After several years of writing about Sheldon Adelson from afar, I finally got the chance to sit face to face with the casino mogul for a wide-ranging interview Sunday at his suite at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.
Adelson, who was in town to be honored by the Zionist Organization of America, has become something of a mythical figure over the past couple of years in the Jewish philanthropic community — first because of the way he burst onto the scene in mid-2007.
After rising to the third spot on the Forbes 400 list, bolstered by the IPO of his Las Vegas Sands Corp. and a massive casino and resort project in Macao, China, Adelson started a foundation and began doling out huge amounts to Jewish causes — $25 million to Birthright Israel, another $25 million to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, then $4.5 million to the Shalem Center in Israel to start the Adelson Institute, followed by $60 million in pledges for future Birthright funding.
As he gave away more and more money, word on the street was that Adelson was planning to distribute more than $200 million per year through his foundation to Jewish and Israeli causes — that would have made it hands down the biggest Jewish foundation in the world. Adelson seemed at once brash — reports claimed that he had his sights set on overtaking Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the two men ahead of him on the Forbes list — and inaccessible to the media. And though some reviled him for making his fortune on casinos, and others for his staunch right-wing policies on domestic and Israeli issues, his money also was suddenly the most coveted in the Jewish world, and Adeslon’s name the hottest.
Then the economic crisis hit, the gaming industry collapsed and Adelson’s stock dropped from $144 at its high to around $1. With more rumors swirling that Las Vegas Sands might file for Chapter 11, it seemed that he had disappeared.
But after speaking Sunday with Adelson, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from his foundation. To be clear, the hoopla over the sudden arrival ofa new Jewish funding source may have produced unrealistic expectations for the foundation. At the same time, however, reports of Adelson’s and his foundation’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Here’s the slightly edited, slighty condensed transcript of the interview.
Fundermentalist: How did you become involved with the ZOA?
Adelson: I had known of it for quite some time. And I was on the executive committee of AIPAC, and Mort Klein was on the executive committee of AIPAC. I heard a lot of his suggestions on the committee. They were all advocacy without political correctness. He didn’t let the idea of political correctness get in the way of his advocacy.
People if they don’t like the content, they want to kill the messenger. I identified with him because I thought he was doing the right thing. And what the ZOA is doing — their history is to support the State of Israel. They are supporting Zionism and they are in touch with Capitol Hill, and they are in touch with other Washington insiders, and they are advocating for the State of Israel. And as Zionists they have a different view because it isn’t just a political thing for them, it is an ideological issue.
How has your stance on Israel evolved over the years?
I don’t understand the question. I have always been pro-Israel. I am very much on the right. Up until about 20 to 25 years ago I wasn’t very political. I didn’t care about politics. I didn’t have a deal with the government for any reason, any business reason, any social reason. I just wasn’t involved with the government — state, local or other. I just wasn’t. That’s it.
Then when I met my wife 21 years ago, and I became cemented more and more to the State of Israel. She is Israeli. Her children are Israeli, and we have all become one big family. I have gotten involved because I spent an awful lot of time there. I am a strong Zionist, and I do what it takes for the support of the State of Israel.
What is your strategy for supporting Israel? What is the goal for your involvement?
To do whatever it takes in the best interest of the Israeli people because as Israel goes, so goes the Jews in the Diaspora. If they are achieving success, and their welfare is good, then it reflects positively on the Jews in the Diaspora. And being a Jew, I want to connect when I can, one generation to the other.
Was there a single moment when that was solidified for you?
Your critics say that your involvement has been or could be detrimental to democracy in Israel. How do you answer those critics?
Who are you talking to? J Street?
What I am doing is detrimental to the State of Israel? I would like to know what they are doing that is positive for the State of Israel. What do they view as positive and negative?
Where do you stand with AIPAC these days?
I believe in AIPAC.
Do you still support AIPAC?
I certainly support their principles.
Do you support the organization philanthropically any longer?
I don’t know. I don’t recall what is on my philanthropic list.
We reported several years ago that you were thinking about breaking from them philanthropically [over the group’s support for* a U.S.**congressional letter requesting increased aid to the Palestinian Authority.]
I would rather not comment on that.
You were also close at one time with Ehud Olmert, but you broke with him over ideological differences (namely Olmert’s readiness to accept a two-state solution). Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly voiced support for a two-state solution.
What are you trying to figure out?
Do you still stand behind Netanyahu now that he has come out in favor of a two-state solution?
