The Anti-BDS Effort of Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban Gets Caught in Partisan Politics

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September 30, 2015; Forward

Nathan Guttman reports for the Forward that the alliance between Republican political financier and Nevada gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and Democratic donor and Hollywood power broker Haim Saban seems to have come to an end. Despite Adelson’s backing of all kinds of conservative presidential candidates in the 2012 and current primaries, and Saban’s close allegiance to Bill and Hillary Clinton, they had come together despite political differences to combat efforts like the Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement that they felt were isolating Israel both in the U.S. and internationally.

The reasons for the Adelson/Saban split, apparently Saban’s initiative, haven’t been publicly revealed by Saban, but the possibilities include Adelson’s focus on what one person called “a right wing echo-chamber,” pretty difficult for a moderate Dem like Saban to accept, or simply that during an election where Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner, it doesn’t look good for one of Clinton’s top donors to be too close to the likes of someone on the right wing of the Republican establishment like Adelson.

The primary focus of attention for the split appears to be around the anti-BDS group known as the Campus Maccabees, funded lavishly by Adelson. One area of concern might have been the hiring of David Brog to head the Maccabees. According to Guttman, Brog formerly directed Christians United for Israel, a group founded (or recreated from a defunct organization with the same name) by the controversial conservative evangelical pastor, John Hagee. Christians United for Israel calls itself the largest pro-Israel group in the U.S. and claims to have more than two million members. The Pentecostal Hagee has been known for some untoward attitudes toward Palestinians, Muslims in general, Catholics, and, despite CUFI, Jews themselves.

If Saban is distancing himself from the Maccabees, it isn’t like he is leaving the pro-Israel field. For example, he has been a generous funder of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). According to a statement issued by a Saban spokesman, Saban will be “concentrating on the Friends of the IDF” and his longstanding commitment to the Saban Leadership Seminar that has trained 10,000 pro-Israel student leaders. He also hosts the annual Saban Forum to discuss U.S.-Israel relations, with Bill and Hillary Clinton as regular participants.

However, the gap between Adelson and Saban shows up significantly in another pro-Israel organization, the Israeli American Council, a nonprofit representing Israeli expatriates (like Saban himself) living in the United States. With Adelson’s support, they made the IAC into a national operation. However, Adelson’s donations to the IAC seem to have dwarfed Saban’s over time, which ended up pushing the IAC toward Adelson’s right-wing political positions. For example, the IAC came out against the U.S. nuclear weapons treaty with Iran, a core touchpoint of every Republican presidential candidate, while Saban, though not necessarily a supporter of the agreement, views it as a done deal.

Lessons for nonprofits? While Adelson and Saban clearly shared plenty when it came to their support for Israel and their opposition to the BDS efforts, it seems that partisan politics overcame their ideological comity. Even within the pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian movement, being a right-wing Republican and a moderate Democrat is too much political distance to maintain, especially when the Republicans and Democrats in question happen to be billionaire political donors.—Rick Cohen