Every age has its own narrative myth about those who acquire great wealth. In the 21st century, the prevailing story is that of the nerd who parlays technological genius into billions. The Big Tech oligarchs who make their way onto the Forbes’ billionaire list are envied and feared. But with but a few conspicuous exceptions, their posh lifestyles, liberal politics and donations to fashionable and politically correct charities generally protect them from the worst abuse that pop culture can inflict on the famous. The nerd billionaires may sometimes be mocked, but the chattering classes still laud them for funding the causes they support.
That was not the case with Sheldon Adelson. The casino magnate who died one year ago this week at the age of 87 was a throwback to the Horatio Alger “rags to riches’ tales of the 19th century. He will be remembered primarily not so much for how he made his money as the manner in which he gave so much of it away.
Even a year later, his name still resonates with his critics but also with those who understand just how much he meant to the cause of Israel and helping the Jewish people.
At the time, his death was greeted with a torrent of abuse from liberals—in both the United States and Israel—that would have otherwise been considered appropriate for the passing of a controversial politician. Along with his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, he gave more to Jewish causes than any other philanthropist in the first decades of the century. Indeed, his impact on the Jewish world in recent decades has been so great that it’s hard to measure because his philanthropic work and leadership were so ubiquitous.
Rather than being chiefly remembered for this, media reactions to his death paid more attention to the money he spent on aiding the campaigns of Republican candidates he saw as friends of Israel. He used the access he acquired with his wealth to lobby not just Congress, but also presidents and prime ministers with an unabashed zeal for bending them to his will on issues related to Israel’s security.
Unlike most billionaires, he eschewed fashionable and politically correct causes such as those associated with the environment and global warming. Indeed, Adelson had little interest in playing the role of a cool and fashionable member of the elite as did most of the other denizens of the Forbe’s list.
While he lavished donations on a host of medical institutions, he was most interested in funding Jewish life and Israel. Adelson was a traditional Zionist who believed in Jewish rights to the land and wanted those rights respected by its American ally. That means that in addition to many mainstream non-political Jewish causes, he also gave to those institutions associated with nationalist and right-wing Jews. Vilified by an Israeli media establishment that leaned as hard to the left as its American counterparts, he responded by founding a free newspaper—Israel Hayom—that not only broke the liberal monopoly in that field but became the most widely read in the country. In that same spirit, he was an early supporter of JNS.
For all this, he was hated in a way that partly parallels the obsession the right has with George Soros, the billionaire Jewish financier who has spent even more on politics than Adelson in order to advance left-wing causes, including those that are fervently opposed to Jewish interests and Israel.
Still, the position that Adelson occupied was unique. While his dedication to Jewish projects endorsed by a broad community consensus—like the Birthright Israel program that has sent hundreds of thousands of young American Jews on free trips to Israel—was unmatched by more centrist donors, long before his death he had become the symbol of conservative political donors who were determined to get their way, as well as the most prominent example of what Israel’s foes see as the sinister way the Jews have bought influence in Washington.
Lost amid the politics is something more basic. Unlike virtually any of his contemporaries, Adelson was willing to push himself into the corridors of power and speak up for his beliefs when others would have pulled back. He clearly saw himself as someone placed in a position granted by his good fortune in business to do something other than fitting in and playing along. In doing so, he may have earned criticism, but he also accomplished as much, if not more, for the Jews, whether grateful or not, than any of the other great philanthropists in his people’s history.
In addition to embodying the entrepreneurial spirit that had created so many other Jewish business success stories, Adelson also possessed the stereotypical mindset of the postwar American Jew whose ethnic-religious identity revolved around the memory of the Holocaust and support for Israel. Indeed, he was fond of recalling that on his first trip to Israel—something that had not occurred until after he had become wealthy—he wore his late father’s shoes, fulfilling a poor man’s unfulfilled dream of someday visiting the Holy Land.
It was Adelson’s 1991 marriage to his second wife, Miriam—an Israeli physician who specialized in treating victims of addiction—that focused him on Zionist activism and politics. From that point on, the Jewish state would become a consuming interest into which he would not merely pour wealth but do so in a manner that would substantially alter the course of both Israeli and American politics.
