Under any other circumstances, news that one of the highest honors bestowed by the president of the United States was being given to an Israeli-American physician, scientist and philanthropist would trigger unbridled celebration, both in Israel and among American Jews.
But the announcement that President Donald Trump is presenting Miriam Adelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom was instead greeted across the board by a mixture of surprise, disbelief, disgust and outright mockery.
Certainly, there is a fair argument for raising a skeptical eyebrow – or two – at Trump’s choice. It is nearly impossible to attribute his decision to anything other than the hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured into the coffers of Republican politicians – in some cases directly to Trump himself – from the fortune of her husband, billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson were easily the highest donors to midterm election campaigns, giving an estimated $113 million to the GOP effort.
The Washington Post headline made no bones about the transactional relationship between the honor and the donations: "Miriam Adelson gave the GOP Millions. Trump is giving her the Medal of Freedom."
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The Adelsons are not just big donors. They are on intimately friendly terms with the president, mainstays of the Trump inner circle, and were among the group enjoying mini-hot dogs, burgers and pizza in the White House on Election Night as the results rolled in on television – most likely on Fox News.
Ridicule following the award's announcement was inevitable, particularly given that the list of honorees is such a bizarre grab-bag of names. It includes three posthumous honorees and three who made their names as sports heroes. Adelson’s fellow medal winners include Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth and quarterback Roger Staubach.
Still, while the honor for "especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors" is generally associated with heroes or public servants like Helen Keller, Mother Teresa and John F. Kennedy, Trump’s choices are not utter anomalies.
The Medal of Freedom has previously been given to entertainers and sports figures. President Barack Obama, in particular, bestowed the medal on a substantial number of celebrities – several of whom were reliable Democratic Party supporters and donors such as Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand. Still, in such cases, political support appeared to play a secondary, not primary, role in their selection.
The idea that Adelson is the single woman on the list – the only female Trump could think of, living or dead, who deserved to be recognized for their contribution to the country – adds an extra dose of outrage.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, tweeted that the award was being given to someone “who has done nothing for her country besides being the wife of a Trump-friendly megadonor.”
In this, Krugman is off base. Women can also bristle at such criticism which portrays Miriam Adelson as a mere stand-in for, or accessory to, her husband.
Whether or not Miriam Adelson’s personal accomplishments merit such a high honor is certainly debatable. At the same time, she is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Her donations to charity and politics, as half of a powerful couple, are motivated by a strong conviction that she is making the United States and the world a better place. And while she plays a minor role in the casinos and hotels that produce the family billions, by all accounts she is not only equal but often dominant when it comes to her husband’s donations, both political and philanthropic.
A 2012 profile in Fortune noted that Miriam Adelson was “no less accomplished – or powerful – than her larger-than-life spouse.” The couple, the article noted, doesn’t spend even a day apart. Miriam Adelson told the interviewer that they “share the same vision and beliefs,” and “are in full agreement on the causes we support, whether they are helpless people, drug addicts or young people looking for roots in Israel. We don’t have arguments, or long discussions.”
As Dr. Miriam Ochshorn (her maiden name was Farbstein), she worked as a scientist specializing in drug addiction. She was an early proponent of the idea that addiction was a disease, not a life choice. When she met Adelson on a blind date while living in New York, she was a divorced Israeli physician working at Rockefeller University on a research exchange program. Soon after she wed Adelson in 1991, she put her newfound fortune to work for her chosen field, founding a substance abuse center and research clinic at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, followed by the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Research Clinic in Las Vegas.
Adelson said in the Fortune interview that she far preferred wearing her lab coat to designer suits, adding that she valued money as a means to an end – particularly when it came to addiction treatment and research. “Saving a drug addict is the equivalent of saving about 20 people. Treating one drug addict reduces his criminal activity, reduces his arrests, reduces his appearances in court, reduces his time sitting in prison, reduces his injecting drugs, reduces him being infected with HIV & Hepatitis C while sharing needles, and reduces his infecting others if he is already infected. It also improves his general medical condition, improves his behavior at home and in the environment, improves his work habits, and has a positive impact on his family by having a normal person around them. By treating one person, we can save many lives, and a mission like that is very much fulfilling.”
Democrats, of course, would be quick to point out that the GOP candidates backed by Adelson advocate health care policies that make drug addiction treatment less affordable and accessible – and that, conveniently, her work with addiction does not include gambling addictions, which are encouraged by the practices of the casinos from which her husband makes his fortune.
And then there’s Israel. Before meeting and marrying his wife, Sheldon Adelson's views on Israel were that of a typical American Jew, with strong ties to his heritage but few signs of the strong connection to the Jewish state that the couple’s activities reflect today. It is highly unlikely that a Miriam-free Sheldon Adelson would have made such massive, multimillion investments in causes like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center, Birthright Israel, Friends of the IDF, and numerous schools and centers for senior citizens. And without her, it is also unlikely he would be so deeply involved with Israeli politics and politicians, epitomized by his founding of the Israel Hayom newspaper, of which Miriam is publisher.
It is Miriam – not Sheldon – Adelson's background that contributes to Israel being at the top of their priority list when it comes to choosing which politicians to support. Born in British Mandatory Palestine in 1946 to a family that fled the Holocaust, she served in the Israeli army.
In a 2008 deep dive into Adelson in The New Yorker magazine, as his dominance of the business and political realms was first becoming clear, journalist Connie Bruck wrote that according to those people who know Adelson well, Miriam shifted his political views on Israel substantially to the right. Recently, the couple's support for Israel went as far as to provide financial “bonuses” in the form of extra campaign support for House members who opposed the Iran nuclear deal.
And it is Miriam who is deeply invested in Trump, praising him effusively on the day of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in May: “I am euphoric today – as an Israeli, as an American, as a human being who wants a better world. I feel privileged to be a witness to the bold leadership evinced by President Trump. Thank you, Mr. President. You have done the right thing. You have worked miracles.”
There are those who say the decision to single out Adelson is done with an eye to the 2020 campaign. The critics may be right: The choice of Miriam is undeniably more a gesture of self-interest than one driven by genuine admiration for her accomplishments. But the decision cannot be seen as one directed only at her husband. Sheldon Adelson is a chronically ill 85-year-old who uses an electric scooter to move (he suffers from peripheral neuropathy). Considering that Miriam Adelson is a robust and determined woman of 72, in whose hands the couple’s fortune will remain when he is gone, granting her a Medal of Freedom is a wise investment in the future by Trump.