I am not against a two-state solution if it is on the right terms. But I don’t think the right terms will ever be achieved.
What are those terms that you feel are correct?
They will never recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state — and they will never sign a document declaring the end of the conflict and that there are no more claims to be made.
I am not negotiating the deal. But just ideologically I don’t believe there will ever be an agreement. And it is not Israel’s side. Every Israeli I know — left, right or center — everyone wants to make peace. There is no one that doesn’t want peace. But it is pretty obvious that it is the Palestinians that don’t want peace. Their charter says, “Destroy the State of Israel.” Their charter, the PLO’s charter, and the Hamas charter.
In Israel, your political involvement is well known …
What political involvement? I am not involved politically in Israel. Period. And everybody thinks I started the newspaper Israel HaYom purely to benefit Bibi. Nothing could be further from the truth. I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That’s all. It is not “Bibi-ton.” It is not a newspaper started for and operated for Bibi. And this is the propaganda of our competitors to say to their customers, “Don’t take Israel Hayom seriously because all it is is a promotion for Bibi. …”
All it is is just competitive propaganda. I am not involved politically whatsoever.
So why do you think people outside of the newspaper business have latched onto this idea?
Because they read it in Yediot and Ma’ariv. Because [Arnon] Mozes, the publisher of Yediot, is the most powerful man in the State of Israel and all he wants is to maintain his power, and he manipulates the government.
Do you think he plays into fears that Israelis might have of Americans’ involvement in Israel at a high level?
There are extremists everywhere. Resonating with some people doesn’t mean resonating with the vast majority that it reflects the mainstream of opinion. He tries to mold the opinion. It is his opinion that appears in his newspaper. He controls the intellectual thought and the current thinking — he doesn’t control intellectual thought — he controls current-events thinking. He treats the government of Israel right. He claims that he has had a deal with every prime minister — except Bibi. That is why they keep dumping on Bibi, because he couldn’t reconcile with Bibi to control him.
[At this point, Adelson’s wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, asks a reasonable question: Why all this talk about politics if the interview was supposed to be about philanthropy. I blamed it on my editors — and we quickly switched over to The Fundermentalist’s favorite topic.]
A couple of years ago when you started the foundation, there were numbers thrown out there like $200 million to go to Israeli and Jewish causes. What exactly was the goal back then when you were starting the foundation?
To take advantage, to use our capital to address and promote the welfare and the interest of the Jewish community in the States and everything pro-Israel. Of course, we give out hundreds of millions. But we never said we would give out hundreds of millions. That is just something somebody said.
Somebody once asked me how much do you think you will give this year? I said, “I don’t know. I’d like to give a couple, a few hundred million.” But that translated into a commitment of $250 million a year for the next million years, etc., etc.
You have to understand, journalists never get it right. I have been interviewed thousands of times, and only once or twice have I ever seen a journalist get it right.
So did you have a specific goal for what you wanted to give out?
No. I couldn’t make a goal because if I didn’t know what I wanted to give it out to, how could I know how much I was going to use?
What happened after these reports started to come out?
I don’t pay attention to it.
But what about in terms of people coming to you, asking you for money? Was that ramped up?
Of course it was ramped up.
Did you feel that there were unreasonable expectations?
No. I never rejected anything. I did set up a foundation. I got other people to evaluate and screen the requests, to see if it was something that we might like.
How many reports have you guys gone through?
Have you found any that appeal to you?
Sure. The most important one that we do is Birthright Israel. The study by Brandeis just came out to show that the rate of intermarriage here is 58 percent. Only 42 percent of the American Jews married within the Jewish religion. Today about 76 percent [of Birthright alumni who have tied the knot married] within the religion. … How much more can one contribute to Jewish continuity?
One of the things that interested me about that report was how it was used. The report came out and then two minutes later, you had Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman and others get up and say, “OK, we have this repor and now it is time for everyone else to fund this thing.” It suggests that the primary investors want to take a step back from the funding a little.
No. What happened was when we first came in at over $30 million a year, we wanted to clean up the entire wait list. And after the first year we cleaned up the wait list. But what happened was that more and more people went, so the word got around. The word became widespread, broader and broader.
So what are you looking for in an organization when it comes to philanthropic investment?
Whatever is good for the Jewish community and whatever is good for the State of Israel. We do a lot of things. I am not going to give you a list of all of the things we do. Another thing we do that is important for us is we take care of drug addicts. That is a labor of love for my wife.
