Dame Vivien Duffield has very clear memories of the first time she visited Israel. The year was 1955 and she was 9 years old. Her parents had just divorced and it was her first vacation without her mother.
From their home in London, she, her father – billionaire businessman Charles Clore – and her brother Alan boarded a plane to the young country, which was itself only seven years old at the time. The plane landed in Paris, then took off for Rome, followed by Athens, with Lod airport being the last stop.
Waiting for them at the airport, tense and excited, was Meyer Weisgal. Weisgal was a Zionist leader and he served as the right hand of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. He was also the founder and president of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. He had far-reaching plans for this visit. The focus of attention was, obviously, Vivien’s father.
She is now 72, but remembers every detail of that visit, and of her first impression of Weisgal.
“This creature from another world appeared, and took us to the Weizmann Institute and we had the most wonderful time. I remember that we stayed in Abba Eban’s house, because at the time he was the ambassador in Washington.”
Their devoted guide on their excursions around the country was Pinhas Sapir, at the time the minister of trade and industry. He too was casting an eye on her father’s checkbook, as he was on the money of other Jewish philanthropists whom he showed around Israel, hoping to captivate both their hearts and wallets.
“We went everywhere. We went to Arad, which didn’t exist – it was a plant growing in the middle of the desert. We went to all those places. I always think I know Israel better than most Israelis. I remember the first time I just screamed, hearing this terrible noise. It was jackals that were howling in the orange groves in Rehovot.”
Did Sapir’s efforts work? Was your father persuaded?
“No, he never put a large sum of money into Israel, not as an investment. He gave the money. He said he felt that investing in Israel was not as good as just giving money, it was more painful.”
Dame Vivien, how much money have you given to Israel over the years through your family fund?
“I have no idea, several hundred million [pounds]. I haven’t worked it out. A lot of money.”
'My Israel is dead'
Sometimes, “a lot of money” is an understatement, and in this case perhaps the understatement of the century. This is true for Vivien Duffield and the Clore Foundation, which she’s been running since the end of the 1970s.
In Israel, the name of Vivien Duffield is known mainly to the rich and influential, as well as to community organizations and voluntary groups she supports. In her own country, she’s one of the most influential, important and well-liked women; a patron of the arts and education, someone who is especially dedicated to her causes. In 2015, The Guardian estimated that she had given away some 300 million English pounds (at the time more than $450 million) in Britain alone.
Dame Vivien has supported such art institutions as the Tate galleries, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera House – where, as head of its board of directors, she single-handedly extricated it from a budgetary deficit by contributing 5.5 million English pounds – and others.
When the British government slashed budgets, Duffield provided funds for education, both as an individual donor and as part of a group. She spearheaded a drive to collect more than 1 billion English pounds for Oxford University. She’s supported galleries and museums, built the renowned Southbank Centre for arts, and in 2013 established JW3, a non-denominational Jewish cultural center in north London.
In Israel, too, the list of recipients is long and dizzying. It includes the Weizmann Institute, to which she’s given “many millions,” in her words, and the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem, which the Clore Israel Foundation and Duffield established.
Her family established Jerusalem’s Beit Hahayal hostel for soldiers, as well as a string of other structures and institutions in the capital, including libraries, parks, battered women’s shelters, and homes for such organizations as Ilan, for physically handicapped children, and Akim, for the mentally disabled. She has provided funds to establish and equip classes and clinics, and hostels for disadvantaged populations, and has set up stipends for outstanding students.
Any attempt to describe all the activities of the Clore Israel Foundation is bound to fail and Duffield doesn’t even try. She may remember one small project, where she gave $640,000 for neighborhood sports facilities: “We renovate sports halls and courts,” she says, “because the Israeli government is very, very bad at maintenance. Hopeless. I know it sounds like nothing, but in the Arab villages women can’t do any sports at all. So we’re putting in tracks where they can walk and the boys can bicycle. We only do it in the poorest neighborhoods, whether they are Jewish or Arab or whatever.”
In recent months, she’s been excited about a project called “Show UK,” an Israeli-British cultural initiative that was set up in collaboration with the British Council and is slated to begin operating over the next few years (see below).
In other words, Duffield is apparently the biggest, most dedicated and most veteran philanthropist in Israel. The Clore Foundation (now the Clore-Duffield Foundation) was set up in Britain in 1964, and the Charles Clore Israel Foundation in 1979.
