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.”
It would be proper for Harris to apologize to the Adelsons, even as he disagrees with them utterly over their politics. Full disclosure: the Adelsons have given my campaign $10k. But with or without their support, I am running a campaign largely based on universal Jewish values, one of the greatest of which is gratitude, and we who claim to be Jewish leaders must live by our own teachings.
The same might be said of a moral man like Senator John McCain who has been criticizing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in general, and Sheldon Adelson for his Super PAC spending, in particular.
I respect Senator McCain as a genuine American hero and a devoted public servant. But his railing against Super PAC spending seems to ignore his own thirty years in the House and the Senate where he has enjoyed all the privileges of incumbency. Officeholders have a vested interest in condemning external political interference since their mandate is to preserve the status quo. Notice that while McCain wants to impose limits on outside political contributions, he does not want to subject politicians to term limits. Thirty years is, after all, quite a long time to be in office.
I’m a challenger in a Congressional race in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. It’s easy to see why incumbents in the Senate have had an eighty percent reelection rate, with incumbents in the House being reelected at an even higher and truly staggering ninety percent rate. Indeed, no more than 5 to 10 incumbents lose their seats every two years. OpenSecrets.com, who have a disturbing chart about incumbency, sum it up well: “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats.”
Bill Pascrell, against whom I’m running, has been in the House for 16 years. While I run against him I have to find a way to support my family (you’re obviously not paid by your campaign), raise money from people who think that as a challenger I am a certain underdog, build name recognition, and try to reorient all those who are afraid that if they come out and support me openly Pascrell will retaliate against them (you can’t imagine how many people have told me this, and I assume the same is true in other Congressional districts).
But while Pascrell runs he is paid his full Congressional salary with all its perks, is allowed to do franked mail (thinly veiled campaign pieces aimed at raising positive name ID) at the taxpayer’s expense, and has a huge complement of congressional staff to assist him. And though they are not involved in the campaign, they still make life a heck of a lot easier. Most importantly, there is the pork barrel spending that an incumbent can claim to have brought into his district, and these huge investments have the practical effect of simply buying business and voters off with money their representative says he brought from Washington. Gerrymandering further leads to approximately eighty nine percent of all districts being dominated by a party and giving the challenger from the other party little hope of prevailing.
No wonder that of 435 Congressional districts, only 15 are considered toss-up seats. Beyond that, only 46 of those seats even have a chance to change hands.
All this should be kept in mind before one swallows Senator McCain’s arguments uncritically. Citizens United, flawed as it is, is still not as flawed as a ninety percent incumbency, which makes you question the very foundation of American democracy.
And if the McCains of this world want to stop people like Sheldon Adelson and countless other concerned citizens from shaking up our politics, perhaps they should at least be honest enough to either promote term limits, or live by self-imposed limits and simply not run in the next election.
To this challenger it seems a little unfair – not to mention a touch hypocritical – for professional, life-time politicians to call for money-men to limit their contributions when those same politicians refuse to put any limits on their own Congressional or Senate terms.
Some consistency is in order.
About the Author: Shmuley Boteach, whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of The World Values Network and the international bestselling author of 30 books, including “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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