When a storm wreaked havoc on East Coast air travel last winter, among the thousands of travelers stranded were several dozen Israeli-American teens from Washington and Philadelphia. But these youths, who were en route to the annual meeting of the Tzofim, the Israeli scouts, were luckier than the many others forced to mill about air terminals.
Soon after their flight was canceled, a private executive jet landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to take them directly to their destination in Los Angeles. For most of the excited teens it was their first trip on a private jet. Some told their parents it was the highlight of their winter camp. All they were asked in return was not to take any photos.
The private jet’s owner was billionaire Sheldon Adelson. And it was an act that mirrored, in its small way, the broader goal of Adelson’s philanthropy and high-profile political giving, of which Tzofim is just a part: to be not just supportive, but also transformative.
Thanks to this approach, Adelson now plays a role unlike that of any Jewish philanthropist before him. “The Adelsons tend to go narrow and deep,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Foundation and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. The philanthropic couple, he explained, identifies specific causes near to their hearts, rather than giving to broader-based communal organizations. “They tend to choose a couple of things and go very, very big.”
For many Americans, the name Adelson is synonymous with outsized political donations and the opening of corporate floodgates to back candidates following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. The Las Vegas-based casino mogul is also known as a prominent backer of often hawkish pro-Israel organizations. But less noisily, he has also established himself as one of the leading donors to purely charitable Jewish and non-Jewish groups, ranging from schools, to elder care, to medical research.
Ranked as the ninth largest donors in America in 2013, Adelson and his Israeli-American wife, Miriam Adelson, split their giving between Jewish and pro-Israel causes, which are funneled mostly through their family foundation, and medical programs funded by the Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.
As with the teens on their way to California, in many of these cases Adelson is not just one among a number of large donors — he’s the donor who changes the destiny of the organization. The growing significance of his giving and, in some cases, of his private investments, has made him into something new in Jewish life: a man with an empire of his own.
“Sheldon is an example of the new kind of philanthropy that is emerging,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation who, as head of a significant fund himself, follows trends in Jewish philanthropy. “It will benefit the community, but the community won’t necessarily have a say.”
In Ruderman’s view, Adelson embodies the new reality of Jewish philanthropy in a gilded age where more and more depends on the wealthiest few. It is a type of charitable and political giving driven by the donor’s agenda, not by communal consensus.
According to the most recent records available, Adelson’s philanthropic and pro-Israel contributions in 2012 amounted to about $44 million. Since its founding in 2007, the family foundation has given out $191 million. This sum does not include gifts given in 2013, and excludes all political donations. It also excludes the huge sums Adelson is sinking into several for-profit ventures with political ramifications, such as Israel Hayom, Israel’s largest newspaper.
A close look at his giving offers two contrasting views of the Vegas billionaire: One is of a political-minded player willing to spend whatever amount it takes to promote his goals and ideology; the other is that of a generous communal funder who provides huge donations to purely charitable enterprises, such as schools and elder care programs, and seeks no influence in return.
On November 7, Adelson’s latest philanthropic investment will take on a newly prominent profile with its first-ever national conference, in Washington. The Israeli American Council was, until several years ago, a sleepy Los Angeles-based group of Israeli expatriates. Thanks to the support it has received from Adelson and his wife, it has been transformed into an increasingly visible domestic presence in support of Israel.
Their donation of an estimated $2.5 million this year has eclipsed the gifts of the group’s previous main funder, Haim Saban, which reached a peak of $400,000 in 2011. The IAC’s Washington conference is intended to broadcast its emergence as a rapidly expanding national organization.
In recent years, the Adelson Family Foundation has supported dozens of Jewish organizations by making seven-figure donations. Such organizations include the Jewish federations of Las Vegas, where Adelson currently resides, and of Boston, where he was raised. Major gifts have also gone to the Newton, Massachusetts, Gateways organization, which helps children with special needs gain Jewish education, and to Hebrew SeniorLife, an innovative elder care organization in Boston.
In 2012, the Adelsons’ medical research fund awarded more than $22 million in grants to advance the development of cures for disabling and life threatening illnesses. Here too, the Adelsons give big, with six and seven figure donations. They also combine this with their passion for Israel in some cases by providing grants to Israeli research institutions, such as the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University.
The donations stand out mainly because of their transformative size. They include a $50 million gift to construct a Jewish day school in Las Vegas; large donations to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, and, most notably, the annual $30 million-plus gift Adelson gives to Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Jewish community’s flagship program for sending Jewish young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel that aim to bind them to the Jewish state.
