The most unpleasant people I have encountered in politics are those who put party before principle, partisanship before politeness, tribal political doctrine before common human decency. Since beginning my run for Congress I have been approached by Republicans convinced that Barack Obama is the devilish anti-Christ promised in the Book of Revelation and Democrats who have told me that all Republicans are cold, heartless, bigots. Hatemongers like these who make every political attack personal are ruining our country.
I was saddened to discover that David Harris, President of the National Jewish Democratic Council, has decided to join these ranks. In a below-the-belt attack on mega-philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Harris forbade any Republicans from accepting their money due to allegations made against them by a disgruntled former employee. Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, a Democrat, has already expertly eviscerated Harris for hypocrisy and political prejudice.
Ordinarily, an attack by the political hack of one party about a mega-contributor to another party would not merit attention or comment. But what made Harris’s vitriol most unfortunate was that it was one Jew deriding the two foremost private supporters of Jewish identity and the State of Israel in the entire world.
Most Jewish Democrats – and they are a sizable number – do not agree with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson on their politics. But they certainly revere them for their philanthropy. Here is a business magnate who has given over $100 million to Birthright Israel – the single most successful Jewish educational program in the history of the Jewish people – which has taken over 300,000 young Jews to the Holy Land at zero charge. Surely Harris has countless friends and acquaintances who have benefited from Birthright. Could he not show some basic appreciation to the couple who have made so many of those trips possible? Could he not have broken with the Adelsons over their opposition to President Obama but still praised them for vastly increasing global Jewish attachment to Israel?
I have twice led 50 young Jews on Birthright trips. On both occasions the majority never even had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which we gave them, amidst song and dance, at the Kotel. For most the trip was transformative, conveying a sense of identity and peoplehood in young Jews who otherwise had little attachment to the community. At the end of each trip my group asked me how it was possible that anyone would fork out so much money for them to experience ten free days across the length and breadth of Israel. I would tell them that basic decency dictated that they emails thanks to the people who made it possible, with Michael Steinhart and Charles Bronfman, Birthright’s co-founders, and Sheldon Adelson, its biggest contributor, foremost among them. I’m assuming David Harris shares my belief in the Jewish value of gratitude.
The Adelsons likewise support countless other vital Jewish institutions, most notably Yad Vashem which is charged with preserving the sacred memory of six million martyred Jews and to which the Adelsons contributed $25 million dollars. I have no doubt that David Harris is as committed to Holocaust education as any other Jewish leader and would therefore applaud the Adelsons generosity.
I originally met the Adelsons through Michael Steinhardt. What I have come to appreciate in Sheldon Adelson is a billionaire’s commitment to a cabdriver father’s memory. At a ZOA dinner a few years ago Adelson received an award for his lifelong commitment to defending Israel against attack. In his acceptance speech he spoke of his father’s perennial dream of visiting Israel which was outside his means. Later, after his father’s passing, when he achieved wealth and visited Israel for the first time, he wore his father’s shoes so they could create traces in the holy land.
This past March I asked Sheldon what motivated his philanthropy and support of Jewish and medical organizations worldwide. He told me that when he was a little boy his father used to come home from driving his cab. He would take the change out of his pocket and put into a charity box for the Jewish National Fund. He asked his father why he put money in the box and his father responded that he had an obligation to help the poor. “But we’re poor,” he said. His father responded, “There are always people poorer than you. And you have to always help them.”