Sheldon Adelson - from Democrat to leading right wing donor

Tim Marshall examines the influence and importance of Sheldon Adelson, who has died at 87


Sheldon Adelson went from selling newspapers on a Boston street corner to confidante of Presidents and Prime Ministers and a major influence on government policy in two countries. The son of an immigrant Lithuanian cab driver, he began life in a one-room tenement but ended it one of the richest men in the world. “This could be a rags-to-riches story” he told Businessweek magazine “but my family was too poor to own rags."

For most of his life Adelson was a Democrat, attributing this to his upbringing in a poor immigrant family. But he broke with the Democrats in later life on the grounds that the Republicans were more supportive of one of the great passions of his life – the state of Israel. 

He also came to believe that Republican economic policies were better at delivering social justice and prosperity for the less well off. He remained liberal on various social issues but veered sharply to the right on others. His vehement support for Israel brought him enemies; he opposed a two state solution but his lifelong work for charity brought him many friends and admirers.

There is no question that his political activities influenced senior politicians in both America and Israel, but it is difficult to pin down specific examples. It is safe to say that Adelson’s abiding passions were Jewish philanthropy and deep love for Israel and that in the USA he will have based many of his decisions on who to support on their position over the Jewish state.

His vast wealth opened the doors to political influence via substantial donations but these were matched by huge sums given to American charities often via the Adelson Foundation which he ran with his wife Dr Miriam Adelson.  In Israel hundreds of millions of dollars were given to the research centre IDC Herzliya, Yad Vashem, the Maccabee Task Force, Birthright and many other causes.

Adelson may have made few public appearances or political statements but he did not try to hide his affiliations. In 2005 he and Dr Miriam each contributed $250,000 towards the second inauguration of George W. Bush. The President then took the Adelsons with him for the 2008 celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. In 2010 Adelson donated $1 million to support the Presidential bid of Newt Gingrich before switching to Mitt Romney in 2012 - who went on to lose to Barack Obama, who Adelson felt was a danger to Israel. At the time he told Forbes magazine that he opposed rich people attempting to influence elections but said “as long as it's doable I'm going to do it. Because I know that guys like Soros (George) have been doing it for years, if not decades. And they stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money. I have my own philosophy and I'm not ashamed of it."

By this time he was a ‘player’ in Israel and in 2007 had been instrumental in setting up the free newspaper Israel Hayom, which quickly became the country’s best-selling newspaper. He went on to control the main religious daily, Makor Rishon, and NRG, the news web site of the Maariv newspaper among other outlets. As in America, political doors swung open. 

Adelson counted Benjamin Netanyahu among his friends, although the two are said to have fallen out over the past couple of years due to the investigations against the Israeli Prime Minister. Critics said his control of so many media organisations sympathetic to Mr Netanyahu and the right were unhealthy for Israeli democracy, but supporters countered that his involvement balanced what was a mostly left of centre media environment.

The Israeli experience appears to have given him a taste for media ownership. In 2015 he bought the Las Vegas Review Journal for $140 million, a price considered lavish and leading to speculation that the deal was more about politics than profit. Several senior journalists resigned, including columnist John L. Smith who was ordered not write anything about the new owner.

With the 2016 Presidential election looming there was intense interest about who this multi billionaire would back this time around. He already knew Donald Trump, who also owned a resort in Las Vegas. It is thought he met all the potential front runners, including Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, before deciding Mr Trump was the right man to receive up to $100 million dollars for the campaign. It was no surprise the following year when the Las Vegas Review Journal endorsed Mr Trump for the Presidency, the only major American newspaper to do so.

After his victory, another $5 million was donated to President Trump’s inaugural committee – reportedly the largest single donation in US history. He went on to support the fund set up against the Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference into the election, poured millions more into the 2018 midterm elections, often unsuccessfully, and donated millions more into President Trump’s campaign for a second term.

The Trump presidency was where Adelson’s passions came to fruition. He was among the fiercest advocates for relocating the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and told the president he would even pay for the costs of moving. His opposition to a Palestinian state will also have been noted in the White House. 

It wasn’t all sweetness and light. He made his views known to the president after a delegation of Jewish Americans visited the Oval Office to talk with Mr Trump about the growing levels of antisemitism in America and elsewhere but felt they were not taken seriously.

Even in his last days he was still involved at the highest levels. Just two weeks ago it was Sheldon Adelson’s private jet which flew Jonathan Pollard to Israel, where the convicted Israeli spy had chosen to resettle. President Trump was influential in Pollard being released from parole restrictions; Mr Netanyahu was on the tarmac when he landed in Tel Aviv.

The tributes which poured in on Mr Adelman’s death reflect his life’s work. President George W. Bush said, “ Sheldon was a generous benefactor of charitable causes, especially medical research and Jewish heritage education,” . Donald Trump Jr tweeted: “Sheldon was a true American patriot and a giant among men...His philanthropic generosity changed countless lives…The US-Israel relationship is stronger today because of him”.

A statement from his wife attempted to sum up a long life and an incredible story -  “He was the proudest of Jews…  he saw in the state of Israel not only the realization of an historical promise to a unique and deserving people, but also a gift from the Almighty to all of humanity.”


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