What do you see going forward in terms of the foundation? Do you think it will ever get to $200 million a year?
We give more than $200 [million] a year.
What did you give this year?
I am not getting into that. We do medical research and it’s not specifically Jewish, but there are a lot of institutions in Israel, the Weizmann Institute, Technion, Tel HaShomer, Hadassah and others, Tel Aviv University. There are other medical research institutions in Israel that we support. We don’t give a lot of details, but we support 70 different institutions, medical research institutions, around the world, mostly in the U.S. and a lot in Israel. And we support over 200 scientists.
The perception is that over the last couple of years, as your wealth has decreased, the philanthropy has decreased as well. Is that accurate?
Have you seen the latest Forbes list?
I have seen the latest Forbes list, yes.
So where do I stand?
Still around the top 20.
Twenty-five. Nine billion dollars. My stock was down 99 percent at one point. Now we have moved up 10 or 12 times from the bottom. And I just raised $5 billion. So I expect my net worth to rise accordingly.
Has it been an accurate perception that the philanthropy has decreased over the past couple of years?
No. We have kept our commitments. We are not taking on any new ones during this financial crisis. We have decided that we will keep more of our powder dry. So we haven’t taken on any new ones, but we are extending our commitments. I just sent out four checks yesterday before I left my office.
Can I ask to whom?
No. Four different organizations. We are still giving away money.
At what point do you start to ramp up the philanthropy again? Do you have a personal number?
No. When the financial crisis is over, then we will. Right now you might say we are in a maintenance mode. We are maintaining our commitments. And we are maintaining our interest in the various organizations. It’s new ones that we are not taking on at this time.
Have you had a chance to become more intimately familiar with the broader nonprofit Jewish landscape over the past couple of years?
What is your assessment on one foot about what you have seen?
Well, everybody has a different priority, every person you talk to. One fellow I know has a priority for Jewish education in the United States.
Another fellow I know has a priority of summer camps for Jewish children. Another priority somebody has is Jewish community centers around the country. Everybody has their own favorite thing they do. Lately I have become somewhat more political, so political interests attract my attention. My wife and I took through AIPAC 146 congressmen and senators to Israel over the last 15 to 18 years. So we have done a lot and we continue to do a lot.
And in terms of Jewish continuity?
I don’t think there is any better program in my lifetime or since the State of Israel was founded than Birthright. I haven’t talked to a kid that came back that didn’t say the four words: “It changed my life.”
I’ve read that you have told your business associates why scratch like a chicken when you can roar like a lion. Is that your philosophy on philanthropy as well?
You might say that.
Are you only looking for huge, massive hits?
I could get stuck. You have no idea how many soup kitchens there are and how many religious needs there are. Things for the Friends of the IDF to friends of this or that.
We have so many things. We built a helicopter pilots training school at one of the air bases. We built a ready room at another air base in conjunction with other philanthropists. We built a large recreation room with a gym and everything at another air base. We are one of the biggest supporters of the Air Force Center in Herzliyah. The list goes on and on. And all of these things are good. But you know they don’t take large amounts of money.
One of the problems we have is that when we get involved with something, people say, “Well, if Adelson is involved, he’s got more money than anyone, he’s the richest Jew in the world, so why don’t you let him fund it?” That’s not really the way I think it should happen. I think if someone like me steps forward and provides some leadership in terms of giving, then I think other people should give, too.
But that sees to be the opposite of what happens.
That is the opposite of what happens. So now every gift we give we have to make sure it is matched.
How do you feel about federations? We are talking about a collective pot of money that is distributed through the community. I know you haven’t gotten along with the Las Vegas federation. But what about federations in general?
Federations in general are pretty good, but the politics. The one thing that bothers me in the Jewish community is politics. It’s so political. Some people pay more attention to the politics of the federation than the objective of the federation.
I am very friendly with Barry Shrage in Boston, who is considered the best executive in the United States federation movement. And if everyone could be like Barry, he has no political gain to be made. He just does his job.
In Las Vegas they put out a newspaper. There was already a newspaper in Las Vegas called the Israelite, and they put one out called the Reporter. They barely had enough money to do their job. They never have enough money to do their job fully, and they are losing money to publish a newspaper. What was that for? I wanted to build a Jewish community center and pay for it 100 percent. And the federation refused to let me do it.
How did that go down?
With me? Not very well.
