names and explanations.
We will gather up these nominations and share with you the leaders in this poll. When we have presented them to you, we will then ask you to help us choose.
We also intend to invite nominations for people who embody Heschel’s description, in order to take note of them as “Honorable Mentsh’n.” But that is for another day.
Heschel’s comment in 1965 on world-wide suffering and Las Vegas luxury: See — Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, ed. by Susannah Heschel (OrbisBooks, 2011), p. 55.
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