Adelson was a latecomer to Birthright. The program was initiated and funded by mega-donors Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Until Adelson entered the stage, the two men were considered the top Jewish philanthropists, alongside the Schusterman and Mandel families.
Adelson, true to form, joined Birthright in 2007 with a massive cash infusion that eliminated in one fell swoop the program’s waiting list. His unprecedented annual largesse also ensured its sustainability despite a decrease in funding from the Israeli government.
“His donation allowed the participation of many more, but I am not aware of any attempt on his behalf to influence the content of Birthright trips,” said Theodore Sasson, senior research scientist at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
This does not suggest, however, that Adelson refrains from using his wealth to advance his ideology — a mixture of support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sympathy for the settler movement and hostility toward the Palestinian Authority.
Adelson has devoted large sums to supporting a cadre of hawkish pro-Israel scholars who provide intellectual backing for Netanyahu’s policies. Key to this effort is his support for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative think tank headed by Dore Gold, adviser to Netanyahu and former Israeli ambassador the United Nations. Funding to the group is given through Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Community Studies, which Gold also heads. Adelson’s $1 million gift last year represented nearly two-thirds of the think tank’s budget.
In 2007, Adelson gave $4.5 million to establish an institute for strategic affairs carrying his name at the Shalem Center, another Israeli research center known for its hawkish positions and its closeness to Netanyahu. Adelson also recently announced a $25 million contribution to Ariel University, the only Israeli higher education institution in the occupied West Bank.
Another $1 million went last year to the Friends of Israel Initiative, an international pro-Israel platform headed by Spain’s former prime minister José Maria Aznar. Aznar’s group also counts among its leaders former Bush administration U.N. ambassador John Bolton and former Democratic New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Adelson’s gift tripled the group’s budget within one year.
Adelson also supported The Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors Arab media, though his donation of $250,000 in 2012 made up less than 5% of the group’s annual income.
In recent years, the 81-year-old Jewish philanthropist, whose $32 billion in net worth has made him the 12th richest man in America, has shifted his support away from mainstream pro-Israel groups. In the past, Adelson was one of the top donors to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the large Washington-based Israel lobby. But in 2007, when AIPAC, following Israel’s lead, expressed support for increased aid to the P.A., Adelson cut his ties to the group.
He now backs much smaller groups to AIPAC’s right. Among these organizations are the Zionist Organization of America, which does not support a two-state solution; the Endowment for Middle East Truth, whose board is made up of neoconservative former American officials, and Christians United for Israel, an evangelical grassroots organization that has voiced support for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“Adelson believes in the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria and so do we,” said Morton Klein, ZOA’s national president, referring to the territories by their biblical names. “AIPAC has never supported the right of Jews to live there.”
Adelson’s ties with Netanyahu run deep.
In September, Adelson was seated in the front row for Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Nevertheless, Adelson made the limits to his support for even Netanyahu clear afterward. “He shouldn’t have talked so much about the peace process,” Adelson said. Then he moved on to dine with Netanyahu at a midtown New York restaurant, drawing media attention in both the United States and Israel.
The most important manifestation of Adelson’s support for Netanyahu is his investment in the daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which is seen widely as strongly supportive of the prime minister. The paper was launched in 2007 with money from Adelson, and it stays afloat, even now, as Israel’s largest circulation daily, thanks to his cash. According to court documents filed in Israel, Adelson is losing nearly $33 million a year on the paper. He nevertheless intends to soon launch a news website that aims to be the largest in the country.
In the United States, alongside his purely charitable giving, Adelson devotes much of his money to supporting the Republican Party. In 2012, he gave the party $93 million through super political action committees, making him the party’s top donor.
He has made a point of channeling some of his political money into the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group of Jewish activists devoted to supporting the GOP. The RJC saw a significant leap in its funding during the 2012 election cycle. Though the group is not required to disclose its donors, estimates are that the lion’s share of the $6.5 million it put into advertisements and campaigns in the previous election cycle came from Adelson.
His support also made the RJC’s annual meeting last March a required destination for Republican candidates vying for the backing of the party’s most generous donor. Hosted by Adelson at his Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, the RJC meeting attracted nearly every person then seen as a possible presidential candidate, leading some in the media to describe it as the “Adelson primary.”
With the midterm congressional elections approaching, Republican activists are once again courting Adelson. His role in 2014 is nowhere near as crucial the part he played in the 2012 presidential election, but it remains significant enough to place him among the top funders of GOP candidates. Recently, Adelson wrote a $5 million check to a Republican super PAC and has reportedly given much more to funds that do not disclose their donors.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @nathanguttman