The list of Israeli and Jewish institutions and causes to which he contributed is voluminous. His largesse in the form of an estimated $140 million donation enabled the Birthright project to expand to the point where it became a near-universal right of passage for young Jews. He would also become one of the main funders of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and fund hospitals and schools throughout the country.
But Adelson wasn’t content to merely give to charities. An opponent of American pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions its people believed were dangerous to its security, he became one of the leading donors to Republican candidates as the GOP completed its transformation into a lock-step pro-Israel party.
Just as Adelelson’s contributions to philanthropic causes were on an epic scale with him giving hundreds of millions to various institutions, his involvement in politics was similarly grand. His donations to pro-Israel candidates and conservative Republicans were generous and strategic. Over time, that meant that he eventually rejected the approach of AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby has adhered to a rigorously bipartisan approach because of its goal to maintain support for the Jewish state among a broad cross-section of American officeholders. However, that meant maintaining support for liberal Democrats who would betray the interests of the pro-Israel community on issues such as support for the dangerous Iran nuclear deal.
Adelson believed in a more direct approach to politics. He backed those he considered faithful friends to the cause he cared about and would cut off those who didn’t. That eventually led him to eschew the AIPAC model and gave his backing to the more conservative-oriented Israel-American Council.
It was his willingness to back Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 when most major Republican donors wanted no part of him after he secured the GOP nomination that proved especially fateful. Adelson spent hundreds of millions on various candidates over the years, but no donation was more significant than his backing for Trump. His actions during the 2016 general election campaign may not have made the difference in Trump’s victory, though his support did win Adelson access, and he used it as he always had—to bluntly advocate for pro-Israel policies.
Trump’s tilt towards Israel happened for a variety of reasons, including the sentiments of the many Jews in his inner circle, the support of evangelicals and the 45th president’s hostility to the foreign-policy establishment. The importance of Adelson’s single-minded advocacy for the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as other moves that benefited Israel, should not be discounted. Though credit for it does not belong to him alone, it was in no small measure a tribute to his willingness to use his influence for what he—and most Israelis and pro-Israel American Jews—believed was the right thing to do. The fact that Adelson purchased the property that served as the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya at a price of $67 million—a record for the sale of a private residence in that country—so as to make it even more difficult for a future president to reverse Trump’s move speaks volumes about he spared no expense for anything that he considered to be in the best interest of the Jewish people.
Adelson’s spending on Republicans and settlement projects, such as the funding of a medical school at Ariel University, earned him the particular abuse of left-wing Jews and liberal pundits. In an era when most large-scale Jewish donors had adopted the mindset of most non-Orthodox Jews and were concentrating on liberal boutique causes rather than traditional Zionist ones, Adelson was the exception that proved decisive. If anti-Zionists and leftists reviled him at his death, then it was a sign of their resentment at the way he cherished the old paradigm of solidarity with Israel and its security that had largely gone out of fashion.
In that sense, Adelson’s legacy can’t entirely be measured in the number of dollars he funneled into Jewish causes or in the number of pro-Israel candidates he helped elect. At a time when Jewish institutions in the United States were imperiled by demographic change, he stepped in to fund programs like Birthright that could help keep a shrinking community alive. In politics, his devotion to the concept that Israel should be allowed to decide its own fate, rather than be dictated to by the United States paid off in measures that would essentially allow that concept to prevail at least while Trump was in office.
One year after his death, it’s worthwhile to recall Adelson’s example not just because of what he did, but because it points towards the need for other Jews with means to follow in his footsteps with respect to embracing their identity and unabashedly pursuing the interests of their people and the Jewish state.
Like the wealthy Jews who interceded for their communities in perilous times in the past, Adelson had the courage of his convictions. That made him unpopular with those who despised the conservatives he backed, the role money played in politics, the use of donations to promote Israel and even the impact of American philanthropy on Israeli society. Still, more than any other member of his generation, Sheldon Adelson was true to the obligations that Judaism places on both the uses of wealth and on the requirement for solidarity with other Jews. He wasn’t one of the more trendy billionaires, yet his efforts earned him an honored place alongside some of the most lauded leaders in the annals of Jewish history.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.