Richard C. Blum, the super-wealthy American investment banker and international do-gooder, gushes when you get him on the subject of Israel.
“I love the country,” he says. “How can you not?”
It is no accident that Israel was the first place he chose outside of the United States to host one of his centers for fighting global poverty, which was the reason for his visit to the Holy Land this week.
His fixation on all the good Israel has to offer the world might surprise those who know his wife: For almost 40 years Blum has been married to California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, currently the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate and an outspoken critic of this Israeli government. It is his second marriage and her third.
Just a few months ago, Feinstein and Bernie Sanders came out strongly against legislation that would penalize boycotts against Israel. “While we do not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, we remain resolved to our constitutional oath to defend the right of every American to express their views peacefully without fear of actual punishment by the government,” they wrote in a letter to Senate leaders.
Asked for his own views on BDS, her husband gets right to the point. “It’s bullshit,” he says. “I’m in favor of helping good people wherever they are who are trying to do good in the world. So I don’t care about all that stuff. I really don’t.”
Blum, 83, was breaking for lunch just a few hours after landing in Israel on his private plane, gearing up for a jam-packed week of meetings and site visits. The Blum Lab for Developing Economies — a partnership with the Milken Innovation Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research — was officially launched two years ago. Blum is in town to meet with the first cohort of seven international fellows at the center, almost all of them from Africa. The fellows spend 10 months in Israel working on projects designed to help resolve problems in their homelands, utilizing technologies developed in Israel.
“I’m delighted to be part of this,” says Blum, revealing that he has pledged about $2 million to the Jerusalem-based center.
The first such center was established about 10 years ago at the University of California Berkeley. The aim was to encourage students and faculty to brainstorm ways for solving global poverty and other problems endemic to the developing world. Since then, centers have sprouted up at virtually every campus in the University of California system, which is the largest in the United States.
The ‘Jewish daughter’
Blum, whose net worth is estimated at $1 billion, developed a passion for the subject when he first encountered poverty as a young man trekking through Nepal (he even attempted to climb Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1981).
Much of his philanthropic work focuses on Asia and is channeled through an organization he founded, the American Himalayan Foundation. He counts among his close friends the Dalai Lama — whom he brought to Israel in the 1990s — and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who wrote the forward to his 2016 autobiography, “An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation, and the Fight Against Poverty.”
Although he has visited Israeli about “six or seven times,” Blum reveals that it is his daughter who deserves credit for his newfound fascination with the country. “She’s the reason I’m here,” he says, pointing to Annette Blum, his eldest of three daughters who is joining him for lunch at a popular beachside eatery in Tel Aviv. Annette, whose mother was his first wife, is the only one of his children involved in his philanthropic activities.
“She said to me, ‘Why don’t we open one of the centers in Israel?’ and I said to her, ‘Why not?’” he recounts.
Annette, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Rome, has worked in the entertainment industry for most of her life. She started traveling to Israel regularly after befriending one of the leaders of the California-headquartered Simon Wiesenthal Center. In addition to serving on the board of American Friends of the Hebrew University, she is an active supporter of the annual Mekudeshet cultural festival in Jerusalem.
“She’s my Jewish daughter,” Blum says affectionately. Although he was born to Jewish parents, Blum describes himself as “more Buddhist than anything else.”
With all his admiration for Israel’s technological prowess, Blum doesn’t think much of the country’s leader. “He and [Donald] Trump are both jerks,” says Blum of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Maybe Netanyahu’s better than Trump, but that’s not saying much,” he adds.
He makes a special request that his wife’s views on the Israeli prime minister, which he has indiscreetly shared, not be quoted — “or I’m going to get yelled at.”
In his memoir, Blum describes the fact he has not succeeded in persuading Chinese leaders to end their oppression of Tibetans as “the biggest frustration in my life.” However, he rejects the notion that China’s occupation of Tibet bears any similarity to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. “There’s no comparison,” he says. “What happens there is much worse than what’s happening here.”
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