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EXCLUSIVE! JR lunches with the Adelsons

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The world’s top Jewish philanthropic duo Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the biggest donors to the 2012 US Republican presidential election campaign and a famously media-shy couple, spoke freely over a private lunch with SA Jewish Report editor Vanessa Valkin. Read about their views on South African and world Jewry, Israel, BDS, Birthright Israel (which they fund) and so much more…
by VANESSA VALKIN | Dec 09, 2015

Sheldon & Miriam Adelson - enablers of dreams

Last week Thursday, every single contender for the 2016 US Republican presidential nomination was in Washington DC at a forum held by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).

Apart from the upcoming presidential debates, this is the best-attended forum for GOP (Republican party) candidates for the singular reason that Sheldon Adelson, the biggest donor to the 2012 presidential election, is a key board member of the RJC and is the person to win favour with.

Adelsons1However, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were not in Washington - they were in Cape Town to attend the biennial meeting of the Keren Hayesod International Leadership Reunion, a gathering of Keren Hayesod's top donors throughout the world.

“Jewish philanthropists in this country must use their resources to be proactive”

About 30 private jets (including Adelson’s) descended on Cape Town for the event, which included three days of meetings and discussion, where Eric and Sheila Samson were the official hosts.   

When I was granted an interview with this couple, I was told he and Miriam were only prepared to discuss the Birthright Israel programme (a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish youth from around the world) for which the pair now provide about $40 to $50 million a year.

The reluctance, as he later told me over lunch, was that the media and consequently the public, often misinterpret or misrepresent his actions.

However, I came to our meeting, not with a barrage of tough questions, but rather, with an immense admiration and with some requests for ideas and advice. After all, the Adelsons, are probably the largest donors to Israel and Jewish-related causes in the world (hundreds of millions of dollars every year) and, more than any other philanthropists in the world, were deeply concerned about anti-Semitism, the global movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and wider anti-Israel sentiment.

Relevant to what South African Jewry are dealing with: countering the BDS-SA movement and a local press with hostile views on Israel – there was plenty to ask about.

AdelsonsJust this year, Adelson hosted a Campus Maccabees Summit at his Las Vegas hotel, the Venetian, which is considered the most significant initiative in the United States to date to combat BDS on college campuses.

“BDS is a sham and a false narrative, and they make untruthful statements about apartheid in Israel”

He gathered a group of deep-pocketed, pro-Israel donors who are pledging millions of dollars to build campus activism against anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.

He also created his own newspaper in Israel called Israel Hayom which, although only eight years old, has become the most read daily in the country. Using their immense resources, (Adelson is ranked 15 on Forbes list of wealthiest individuals with a net worth estimated at $24,6 billion), Miriam and Sheldon have in essence become the world’s greatest protectors of Israel and the Jewish people - soppy or clichéd as this sounds.

“It is a big miracle that Israel exists” 

Miriam, who is slim and elegant, with long grey hair and a razor-sharp mind (she trained and worked as a physician), is seated at the table of the lunchroom at the Mount Nelson Hotel when I arrive. Speaking to her, it is evident that a deep part of this passionate support for Israel originates with her.

“It is a big miracle that Israel exists,” she says. “And without Israel, the Jews wouldn’t exist.”

Miriam grew up in Israel and her family escaped Poland and the Holocaust, although many members perished.

“I grew up with very few people who had grandparents.” She has that increasingly rare sensibility as we move further from the Holocaust years and especially tough times for the Jewish people, that Jews need to be ever cautious and are not safe without a homeland of their own. 

When Sheldon comes to the table, he is in a wheelchair but what a hi-tech, gorgeous one! He looks at me intensely and starts to page through some copies of the Jewish Report I have brought along, his agile brain ticking through all I represent.

Satisfied that I am not coming from a critical vantage point, he is happy to talk. I tell him about the challenges SA Jewry face with the BDS movement, the recent red-carpet visit of Hamas’ political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal as a guest of the ANC and the increasingly anti-Israel bias in our newspapers.

You have to take President Zuma to Israel

“The Jewish philanthropists in this country must use their resources to be proactive,” says Adelson. He is disappointed to hear that there are no Jewish newspaper owners to ensure the real story is told.

“BDS is a sham and a false narrative, and they make untruthful statements about apartheid in Israel,” says Adelson emphatically. “And for people who don’t know any better, if you repeat and repeat the lie often enough, people begin to believe it.

“You have to take people to Israel,” Adelson says. “The Jewish community needs to take [President Jacob] Zuma to Israel.”

He glances around the lunch area at the Mount Nelson which is embarassingly empty of serving staff, and eventually, when someone does come to take the orders, he says: “May I make a suggestion? You should put a bell on the table so that your customers can ring when they need something.”

Mount Nelson staff should take some notes - this is probably the most valuable advice on service they are ever going to get. Adelson is the CEO of Las Vegas Sands, America's largest casino company, and the owner of one of the most impressive hotel collections in the world.

The birth of Birthright Israel

Orders taken, Adelson begins to talk about the reasons for their support of Birthright Israel which is, after all, the reason this power couple were prepared to be interviewed in the first place.

His own roots are interestingly similar to many South African Jews’. His father escaped the pogroms in Lithuania and arrived in Boston, making ends meet by driving a taxi.

“He always dreamt of a country free of progroms and when Israel was founded, he always wanted to visit, but was too poor,” recalls Adelson. “When I wanted to send him, he was too old and sick.”

When Adelson’s own son wanted to go on the Birthright Israel programme, almost 10 years ago, there was a waitlist of 10 000 people and it evoked emotionally tough memories of his father not getting to Israel before it was too late. And that was that.

He met with Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, the two philanthropists who supported the programme from its start and found out that they were short of about $30 million that would pay for 10 000 to get on the trip that year (2006).

The Adelsons funded the shortfall. “The next year there were 20 000 wanting to go,” says Adelson, who hopes other donors will contribute and see the importance of this programme.

“Brandeis University (in Boston) has done extensive research and found that between the ages of 18 and 26, only 42 per cent of Jews intend to marry Jewish. That means that 58 per cent are willing to assimilate. Where is our Jewishness going?”

But when the sample was re-questioned after the Birthright Israel trip, 76 per cent said they intended to marry Jewish, explains Adelson as evidence of the necessity of the trip.

“The noble thing to do is to be the cement and connect one generation of Jews to the next,” he says, pointing out that assimilation is the greatest danger to Jewry today, particularly in the United States.

Miriam recalls an instance when they once went to meet some Jewish youth on a Birthright trip. “One girl spoke up: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch, what do you expect in return for this free trip?’ I said to her: ‘You have already paid back for your trip; you are our soldiers outside of Israel.’”

It is time for the Adelsons to go. They are off to Robben Island for a tour and then getting back on their plane that evening, heading home to Las Vegas.

As I get up to leave, I look around and see that there are about two or three tables of their security detail waiting patiently. I had not noticed them before but I am not surprised - these two agents of change, enablers of dreams and powerbrokers extraordinaire, are precious cargo.  


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