The right-wing crew assembled at Yeshiva University last night didn’t definitively answer the question that brought them there: “Will Jews Exist?” But what did emerge in spades was a ton of handwringing over Jewish assimilation, the “existential threat” Iran posed and Israel’s image on college campuses–along with Sheldon Adelson’s pronouncements that the Palestinians are not a people (see the video above).
The neoconservative columnist Bret Stephens, casino mogul Adelson and Yeshiva University president Richard Joel were brought to the stage by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his organization This World. A consensus emerged that the future wasn’t too bright for Jews: Iran could wipe out Israel, assimilation was killing off American Jewry and the Jewish state was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of young Americans. Joel came off as the moderate on the panel, though with the likes of Adelson and Stephens, that’s a low bar.
Where they differed was on what could be done to arrest the tide of destruction hurtling towards Jews–and whether Benjamin Netanyahu would strike Iran.
Boteach kicked off the conversation by evoking what he saw as a dire threat from Iran, a state developing a “nuclear weapon,” according to the celebrity rabbi. Both Stephens and Adelson responded with harsh criticisms of the Obama administration, with Stephens saying that Israel has walked into a trap by working to placate the U.S. over Iran instead of taking unilateral action. The Wall Street Journal writer said that those who favor diplomacy with Iran are “objectively fellow travelers with the most oppressive regime in the world today.” (With analysis like that, no wonder Boteach kept talking up the Wall Street Journal writer as a Pulitzer Prize winner.) The right-wing casino mogul admitted that he didn’t know the difference between a Shia and Sunni before launching into his own religious analysis of Islam that he said showed Iran would not to hesitate to wipe out the Jews.
Adelson was convinced that Netanyahu would strike Iran if that’s what the situation called for, while Stephens was skeptical.
The high-strung anxiety really got started when Boteach moved the panel discussion to the recent Pew survey on Jewish life, which showed growing levels of intermarriage and decreasing participation in liberal Jewish denominations. “We in the United States of America don’t seem to need a Rouhani bomb to devastate [the Jewish community.] We’re doing a very fine job of that ourselves,” said Boteach. He later told the audience that one factor leading to assimilation is that Jews are so accepted in society today, as opposed to when anti-Semitism forced Jews to assert a strong identity.
The Yeshiva University president suggested that the “problem of assimilation starts at home,” and said that Birthright trips–which Adelson funds–are an important way to get young Jews more attached to their religion and Israel. Boteach responded with more anxiety, and said that the solution was to bring Judaism to the mainstream rather than solely focusing on attracting Jews to organizations like Hillel, which Joel used to run. The rabbi, who has close ties to Cory Booker and Samantha Power, then turned to Adelson to say that he had the power to “shape” the future of the Jewish people–and asked him about what could be done to stop the downward slope Jewry was on.
The casino mogul took the conversation to Israel, a country the panelists–especially Stephens–said is critical to the maintenance of Jewish identity. “As long as there’s Israel, super-secular Jews like me have a locus of pride,” Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said.
Adelson thinks the answer is throwing more money at the problem of Israel’s worsening image. He said that the “cavalry” was coming in the form of a new “propaganda” organization he and his wife have funded, Rethink Israel (whose domain name was registered by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as reporter Eli Clifton pointed out). The website, meant to showcase America’s and Israel’s shared values, features information on how Israel has free wi-fi, gay pride rallies and a television show for dogs. The 80-year-old Adelson said the point is to make Israel “cool” again.
But Boteach and Stephens were more worried about Israel’s critics winning the battle at U.S. universities. Stephens said that there was “Jewish guilt” over the situation for Palestinians and that Jews were among the most articulate critics of Israel. But he said that Israel’s “enemies” on college campuses like Columbia could not be won over, and that Israel should focus on a country like China to win new allies, relaying a story about how a Chinese person told him how Jews were the smartest people in the world. Boteach sharply disagreed. The rabbi said that advocates for Israel needed to fight on campus against a growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement because society’s movers and shakers come out of elite colleges.
Boteach also wrung his hands about Israel’s “brain drain.” But when it came down to the one thing Israel could do that would improve its image–reaching a deal with the Palestinians–the panelists rejected the idea. Stephens said that the Gaza withdrawal showed that a Palestinian state would be disastrous for Israel and said that there shouldn’t be a two-state solution until the Palestinians adopt liberal values. Adelson took the opportunity to go on a rant about how the Palestinians are not a people and that they’re really “southern Syrians.” He was greeted with applause. And the president of Yeshiva University said that Adelson and Stephens made “cogent” comments.
By the end of the night, the conversation circled back to Iran. Before everyone left, a Yeshiva University professor closed out the panel by listing 15 reasons why Iran is a threat to Western civilization. As for the question, “Will Jews Exist?” it seems they thought the answer is maybe not–unless Adelson’s money can turn the tide.
Editor’s note: Watch video from the same panel where Sheldon Adelson called for firing an atomic weapon aimed at Iran.