Sheldon Adelson, appearing wan and frail but in good spirits, had a simple message for an admiring audience of about 150 young Jewish professionals in Manhattan the other night:
“Do good and live a Jewish life,” said the controversial figure often referred to as a Las Vegas casino mogul, billionaire magnate and leading donor to Republican candidates.
All that may be true, but on this night he wore the mantle of “the world’s leading Jewish philanthropist,” as described by his devoted host, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who also called him “a full-out warrior [for Jewish causes] and one tough Jew.”
I had been invited to the event by Rabbi Boteach, whose World Values Network (WVN), promoting Judaism and Israel, is a recipient of major Adelson support. The evening’s program, with the rabbi moderating an informal discussion with Adelson, 82, and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, was primarily for the WVN young leadership division.
I was told in advance by the group’s public relations team that the event would be “on the record,” but as a member of the press I was not to ask any questions.
I came mostly out of curiosity to see and hear this controversial couple up close, especially because their encounters with the media are rare. I was also hoping for a chance to reconnect with Adelson. I’d had a brief brush with him almost five years ago that began when he called me out of the blue one Friday afternoon, angrily complaining about a Jewish Week article. It contained criticism from a leading Jewish Republican about Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who was an Adelson favorite and about to declare his candidacy for president in the 2012 election.
(The Adelsons, whose wealth, according to Forbes, is $31 billion, and who are dominant figures in the Super Pac era, subsequently pumped an estimated $15 million to $20 million into Gingrich’s ill-fated campaign.)
When I realized who was yelling at me on the phone, I started taking notes. Our free-wheeling conversation lasted 30 minutes, during which Adelson repeatedly defended Gingrich as a strong supporter of Israel, criticized The Jewish Week article as “biased and prejudiced,” and insisted that the Palestinian leadership was committed to destroying Israel.
“Can you make peace with people whose sole mission is to destroy you?” he asked, adding that Barack Obama was “the worst president” for Israel.
At first reluctant to let me publish those and other comments, Adelson agreed when I offered to check his quotes with him for accuracy before publication. When the interview appeared the next week (“Billionaire Adelson Defends Gingrich,” May 17, 2011), he called to tell me it was a fair story, a rare statement for someone highly wary and critical of the media.
I pressed my luck, asking for a chance to meet in person for a more in-depth interview. He said he rarely travels to New York. I said I’d be happy to come out to Las Vegas, where he is based. He said he’d think about it.
Over the next many months I emailed and called Adelson to follow up on my request. At various points I received calls from high-placed Jewish professionals telling me that Adelson had asked them whether I could be trusted as a journalist, and they said they told him yes.
Finally, I got the go-ahead that Adelson would agree to an interview. But then the trail went cold. My subsequent calls and notes went unanswered, and after awhile I gave up.
So sitting in the fourth row, on the aisle, at the WVN event was as close as I’d been to the elusive billionaire who, it should be noted, also backed Rabbi Boteach’s unsuccessful 2012 run for a congressional seat from New Jersey with $500,000. (In all, the Adelsons spent an estimated $92 million supporting losing Republican candidates that year.)
At present, there is much speculation about whom the couple favors in their effort to find a winning Republican presidential candidate in November, with support for Israel at the top of the Adelson’s priority list.
Four years ago, after keeping the Gingrich campaign funded long after the Georgian’s popular support had peaked, Adelson was criticized for hurting Mitt Romney’s chances that November, even though he ended up giving about $20 million to the Romney campaign.
This time, Adelson has held back his support, waiting to see who would emerge from the crowded pack of GOP hopefuls. Virtually every Republican presidential candidate made the trek to Las Vegas to meet Adelson to seek his support. There were reports he favored Marco Rubio, but now that the Florida senator is out of the race, the question is whether Adelson will back Donald Trump, who says he loves Israel but would be “neutral” in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“Why not?” Adelson said in response to that question put to him recently, but he did not elaborate.
I was curious to hear him discuss his political views at the WVN event, but Rabbi Boteach made a point of noting that he was avoiding the topic other than to assure the audience that Adelson would choose the candidate who is “best for Israel.”
Though known for his blunt and sometimes harsh style, Adelson seemed reflective on this night. He spoke in a soft voice of growing up poor in a Boston suburb, and of the profound impact the Holocaust had on him as a youth, hearing stories from his father, who recalled the oppression he endured growing up in Lithuania.
“Our job is to be stonemasons,” he told his young audience, “connecting Jews,” because without such efforts, “there won’t be any Jews in future generations except for the ultra-Orthodox.” He said that while he and his wife are not observant, they have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights with their two sons, 17 and 19, and encourage them “to live a Jewish life.”
Adelson focused on his concern for and commitment to Israel and his motivation in supporting Jewish causes. Among those he mentioned having recently received multimillion-dollar gifts were the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; the Friends of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces); the Israel American Council (IAC), a fast-growing organization of Israelis living in America; the Maccabee Task Force, combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) on campus; and Birthright Israel, with the Adelsons contributing $50 million a year to support free 10-day Israel trips for diaspora youth.
Adelson said he wanted to pay for five Iron Dome air defense systems for Israel, estimated at tens of millions of dollars each.
“If you are fortunate like we are,” Adelson explained, “what else are we going to do” with the funds he and his wife have?
“It should not be an obligation or responsibility but an honor to keep Judaism alive,” Adelson said several times. “You don’t have to be religious,” he added. “We cherish the customs and the traditions.”
He noted that his views, particularly on Israel, have been shaped largely by his wife of almost 25 years, an Israeli-born physician and expert on addiction. In a strong Israeli accent she spoke of her concern about “the lies and propaganda” that place Israel in a poor light, but asserted she trusts Israel to protect its people. “Deep in my heart I believe we will prevail,” she said.
Her husband, citing Newt Gingrich, said he still believes there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, a term he maintains is a myth by Yasir Arafat when he founded the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1964.
Adelson spoke of the couple’s effort to combat the BDS movement through what he called the “modern-day Maccabees on campus,” starting with anti-BDS programs now being funded through pro-Israel groups at eight U.S. colleges “to see what works.” He also cited the work and growth of the IAC, now with 10 U.S. branches and a database of 250,000 names. Founded four years ago to promote Jewish culture and identity for Israelis living here, the group now has a lobbying arm, Adelson said, fueling speculation that his motive is to promote his hawkish political views.
But Adelson took exception to the commonly held view that his three-year-old Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), distributed for free and now the most widely circulated daily in the country, is a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Netanyahu. “It’s not a Bibi newspaper, it’s so neutral,” he said, noting that he instituted an ombudsman and fact-checking department. He blamed critics on the left for trying to damage the paper’s credibility. “Just give me honest reporting,” he said. “I don’t care about the orientation.”
One of the key messages both Adelsons wanted to convey to their young audience was to speak up and speak the truth on Israel, asserting that the historical facts make the best case for Israel’s moral legitimacy.
At evening’s end, Adelson, who has a neurological disease impairing his legs, leaned heavily on a member of his entourage as he was escorted out; I was unable to get his attention. Rabbi Boteach later assured me he had put in a good word with Adelson about my quest for an interview.
Three questions I would want to ask him are:
n What message would it send pro-Israel supporters if you, who insists Palestinians are out to destroy the Jewish state, fund a candidate who has said he would be neutral on Israel-Palestinian talks?
n Can Jewish Republicans be comfortable in a party that has moved toward nativism and isolationism?
n How can an aggressive “Maccabee” approach on campus to promote Israel and combat BDS have a positive impact on Jewish students, the great majority of whom are politically progressive?
If I hear from him, I’ll keep you posted.