Sheldon Adelson — the billionaire casino magnate, philanthropist, and Republican mega-donor –– fractured his relationships with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in the final months of his life. His death from complications related to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was announced on Tuesday morning.
The 87-year-old Boston native and son of immigrants became synonymous with Jewish philanthropy over the course of his career, helping bankroll Jewish nonprofits across the globe. In his later years, he became particularly well-known for his contributions to Republican politicians – including President Trump’s 2016 election effort.
Adelson was also a close supporter of Israeli causes and last month, it was Adelson’s own private jet which was used to take Jonathan Pollard, a convicted Israeli spy who had become something of a Jewish folk hero, to Israel where he was resettling with his wife.
In 2008, Adelson launched a free daily newspaper called Israel Hayom to benefit Benjamin Netanyahu who was, at the time, Israel’s opposition leader plotting his comeback for a second term. The publication later earned the nickname “Bibiton,” a combination of Netanyahu’s name and the word for newspaper in Hebrew, because it helped Netanyahu solidify his grip on the Israeli right-wing camp with a powerful megaphone. In 2014, Adelson went on to purchase Israeli news outlets Makor Rishon and Ma’ariv. Miriam Adelson became the publisher of Israel Hayom in 2018.
The relationship between the Adelsons and Netanyahu soured in recent years after they became witnesses in the corruption trial, known as Case 2000. The couple testified that Netanyahu offered to use his power as prime minister and his relationship with Adelson to limit the distribution and business activities of Israel Hayom in exchange for favorable coverage in the popular newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
In recent years, Israel Hayom limited its exclusive promotion of Netanyahu and broadened it to cover some of his right-wing rivals, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. Adelson reportedly engaged in a shouting match with Sara Netanyahu during a private dinner at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem after she complained about the lack of positive coverage in his newspaper. “I lose 40-50 million dollars a year… We regularly write in your favor and you keep shouting at me,” the mogul told Mrs. Netanyahu.
Israel Hayom also served as a mouthpiece for President Donald Trump. Its editor-in-chief Boaz Bismuth — who was an Adelson confidante and had frequent access to the Oval Office — drove positive coverage for Trump amid the chaos and controversies during his term. During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Adelson signaled he was fine supporting Trump as the Republican nominee. “Trump is a businessman. I am a businessman. He employs a lot of people. I employed 50,000 people. Why not?” he said at the time. In addition to his contributions to the campaign, Adelson donated $5 million to the Trump inaugural committee, which earned him a VIP seat on the dais at the inauguration ceremony.
Adelson was one of the driving forces behind the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and even offered to pay part of the expenses to speed up the move. Adelson recently purchased the ambassador’s official residence in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya as the State Department looks for a new location in Jerusalem.
The Adelsons spent some $215 million in the 2020 election cycle in support of Trump and Republican candidates, and they served as co-chairs of Trump’s Jewish outreach group, Jewish Voices for Trump. But the president didn’t seem to always appreciate Adelson’s contributions. Trump reportedly scolded Adelson in a phone call in early August for not spending enough on his reelection.
A life of charity and political activism remembered
Adelson’s life and legacy was eulogized by several political figures in both Israel and the U.S.
“He was a wonderful friend to us personally and an incredible champion of the Jewish people, the Jewish state and the alliance between Israel and America,” Netanyahu said. “With his wife Miri he contributed endlessly to strengthening the Jewish people and the Jewish state, funding breakthroughs in medicine and science and advancing higher education. He gave anonymously to help victims of terror and countless other people in need.”
President Trump issued a statement on Adelson’s passing, which referenced the philanthropist’s efforts in the Middle East. “Sheldon was also a staunch supporter of our great ally the State of Israel,” Trump wrote. “He tirelessly advocated for the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors.”
“Sheldon was a generous benefactor of charitable causes, especially medical research and Jewish heritage education,” former President George W. Bush said in a statement Tuesday morning.
“Sheldon was a true American patriot and a giant among men. He treated his employees like family. His philanthropic generosity changed countless lives,” said the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter. “The US-Israel relationship is stronger today because of him. My heart goes out to the Adelson family.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, whose first trip to Israel was with Adelson, remarked on the news of his passing. “The best way to describe the life of Sheldon Adelson is in a single word: wow.”
Yair Lapid, the Israeli opposition leader who had repeatedly run against Netanyahu, highlighted Adelson’s support for Israeli institutions.
“His involvement and contribution to Yad Vashem, the Taglit project and many other projects that have strengthened the heritage of the Jewish people will accompany us for many years to come,” Lapid said in a Hebrew Tweet.
Last March, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Adelson procured approximately two million face masks — produced in China at his expense — to counter the shortage of the much-needed protective gear at hospitals across the U.S. About 250,000 masks were distributed to health workers by the Trump administration through a public-private partnership called Project Airbridge.
Adelson is survived by his wife, five children, and many grandchildren. A funeral will be held in Israel, the birthplace of Dr. Miriam Adelson, with plans for a memorial service held in Las Vegas to be announced at a later date.
“The loss is colossal.” Miriam said in a statement. “Farewell, my darling, my one true love. After gaining and giving so much, you have earned this rest.”
Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email firstname.lastname@example.org.