The Jewish world’s biggest and most high-profile donor Sheldon Adelson has died at the age of 87.
The right-wing casino magnate based in Las Vegas was one of the world’s richest men, with a £25 billion fortune as of September last year, and pumped vast sums into backing both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.
His widow Miriam said he this week that he was “the proudest of Jews” and “saw in the State of Israel not only the realisation of an historical promise to a unique and deserving people, but also a gift from the almighty to all of humanity”.
The reason for his death was not immediately given, the family citing only “a long illness”.
Given his financial firepower and proclivity for politics, Adelson has been a huge factor in both US and Israeli politics for a decade, not least by bankrolling two Israeli newspapers that have given Netanyahu and his right-wing allies favourable coverage.
Tributes from both the Republican Party as well as Israel’s Likud came thick and fast after news of his death was announced on Tuesday, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – known to harbour presidential ambitions of his own – leading the pack.
“Sheldon Adelson’s life represents the best of the American dream,” said Pompeo. “His political involvement strengthened our democracy.” Adelson funded Trump’s effort to stymie an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Media-shy, Adelson was nevertheless seldom far from the news. Only two weeks ago, convicted spy Jonathan Pollard – who passed US military secrets to Israel – was pardoned by Trump and flew to the Jewish state on Adelson’s private jet.
Trump’s conspiratorial son Donald Jr tweeted that Adelson was “a true American patriot and a giant among men” while Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called him “remarkable”. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which he funded, called him “one of the most consequential figures in American Jewish history”.
Adelson had some British heritage – his mother came from England, and he once said his maternal grandfather was a Welsh coalminer. His father, of Lithuanian-Ukrainian parents, was a taxi driver, while his mother ran a haberdashery.
After borrowing money to buy a Boston newspaper license, then selling de-icer, the young Adelson quickly made his first million and soon after bought part of a Las Vegas casino. In later years he would spend billions building and expanding his resorts in the strip, Macau, and Singapore.
Ten years ago, Adelson and his wife hit the headlines by becoming presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s single biggest backers after the former House Speaker said the Palestinians were “an invented people”. They gave his campaign around £5 million from 2010-12.
It marked the beginning of a massive political spending spree during which analysts say the couple gave around £386 million to right-wing political parties or politicians.
Beyond politics, the Adelson Foundation gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Birthright Israel, Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum.
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