Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Ghost Publisher

The first time I heard the name Sheldon Adelson was on a plane to Tel Aviv in the 1990s. I sensed that I was surrounded by a great number of people who vaguely knew each other and had started to party without me. I soon learned that this was indeed one extended family, that Sheldon Adelson’s wife was having a birthday, and Adelson had pretty much requisitioned the plane to fly scores of cousins, many of whom she barely knew, to Israel to join in. He had made his money in Las Vegas, the second cousin sitting next to me told me; the world’s biggest computer show, COMDEX, was his baby. As a former HBR technology editor, and someone who could barely afford first cousins, I was (and that was the point, I suppose), impressed.

Adelson, now 74, has become the third richest American, a hotel mogul of hyper-Hiltonian proportions, famous for putting up the Venetian in Las Vegas, and the one million-square-foot Sands Macau, the first casino in the People's Republic of China. Recently, he won the right to put up a new casino in Singapore. It seems he is almost single-handedly responsible for outsourcing America’s last assembly lines to the Far East, where rows of benumbed people pull levers dawn to dusk, in this case losing the minimum wage every hour. Adelson, in consequence, is said to wake up every morning millions richer.

And Adelson is a serious Jew, which means (more and more these days) that he’s taken a serious interest in the Jewish state. He is married since the early 1990s to a younger, Israeli born doctor, Miriam Adelson, a specialist in addiction (though not gambling addiction, apparently). I imagine he’s picked up some Hebrew words from her, that his feelings are deep, his trips, frequent. But you also get the feeling that Adeldon retains the prejudices of a Western “Zionist” of a certain generation—something like what Duddy Kravitz picked up in the shvitz. You look at what he’s funded, after all, and you sense primordial images of what the Jewish state means: $25 million to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial, unspecified millions to AIPAC, $30 million to Birthright, which brings Jewish teens to Israel for free. Adelson has also funded what he takes to be pro-Israeli (and pro-mogul) politicians like George W. Bush.

I’ve never hit him up for money, but if I did, I bet that telling him that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, that it needs to be strong and hit back hard and early—that there are new Hitlers all over the Muslim world, and new Chamberlains all over the West—would be, well, table stakes. No surprise, really, that Adelson’s second biggest beneficiary in Jerusalem, after Yad Vashem, has been the Shalem Center, a rightist think-tank in a paradise of a building a block from my home. Former chief-of-staff Boogi Yaalon and Natan Sharansky are senior fellows. Both think Jerusalem is for world Jews, the peace process is for appeasers, and Israelis who condemn settlements are needlessly washing dirty linen in public. They are getting $4.5 million in chump change to pursue “strategic studies.” This means writing (or hiring ghost writers to write) articles and staging conferences to warn the West about Iran, advance the global war on terror, and so forth.

BUT IF YOU are accustomed to putting up 7000 room resorts, why not think really big? Bibi Netanyahu is the Israeli Adelson seems to admire most strongly, for reasons that are almost too obvious for words. It’s a Jewish state, right, and you are a Jew with, thank God, the means to contribute. Arcadi Gaydamak—another good Jew with a weakness for Netanyahu, and more millions than Hebrew vocabulary—has been buying the votes of Jerusalem’s hoi polloi by pouring money into Betar football. Why not go him one better? Come to think of it, why not just buy public opinion? It is swing, centrist voters who will determine any new election, and they tend not to be the most educated people. If a major daily tabloid adopted (and were able to rebrand) Netanyahu, this could be enough to put him, and his rightist coalition, over the top.

There is a problem. Yediot Aharonot is Israel’s dominant tabloid and it hasn’t been much kinder to Netanyahu than the liberal Haaretz. The paper is also too profitable to be up for sale. Adelson tried and failed to buy the moribund, family-owned Maariv. So last summer he simply started a tabloid of his own. The paper is called Yisrael HaYomIsrael Today—and immediately bought the services of writer-celebs such as Dan Margalit; its goal is to reach a circulation of 300,000 in the major urban areas, where swing voters (Russians, Mizrahim) tend to live. Indeed, Yisrael HaYom is, ironically, hoping to achieve instant credibility by republishing the main business stories from Haaretz’s morning business report, The Marker.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, Adelson is giving every paper away for free. His business plan, if that’s the word for it, is to lose money until his tabloid—or Netanyahu—is the last one standing. Recently, in an editorial published in the wake of Winograd Report, writer Gonen Ginat said the commission cited “more than 150 instances in which Olmert failed in his handling of the war.”

THIS IS NOT the first time that rightist foreigners have bought papers, or Israeli papers, for that matter. Rupert Murdoch, when he was still considered an Australian, became arguably the most influential British, then American, media boss. Conrad Black, a gambler who lost big-time, bought the Jerusalem Post in the 1990s. Like Adelson, Murdoch and Black have had an “agenda.”

But the latter were serious newspaper tycoons who wanted, among other things, to make fortunes for share-holders. Adelson is a garden-variety American Zionist—somebody who sends his money to Israel since living here himself would be superfluous. He is trying to bend a culture he can barely understand. And he thinks losing a fortune to support the kind of politician he can understand is no more than his duty. What is worse, I think, is how natural this has come to seem to so many Israeli Jews; people in the centrist elite who think that Adelson’s sentimental influence is not at all curious and could be lucrative.

When I first came here in 1967, American philanthropists were honored, of course, but they were also condescended to for choosing to miss out on what was thought the cultural revolution of their lifetime. Now, Israelis seem to take for granted that American Jewish philanthropists will be, not citizens of their Hebrew-speaking democracy, but something like super-delegates to an international Jewish convention.

HOW COULD THIS happen? One critic has tried to explain. The Western Jew is “unhappy,” this critic writes, because he feels not quite accepted where he lives. But he “has already grown accustomed to a broader social and political life”; and, on the intellectual side, “Jewish cultural work has no attraction, because Jewish culture has played no part in his education from childhood.” So “he turns to the land of his ancestors,” and pictures to himself how good it is that a Jewish State be established there. The critic continues:

Of course, not all the Jews will be able to take wing and go to their State; but the very existence of the Jewish State will raise the prestige of those who remain in exile…[T]he mere idea of it gives him almost complete relief. He has an opportunity for organized work, for political excitement… [H]e feels that thanks to this ideal he stands once more spiritually erect, and has regained human dignity, without overmuch trouble and without external aid. So he devotes himself to the ideal with all the ardor of which he is capable … [I]ts pursuit alone is sufficient to cure him of his moral sickness, which is the consciousness of inferiority; and the higher and more distant the ideal, the greater its power of exaltation.

This is not Mearsheimer and Walt discussing Adelson’s gift to AIPAC in 2007. It is actually Achad Haam, Zionism’s Emerson, explaining his antipathy to some of the people he met at the First Zionist Congress in 1897—Western Jews like Herzl who hijacked the word Zionism; who were drawn to the movement by its promise of political grandeur, but who refused to see the transformational nature of secular Hebrew culture, its democratic instincts, its grassroots idea of political responsibility. A couple of years ago, A.B. Yehoshua made something like this classically Zionist criticism of certain American Zionists. But how many newspapers does he own?