Last month, twelve Democratic senators signed a letter from the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking the Trump administration “to do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” The letter was sent following a series of protests by Gazans that were met with overwhelming, deadly force by Israel, which has had Gaza under a punishing blockade for more than a decade.
The letter was not overly or unfairly critical of the actions of the Israeli government and army. But, coming from a Democratic caucus that has rarely challenged the Israeli government in any meaningful way, it was still a positive sign of a growing willingness by Democrats to buck the bipartisan consensus that the U.S. must “stand behind” everything the right-wing Israeli government does.
In response, Haim Saban, a billionaire media mogul and longtime “megadonor” to the Democratic Party, wrote a pissy email to each of those senators (sent to some of their personal addresses, probably just to make the point that he had their personal email addresses), listing, in syntax and tone typical of conservative chain emails, various reasons why Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and Gazans in particular, must never, ever be criticized. It doesn’t even address the actual issues and concerns laid out in the letter to Pompeo; it is merely a collection of braindead talking points.
Saban is trying to use his great influence, which he has purchased with millions and millions of dollars in donations, to get Democratic politicians to follow his orders. It is widely understood that this is what comes with being a megadonor. Lobbyists once tried to convince Saban to withhold donations from the party unless uber-hawk Jane Harman was made chairwoman of the House Intelligence Committee. More recently, his frankly bigoted tantrum over Rep. Keith Ellison’s campaign to lead the DNC—a campaign endorsed by stalwart Israel ally Sen. Chuck Schumer!—helped lead Democrats to shun Ellison and select the charmless Tom Perez instead.
Saban, in other words, is a guy who is used to getting his way when he talks to elected Democrats.
As the Israeli government has lurched further and further right-ward over the years, Saban has largely followed it—even as Netanyahu and his allies became effectively partisan Republicans, allegedly working to try to elect Mitt Romney in 2012 and colluding with the Trump team in 2016. Saban, as far as I can tell, has never publicly questioned—as many Jewish people and proud Zionists increasingly have—whether it is actually good for the existence and future of the state of Israel to be a racist kleptocracy engaged in permanent occupation, which anyone with sense can now see is the course they are headed on, as long as their primary benefactor, the United States, refuses to push them to change.
Meanwhile, Saban—the chairman of Univision Communications, the parent company of Gizmodo Media Group, the publisher of Splinter—has become a Fox News-watching crank, who seemingly only remains on Team Democrat because of the sunk cost fallacy.
Still, he remains concerned that Obama is not fully committed to Israel. At the Forum, he repeated something that he had been saying, heatedly, for months—that Obama’s first call, after his Inauguration, was to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told Saban that was not the case. Later, when asked where he had got the misinformation, Saban said, “I thought I had read this somewhere. One thing is for sure—he called Abu Mazen before he called the Israelis.” (In fact, the White House says the order of calls was Hosni Mubarak, the President of Egypt; Ehud Olmert, who was then the Prime Minister of Israel; and Abbas.)
Instead of scorning Saban, the Obama administration tried to win him back for the 2012 campaign, with some success. It was not worth it. Saban’s influence, and the influence of the handful of megadonors near his level, are what prevent Democrats from meeting, let alone leading, their large and growing progressive voter base.
Fealty to megadonors like Saban is one of the main causes of the current dismal state of the Democratic Party. Democrats are held hostage by their dependence on cultivating the support of super-rich individuals like him. The problem is not strictly that Haim Saban has mistaken supporting Israel’s rabidly right-wing government for being pro-Israel. It’s really not about Israel at all, except that that is his pet issue. It is equally galling that Tom Steyer thinks he has the right to determine the direction and messaging of the entire party because he’s footing the bill for a large chunk of the midterm campaigns. It is offensive that a handful of hedge fund and Silicon Valley billionaires led Democrats nationwide to abandon unionized teachers and the entire project of equitable and integrated public schools for all. The problem is that Haim Saban’s opinion weighs more than everyone else’s.
Saban is frequently quoted describing himself as a “one-issue guy,” with that issue being Israel. It’s not true. His other issue is amassing and hoarding more money than any person could ever possibly need. He is worth nearly $4 billion. He praised last year’s regressive Republican tax bill and joined the corporate farce of handing out one-time bonuses to employees to celebrate its passage. He stashed money offshore and has been investigated for tax avoidance schemes. “Campaign finance reform” is a fine idea, but the best policy to fix the problem of Haim Saban’s opinion being worth more than yours or mine is to make Haim Saban much less rich.
If Democrats don’t want to answer Haim Saban’s obnoxious emails anymore—if they won’t want to be scared of his threats—they need to take back power on the promise to tax his billions, and then do it.
CORRECTION, 3:11 P.M.: This post has been updated to reflect Haim Saban’s correct title.