On Sunday, at the end of a turbulent day at Bank Leumi, during which CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach announced her resignation in the morning, history was made in the Israeli banking system with the appointment of the first Arab chairman of the board.
As the replacement for Leumi’s chairman, David Brodet, the bank’s board of directors selected Dr. Samer Haj-Yehia, who has been a member of the bank’s board and of various bank committees for the past four and a half years.
Following the approval of the appointment by the Bank of Israel, Haj-Yehia will face the major task of headhunting to find a replacement for Russak-Aminoach. No matter who is chosen, Haj-Yehia would be expected to be more dominant than Brodet has been.
“The banking world has undergone substantial changes in recent years, and we will take steps to continue to position Leumi as a leading, innovative and successful bank,” the new chairman said.
Haj-Yehia joined the board of directors of Leumi, Israel’s largest bank by market capitalization, in 2014. Since Leumi has no controlling shareholder group, the rules allow him to serve as chairman for roughly four and a half years.
In addition to his membership on the Leumi board, he serves on the board of the Hadassah Medical Center, the Council for Higher Education and Big Shopping Centers. He is also an outside director of the board of the Strauss Group, a post that he will be required to give up. He is highly familiar already with Leumi’s operations as a member of the bank’s committees on credit, strategy, investment and prospectuses, as well as the committee implementing the recommendations of the Strum panel on banking competition.
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Until recently, he also served as a member of the bank’s committees on risk management and digital banking and the independent panel handling the United States tax investigation into Leumi’s American operations, a matter that was settled with the bank’s payment of a fine of roughly $400 million.
Haj-Yehia has a Ph.D. in macroeconomics from MIT, an MBA in finance and banking, an MA in economics, a BA in accounting and economics and a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He did his legal internship at the Herzog, Fox & Neeman law firm and an accounting internship at Deloitte.
He has held a number of senior positions in the United States with major consulting and investment firms, including six years as vice president for financial engineering at Fidelity Investments. As a community volunteer, he has been involved with the group Kav Mashveh, which works for the advancement of employment opportunities in the Arab community, and the Collective Impact organization on Arab employment.
A number of leading figures in Israel’s Arab community spoke of the significance of the appointment. Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (Hadash-Ta’al) said the selection of Haj-Yehia was based on merit on not as a favor to him. “Samer is very talented. He broke the glass ceiling and will serve as a model for young people in Arab society. He is the right person in the right place.”
MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash-Ta’al) said it had not been a glass ceiling that Haj-Yahia had broken through but a concrete one. “I hope the appointment leads to a breaking of stereotypes. Israeli society has to understand that the young generation in the Arab sector can leverage [Israeli society].”
The co-directors of Sikkuy – Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, Amjad Shbita and Ron Gerlitz, issued a statement following Haj-Yahia’s appointment in which they spoke of the severe problem of access to bank credit in the Israeli Arab community. “We believe that Samer can meet this challenge,” they said.