Any discussion of Sheldon Adelson’s dominant role in both American and Israeli politics must begin with a fundamental ackowledgement: Everything about it is legal and transparent. But that is what makes it even more troubling.
In just the past month, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have garnered headlines in the United States by donating a total of $10 million to the super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich in the roller coaster ride that passes for the Republican presidential primary campaign this election cycle. For the eighth richest man in America (according to Forbes magazine), the size of this donation may seem like chump change — especially because, to his credit, Adelson’s philanthropy has extended far and deeply into causes that don’t necessarily serve his stated, sometimes extreme conservative political beliefs.
But to the average American — even one so fortunate as to be able to pay Mitt Romney-level taxes — the sum is astounding. To Gingrich, it was a brilliantly timed lifeline, resuscitating a presidential quest that seemed all but over, with the potential now to shape this consequential contest all the way to November. Adelson owes his wealth to casinos; he is clearly a man willing to gamble audaciously. As such, he becomes the first dramatic illustration of the way the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in the Citizens United case has allowed one person unparalleled access to the roaring engine of political campaigning. Sadly, given the stakes of this presidential race, Adelson may not be the last.
We have another concern. In 2007, Adelson launched Yisrael Hayom, or Israel Today, a free daily newspaper that from its inaugural issue was one of the largest circulation papers in Israel, a country that devours news the way America once did. In just a few years, Hayom has soared to the top of the charts, with the largest readership of any print edition in Israel and a growing online audience in English here in the States.
“We are trying to give a fair and balanced view of the news,” Adelson recently told the Jewish Press. But Hayom is also unabashedly in the corner of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and everyone in Israel knows it. With its seemingly bottomless resources to hire top talent and a business model that asks nothing of readers other than that they pick it up, the newspaper can out-compete its rivals and distort the media market in one politicized direction.
This isn’t the first time a wealthy Israeli — or someone from the Diaspora, for that matter — has poured money into an Israeli media outlet. Nor is this the first time that a wealthy American Jew has openly supported presidential candidates and elected officials in both the United States and Israel, simultaneously.
The connection that Adelson is drawing is notable not for its existence, but for its order of magnitude. The Democrats that supported President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Shimon Peres did not have the kind of megaphone that Adelson has to exercise influence in Israel, and did not have a Supreme Court decision allowing them to pour enough money into campaigns at home to shape and even alter the national political narrative.
What’s happening now is quantitatively different than in the past, an outgrowth of the globalization of media and the borderlessness of wealth and power, allowing one fabulously rich individual the opportunity to influence government policy and public opinion at a scale far above anyone else’s. This isn’t some behind-the-scenes maneuver; it’s blatant, transparent, but nonetheless troubling. Would we be comfortable with an American media mogul operating in another, less friendly nation also influencing our presidential campaign? Would this be acceptable if the person wielding such bi-national power didn’t believe he had Israel’s best interests at heart?
There’s a sense that something is fundamentally distorting democratic ideals in both countries. How do the rest of us compete with Sheldon Adelson’s wealth?