What was their reasoning?
They had a piece of land that was designated for a Jewish community center. And I was affiliated with a school, the Hebrew Academy, and I wanted to build another school, which is now known as the Adelson Educational Campus. And I wanted to build a school and a JCC combined because a lot of the facilities and the time of their use overlapped.
We could do both things at once. We didn’t use the theater at night. We have a 361-seat theater that could be used by the JCC. They wanted a new JCC to be competing with the Hebrew Academy for preschool and lower grade school, and the JCC wanted to do that separately. So I said, “Listen, I don’t want you to compete with the Adelson Educational Institute. It’s bad enough that several synagogues compete with it. And everyone is trying to divide up a limited market. Why do it? I will pay for the JCC 100 percent. So give up your insistence upon building it.” And they didn’t want to give it up. … If there is no politics I am all in favor of the federations.
The Jewish Agency is an organization that critics say has had problems with politics, but now Natan Sharansky (the former Soviet dissident who served as the head of the Adelson Institute in Jerusalem) is serving as chairman. Does that make you think again about investing in that?
Are you going to do that?
Yes, when Natan does what we discussed. My objection to the Sachnut was that they were in other businesses, and until they rid themselves of other businesses I am not anxious to support the Jewish Agency because I don’t think that being in business is any of their business. So if they get out of the businesses, then no problem. I would support it.
That has been a serious concern for Bobby Goldberg and Charles Bronfman, and others as well. How closely do you talk with other major Jewish philanthropists out there?
I like talking to Steinhardt. He is a very nice guy. I like him a lot. I have talked to Bronfman. But a lot of the Jewish philanthropists and I have a different view, different political views. I am an unashamed Republican and they are reckless Democrats.
So you started a conservative paper in Israel?
I wanted to give an unbiased, untainted, fair and balanced view of what is happening in the news and the views. They are getting a biased, discriminatory view, a partial view of a single individual who has financial interests at heart, and [Arnon] Mozes will make a deal with anybody to advance his own personal financial agenda, so he controls everything. He was able to make or break any politician, and he uses that as a lever to get whatever he wants from the political sphere. Why is he always thumping on Bibi? Because he can’t control Bibi.
And he says you control Bibi.
I control Bibi? OK. Bibi and Sara and my wife and I and our children and their children are social friends. Period.
I have nothing to look for politically. I don’t want to open a casino in Israel, although I have been advocating for it for a long time. But it is not going to be worth it to develop a relatively small casino when I am working on big ones. Right now if someone would say, “You could have a casino in Israel tomorrow,” I would turn it down.
I don’t know about the future, and I don’t know about what my obligation to my company would be because 48 percent of the company is owned by outside shareholders, but my own opinion is no.
Israel needs casinos. But am I friends with Bibi so I can get a casino?
Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, unquestionably, irreversibly no.
My relationship with Bibi has absolutely zero to do with casinos. Zero. And I have no political aspirations in Israel, and I don’t want anything from the government.
What do you think about the idea that Jewish philanthropies shouldn’t take money from casinos, that casinos are a business built on vice?
Vice to what? If they don’t want to take it, don’t take it.
Have you ever found anyone say they won’t take it yet?
No. That is a lot of baloney. I don’t build just casinos. Do you know that casinos only take up 1 percent of the total amount of space I build.
Do you ever gamble?
Did you ever go to casinos before you got involved in the casino business?
I played just a little bit. I wasn’t what you would call a player
What was your game?
I don’t know. Blackjack, I suppose.
A couple of years ago you were saying that you wanted to overtake Warren Buffet and then Bill Gates on the Forbes list. Is that still a goal?
No, I never said that. That has always been a misquote.
What was the actual quote?
There was no quote.
So where did it come from?
Some reporter’s imagination. If someone asks me a question, “Would you liketo take over, would you like to move up? There are only two people ahead of you, would you like to best those?” I said, “Why not?”
I am very happy with what I got. And whether I take them over or not, that is not going to change my life. Somebody translated something like that to, “He commented he is going to take over Bill Gates.” That is ridiculous. That is utterly ridiculous.
We are very unpretentious people. We are not ostentations at all. We are very unpretentious. And these stories that have been written, like I want to take over Gates, that my newspaper is designed to help Bibi, these are just propaganda, competitive propaganda. It is gossip to say I don’t think I am rich enough at No. 3, that I want to be No. 1. I never had such desires. I just do what I do. That’s all…