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Liberal U.S. Jews Couldn't Stand Adelson. Liberal Israelis Wanted to Replicate Him

Sheldon Adelson didn't intend on creating a profitable media operation; the tycoon's aim was to achieve political goals he cared about, no matter the cost

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

Jewish American liberals didn’t like Sheldon Adelson, and it’s easy to see why. The gambling tycoon who died on Tuesday was the single largest donor to Republican presidential candidates over the past decade, a fact that put him at odds with the vast majority of the American Jewish community.

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When more than 70 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama, he spent more than $100 million in a failed attempt to get rid of him. When most American Jews were horrified by Donald Trump’s presidency, Adelson reached deep into his pockets to try and secure four more years for Trump in the White House.

Left-wing and liberal Israelis, however, had a more complicated view of Adelson. For sure, there was anger over his outsized influence in Israeli politics. But there was also a sense of appreciation – and more than anything else, jealousy – over his willingness to do whatever it takes to promote his preferred policies. If only we had our own Adelson, opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would often lament, we could put an end to his corrupt rule and bring the country back to sanity.

Even Adelson’s most fervent critics will have to admit that on Israel, the man put his money where his mouth and his heart were. The newspaper he founded in 2007, Israel Hayom, dramatically changed the media landscape in the country, and has played a key role in keeping Netanyahu in power for more than a dozen years. Adelson was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve those two goals – that’s a lot of money, even for a billionaire of his magnitude.

Distributing the Adelson-funded free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, at a train station in the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel. November 19, 2015Credit: © Amir Cohen / Reuters

Netanyahu has complained over the years that the free paper, which earned the nickname “Bibiton” (a portmanteau of Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper), has much less influence on the public debate in Israel than other media outlets, which aren’t as favorable and loyal to the incumbent prime minister. “If only the Bibiton had half the influence of the anti-Bibiton,” he once told a group of journalists during a briefing in his office.

But Adelson didn’t seem to mind the fact that there were obvious ways to turn Israel Hayom into a better newspaper, and save lots of money along the way. During a decade when media owners all over the world were slashing resources, he acted like a crazed gambler in a Vegas casino and poured more and more money into the endeavor. He also bought a second Israeli newspaper, the more respectable conservative weekly Makor Rishon, and inquired about getting involved in other media outlets as well. The point wasn’t to create a profitable media operation like Rupert Murdoch’s empire; it was to achieve political goals that he cared about, no matter how much it would cost.

Adelson also donated generous sums to non-political entities in Israel, such as hospitals and synagogues. In that sense, he wasn’t very different than many liberal Zionist philanthropists who have made similar donations over the years. The amount of money he gave was often the largest sum, but the nature of the donations wasn’t unique. In some cases, he even cooperated with liberal-minded partners in joint projects such as supporting immigration to Israel or assisting lone soldiers – immigrant recruits who don’t have family in Israel – in the military.

The one arena where Adelson was completely unmatched was politics and media. Unlike major liberal Zionist donors, he didn’t think it was enough to donate to a peace movement, a think tank or an organization. Those bodies take donations from their supporters and use the money to try and gain media coverage that would advance their agenda. Adelson decided to cut out the middle man. He simply created his own media operation, built to advance his favored political agenda.

Israel Hayom is today the most widely-circulated newspaper in Israel, but at the same time, it’s still a newspaper that very large swaths of the Israeli public view with skepticism and suspicion because of the blatant and unmistakable loyalty it has shown toward Netanyahu. People read it when it’s distributed for free in the train stations, but they are also aware of the fact that it’s Netanyahu’s mouthpiece.

This means that despite Adelson’s great success, the damage he has caused to Israeli democracy through Israel Hayom isn’t irreversible. But it’s bound to continue for the immediate future, for one simple reason: The Israeli center-left has failed to find its own version of Sheldon Adelson.

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