Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish-American billionaire who used his wealth to dramatically influence politics in both Israel and the United States, died Monday night at the age of 87.
Adelson, who made his fortune from operating casinos around the world and was considered the political patron of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, died after a years long battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He is survived by his widow, Israeli-born Dr. Miriam Adelson, and four children.
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Over the past decades, Adelson gained significant influence in Israel and the United States, using his vast financial resources to alter the media landscape in the former and promote political candidates in the latter.
Both Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump considered him one of their most important supporters, and both were indebted to him for helping them win their political battles.
At the same time, his political spending was heavily criticized in both countries and became a symbol of how “big money” was conquering the political arena – especially in the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling of 2010, which made it easier for billionaires to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.
"Many among the Jewish people, the State of Israel and around the world, share in this heavy mourning" of "one of the greatest donors in history to the Jewish people, Zionism, settlements and the State of Israel," Netanyahu wrote in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon. He extended his condolences to the Adelson family and applauded Adelson's "great efforts to strengthen Israel's position in the United States and to strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora," which will be "remembered for generations."
"Sheldon lived the true American dream. His ingenuity, genius, and creativity earned him immense wealth, but his character and philanthropic generosity his great name," wrote U.S. President Donald Trump in an official statement released Tuesday, in which he too sent heartfelt condolences to the Adelson family and highlighted Adelson's contributions to the State of Israel. "The world has lost a great man. He will be missed," Trump added.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush sent heartfelt condolences in a statement on Tuesday in which he wrote that he and his wife Laura "mourn the passing of a friend." He described Adelson as an "American patriot," a "strong supporter of Israel" and a "generous benefactor of charitable causes, especially medical research and Jewish heritage education."
"No one will fill his shoes," tweeted outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Tuesday, writing that Adelson was "the greatest of Jewish philanthropists" and that while "blessed with vast wealth, he had exceptional humility and faith."
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"Sheldon was a true American patriot and a giant among men," tweeted Donald Trump, Jr., the eldest son of U.S. President Donald Trump, on Tuesday, adding that "The US-Israel relationship is stronger today because of him. My heart goes out to the Adelson family."
Born in Boston’s ‘Jewish ghetto’
Sheldon Gary Adelson was born on August 4, 1933, in the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, which he termed Boston’s “Jewish ghetto” and “the slums.” His Lithuanian-born father worked as a cabdriver and his Welsh-born mother was an expert knitter. “The whole family – my parents, two brothers, and my sister – lived in one bedroom,” he later recalled to the Jewish Press.
He entered the business world at just 12, borrowing money from his uncle to buy a newspaper corner in Boston. Starting in the 1950s, he created dozens of business ventures – including selling vending machines, which he claimed made him a millionaire by the age of 30.
Looking back on his formative business years, Adelson told Forbes magazine in February 2012: “Because doors were closed to me for a variety of reasons – my religion, my education, my economic status – I had to find a way to open the doors. I formed an opinion that if I did things differently than the way everybody did it, it would add value to every effort I made.”
Adelson’s greatest success would come in the 1980s and ’90s, when he focused his efforts on Las Vegas, becoming a key player in the world of expos and casinos. After buying the run-down Sands casino complex in 1989, within a decade he was one of the world’s most prominent gambling tycoons.
His Las Vegas Sands Company operated resorts from Vegas to Macau in China, helping turn Adelson into one of the richest people in the United States and among the 20 richest in the world, valued at nearly $36 billion as of 2018.
In Israel, he became famous for creating the daily newspaper Israel Hayom in 2007. The free daily was noted for an editorial line unequivocally supportive of Netanyahu, to the point that even right-wing allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett compared it to Pravda, the daily propaganda newspaper of the Soviet Union.
Over the years, Israel Hayom became the country’s most widely circulated newspaper. In 2017, the Supreme Court forced Netanyahu to release details of his phone communications with the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, revealing an irregular pattern of direct communication between the two, which highlighted why many in Israel consider Israel Hayom to be Netanyahu’s mouthpiece.
As of 2014, Adelson had poured some $200 million into Israel Hayom’s operations, which runs at a loss and has pushed down advertising revenues for much of Israel’s print media market – a result many regard as part of an indirect attempt to stifle outlets critical of Netanyahu. The paper was his third attempt at gaining a foothold in Israel’s media market, after famously failing to buy the daily Maariv in 2006 and, the same year, launching a short-lived free daily called simply Israel.
“The citizens of Israel have not received fair and balanced coverage,” he said about the launch of Israel Hayom, explaining that it was supposed to serve as an alternative to Yedioth Ahronoth, which was highly critical of Netanyahu. The free daily was launched when Netanyahu was head of Israel’s opposition and Ehud Olmert was prime minister, and it parroted Netanyahu’s line from the onset.
Netanyahu and Adelson first met when the former was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the ’80s. The two grew closer in the following decade and Adelson helped support Netanyahu’s successful 1996 bid for the premiership. The paper has been so key for Netanyahu that in late 2014, he disbanded the Knesset and sent Israel to an early election in an attempt to stop legislation that would have curtailed the newspaper’s circulation.
Adelson’s views on Israeli politics were considered to be on the far right of the political map. In 2014, he said during a panel discussion, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about a democracy,” and, therefore, if Israel stopped being a democracy, that would be fine: “Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state, so what?” (It was later claimed that Adelson’s remark was a joke.)
He also expressed support for using a nuclear bomb against the Islamic regime in Iran. That came back to haunt him when Iranian hackers targeted his U.S. casino empire in a revenge attack, reportedly inflicting $40 million damage to his business in 2014.
In American politics, Adelson was one of the Republican Party’s most prominent megadonors in recent election cycles. He donated approximately $100 million to Mitt Romney’s failed attempt to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012. In 2016, though he initially did not support Trump, he ended up pouring tens of millions of dollars into Trump’s presidential campaign, making him one of the most influential voices in the president’s orbit. This later allowed him to push Trump to take steps such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and withdrawing the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu had long railed against.
Adelson also invested tens of millions of dollars in the 2018 midterm elections, during which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives but retained their majority in the Senate.
It is not clear yet how his death will impact the Republican Party, or if his wife and children will continue making political donations on the same scale.
In addition to Israel Hayom, in 2015 Adelson also purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal – the largest newspaper in the city that had been his home in recent decades. He also donated large sums to Birthright, the 10-day program that brings young Jews on free organized trips in Israel; to Ariel University in the West Bank settlement city; and to medical charities, many run by his wife. Mirian Adelson is an addiction expert and was often said to be the driving force behind many of his positions on Israel.
For many years, Adelson also donated millions of dollars to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with the pro-Israel lobby naming its Washington headquarters after him. In the early 2000s, however, he stopped supporting the organization, reportedly because he considered AIPAC’s positions on the Palestinian issue too moderate. His focus later shifted to the Israeli-American Council, with the Adelsons donating $10 million to the nonprofit between 2015 and 2016.
In recent years, he made frequent visits to Israel and reportedly bought a $40 million penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv in November 2018. He also bought the official residence of the U.S. ambassador, in Herzliya Pituah, for a reported $70 million in the summer of 2020.
Back in 2012, Forbes asked Adelson if it was fair that rich people could bankroll politicians’ campaigns. “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” he replied. “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it. Because I know that guys like [George] Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades. … I have my own philosophy and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Ofer Aderet contributed background to this report