Pressure From Adelson Foundation Foiled Birthright Move to Labor-controlled Ministry, Sources Say

According to coalition agreements, the Birthright Israel program, which brings tens of thousands of Jews to Israel a year, was supposed to become the Diaspora Ministry's responsibility

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
The late billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, at Ariel University in the West Bank, in 2019.
The late billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, at Ariel University in the West Bank, in 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Representatives of the family of the late billionaire Sheldon Adelson have successfully blocked a planned handover of Birthright – the program that brings tens of thousands of Jewish teens and young adults on free trips to Israel each year – to a ministry controlled by a left-wing party, political sources have confirmed to Haaretz.

The Adelson Family Foundation, set up by the late Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, is the single largest donor to Birthright Israel, the premier program for educational trips to Israel.

Under the coalition agreement signed earlier this year between the different factions of the new government, responsibility for Birthright was supposed to have moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which was handed over to veteran Labor Party member Nachman Shai.

Representatives of the Adelson family, the sources said, pressured Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to back out of the deal. Bennett is known to be close to the Adelsons, who have long been major financial supporters of the political right in Israel and the United States.

The family’s representatives urged Bennett and his aides to keep Birthright under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, citing stability. They warned that transferring responsibility for the program to the hands of a small and much less consequential ministry could harm its prestige.

The Adelson family’s representatives in Israel and the United States did not respond to several requests for comment. Neither did the Prime Minister’s Office or the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

The Adelson Family Foundation has donated close to half a billion dollars to Birthright since 2007, when they made their first contribution. Since the program’s founding in 1999, it has brought a total of 750,000 Jewish young adults to Israel on free 10-day trips. Private donors provide about two-thirds of the funding for Birthright each year, and the Israeli government supplies most of the remainder. The Adelson family’s annual contributions to the program have averaged between 30 and 40 million dollars a year.

The family became famous in Israel when it set up the daily newspaper Israel Hayom in 2007. The free daily was noted for an editorial line unequivocally supportive of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the point that even right-wing politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett compared it to Pravda, the daily propaganda newspaper of the Soviet Union.

Adelson, who made his fortune in the casino industry, died in January and was buried in Israel. In 2018, he and his wife were honored by the Birthright Israel Foundation as “Guardians of the Jewish Future.”

Birthright has often been criticized for not exposing its participants to Palestinian voices and for avoiding discussion of the less flattering sides of life in Israel. The family has consistently insisted that it does not intervene in the educational content of the programs or try to influence the politics of its participants in any way.

As part of the coalition agreement, Masa – a joint venture between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency – was also supposed to have moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Masa brings thousands of participants to Israel each year on long-term educational, volunteer and internship programs. This transfer, too, is being held up, due to opposition from the Jewish Agency and particularly from its new acting chairman, Yaakov Hagoel. Hagoel formerly served as head of World Likud.

A spokesman for Hagoel said that because Masa was “the most strategic platform” for bringing young Jews to Israel and strengthening their Jewish identity, the Prime Minister’s Office needed to maintain its “leading role” in the project. He added that discussions were underway to find a way of giving the Diaspora Affairs Ministry a larger role in Masa.

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