Adelson: Mensch or meh?

Sheldon Adelson was a successful businessman, true. He was a Zionist, true. He probably had good motives, true. He was selfish and was in the business of making money from people who had no self-control, also true.

So let’s look at the pluses and minuses of this man and decide if he is worthy of the praise he gets.

First, the reason why he gets praise is because of his philanthropy. However, Pablo Escobar was also philanthropic, he was also a killer. If there was a point system for good and bad deeds (and there should be), I would say murder gives —1 million, and donating money to good causes gives one point per donation, not for the amount.  

Of course, how that person gets those funds is also important. A person who stole money or does not get to say that they are good because they then donated part of that. 

So back to Adelson, how did he earn his billions? Through ownership of casinos, aka, gambling. Gambling is illegal in most states for one reason: it is damaging to society. It is addictive and usually causes great harm especially to the poor. His efforts in Las Vegas and Macau, have created a Disneyland-like character to gaming, by creating an atmosphere of entertainment and family fun. However, all of those were merely marketing tricks to do one thing: bring people to places where they could gamble. He would lose money on the luxurious hotels and buffets and entertainment venus and make up for it with gambling. Those who won at his casinos would then spend that money in his stores which had much higher prices because it was known that people who won money did not care how much something cost. 

Through shrewd business acumen, Adelson was able to become one of the main players in Las Vegas and because there is a virtual monopoly by two cities on gambling, this created massive profits. So I give him -1 million points because, after decades, he with his business have created a great resort town but also lead to the ruin of countless people and profits for very few at the expense of those many.

So what did he do with this ill-gotten wealth? Let’s turn to his altruism, how great is it compared to his means of wealth production. Did he use those funds for selfish or for altruistic purposes and did those philanthropic donations make for a better world?

Adelson spent 150 million dollars on Birthright Israel. Full disclosure, I was on the first trip to Israel in 2000 and was a recipient of that trip. That money went directly to Jewish businesses over the course of 20 years. Did this build Zionism in the US? That’s hard to say, plenty of Jews who went to Israel are critical of it today. Many Jews who moved to Israel would have moved anyway. Did this help those who could not go? Maybe a few, considering most Jews in the US are in the middle or upper-middle class, so they could have afforded that trip. Did it make a difference for Israel in terms of economy? Possibly during the time of low tourism and intifada, but 150 million over 20 years in a tourism industry that is worth billions, that’s not that much. Did this help keep Jews marrying Jews? Statistics on intermarriage do not show a jump, although the continuous decrease did level off from 2000 to 2020, so maybe that helped a little. I’ll give this 10,000 points. 

Another philanthropic action was his donation to one school in Las Vegas. This is nice of him to build a school. Of course considering that if he only paid taxes, dozens of schools could have been built and on top of that, those schools could have all had decently paid teachers and materials raising the quality of education in Las Vegas. This was an act to make him feel better that probably did nothing substantial for those students or Las Vegas. So I give him 1 point for that. 

He also gave 7 million dollars to a medical center for Neural Repair. That seven million is not enough for the medical equipment and probably pays the salaries of three PhDs for three years. So the effect of this is marginal at best and the amount that would have gone towards the government to invest in science if he paid taxes would be hundreds of times larger. So this was a feel-good act for him, put his name on something but did not actually make things better. So another 1 point. 

So that’s it for the good. Let’s now look at the bad. 

Well, the bulk of the money went towards one thing: politics. To keep his empire that was created through manipulation and taking advantage of weaknesses in those who are already less fortunate and the middle class, he had to continuously curry favor with the politicians who were most receptive to his method of making a living. In Nevada and the US that meant 500 Million dollars in donations to the Republican Party alone. Of those 500 million, 65 million went to the election of Donald Trump, the man who ended up helping him evade taxation in a state where Adelson was already paying zero taxes thanks to the lobbying of that state. Taxes that could have provided for better education and better healthcare and better poverty alleviation. Instead, Las Vegas ranks at the bottom of the US for schools and healthcare. To reap so much wealth and to give back so little and to actively make sure that you give nothing back to your community is not a mensch. So I would give that another -1 million points.

The other way that Adelson used his wealth is to purchase media outlets. This allowed him to suppress the negative press, attack his opponents, and drive agenda that he preferred rather than what was best for society. He did this in Las Vegas and Israel. In Israel, this helped his friend Benjamin Netanyahu to keep power for over 20 years. During this time PM Netanyahu has continuously undermined peace efforts, but worse created a larger divide between the rich and the poor of Israel, worsened the public health system and the education system which was the pride of Israel. At the same time, thanks to donations and media control of people like Adelson, he and his family managed to siphon off funds from Israel and use their power to enrich themselves through contracts that were harmful to the state of Israel while profitable to himself. In Las Vegas Adelson managed to use his efforts with the Las Vegas Review to minimize the oversight of his activities and direct attention to his opponents while helping the political friends who helped him win bids. Anyone who left that journal and spoke about those actions was sued into silence by Adelson. So we give this -1.5 million points because it caused damage to Israel, and for a Zionist, that’s not a good way to behave.

Next was his efforts on lobbying against online gambling and cannabis. We now know that marijuana is generally less harmful than alcohol and less harmful than gambling. So him fighting marijuana did zero good and prolonged the American war on the poor and mostly black people as white people were rarely arrested and sentenced for marijuana possession even though they were more likely to be users of that drug. So he contributed to the incarceration and racism in the country with a racial problem and more people in prison than the rest of the world while not helping to stop the drug problem. That’s minus 1 million points.

His lobbying to stop online gambling probably helped a lot of people, but it was done to prevent competition with his business and therefore a completely selfish act that allowed continuous exploitation of people’s weakness by him rather than other entrepreneurs. So that’s a net zero points. 

So let’s see, that’s minus five million points and positive 10,002. He was unapologetically Jewish and pro Israel. But considering his ethics, this was probably a bad reflection and publicity that neither Jews nor Israel needed. 

So is he a Mensch? I’d say more of a Meh. What do you think?

Most of the information found for this article can be found on the Sheldon Adelson Wikipedia page. 

About the Author
Sam Livin was born in Soviet Union and grew up in San Diego. In 2012, he travelled the world photographing Jewish communities publishing a book called "Your Story Our Sipur." Today he continues to write about Israel and Judaism as he lives and studies business and ecology in Tel Aviv.
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