Astonishment and anger
Something has been troubling the philanthropist, though, for the past few weeks and months. It bothers her so much that she can barely contain her British reserve. It bursts out when she’s asked about her ties with and attitude toward Israel and Israelis, and toward her Jewishness. She can barely hide her astonishment and anger.
“I’m not particularly Jewish, I’m Jewish like everybody else. I do Yom Kippur and that’s about it. Connection to Israel – you know when you’ve been coming somewhere for that long But my Israel is dead. The Israel that I knew and I loved. The Israel of Peres and Rabin is gone.”
What do you mean?
“Do I like Israel at the moment? No, I hate Israel. I think it’s a strong word, but I disapprove of everything. The vote in parliament [for the nation-state law] was appalling, absolutely terrible.
“It’s apartheid! You see, for the English, who remember South Africa, this is South Africa! This is one rule for one group and another rule for the other.
“Our foundation donates to science, to education, to health and to Arabs. To the cores of diversity in Israel. We were the first to give anything to the Arab communities – not only to the veterans, to the actual Arabs.”
“I remember when I was 21, in 1967, my father and I came. It was the week after the war and we flew all over Israel. I remember going to the West Bank and seeing how the Arabs lived, and I remember being very naïve and saying to my father that the best thing we could do would be to give every village and town a swimming pool and a sports hall, to give the kids something to do. And everybody laughed at me. But I tell you something, it would have been a better idea than what happened.”
Now we know Israel should just have given back the territories and every settlement in it, but now it’s too late.
The worst thing is that they keep on doing it, they’re building more and more. It cannot end well, this. If it hadn’t been that the Arabs couldn’t agree about everything, I’ve always thought that in the end Israel won’t survive, as my Israel.
Do you think there will be any Israel in 50 years?
“Not the way it is now, no, I don’t. I genuinely don’t. It’s not possible, look at the demography.”
Will this legislation affect the foundation’s activities in Israel?
“I don’t know, it’s too early to say. But I’m very angry. I will make absolutely sure that Arabic is still part of every project we do. I will not do a project without Arabic being there. But it’s very difficult. I think every move that Mr. Netanyahu makes is a catastrophe.”
Duffield falls silent for a minute. Even from the other end of the phone line, one can sense her turmoil.
“It’s very difficult to defend Israel now in England or anywhere,” she continues. “It’s still a fantastic place, but I prefer to only talk about the Weizmann Institute. If anybody starts talking to me about Israel, I mention the Weizmann. I think that the Israel Museum is a shining example that stands out in Jerusalem, and of course I have my museum in Jerusalem, which I’m fighting to keep as a multicultural place. Migdal David, which records the enormous part of history that Christianity and the Muslim world played in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not a Jewish city; it’s a multicultural city.”
The prevailing atmosphere in Israel is such that your last words regarding Jerusalem could be seen as provocative.
“I think it’s becoming two Israels. Tel Aviv is a multicultural, unbelievably sophisticated, extremely agreeable place, full of very nice people. None of whom ever go to Jerusalem. There is a huge division in Israeli society, which there wasn’t when I used to go. Nobody had any money then. Everybody lived modestly, now you get these huge houses, with very rich people. Then you get the very religious and the non-religious, it hasn’t ‘melted’ the way it should. The Arabs were there, but there wasn’t this viciousness directed at them like there is now.”
A secretive past
Duffield doesn’t give many interviews, not in her country and certainly not in Israel. She grew up in an unusual home. Her mother, born Francine Halphen, was from an affluent Parisian family and was a member of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation. Her father, Charles Clore, was one of Britain’s most prominent postwar businessmen.
Clore was born in London in 1904, on the very day his parents reached East London after migrating from somewhere in Eastern Europe. He never was willing to say a word about his family origins, and to this day his daughter doesn’t know such basic facts as the family’s original name or where her father’s family came from.
“I always thought it was Riga, but somebody told me two or three years ago, an Israeli, that he thought we came from Vilnius, and after a particularly bad pogrom they moved to Riga and then they left [the Continent] from Riga. But we don’t know. We don’t even know their name. Because he [my father] refused to talk about it.”
Vivien Duffield’s paternal grandfather immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1927 and is buried in Petah Tikva. Her father visited her grandfather when he was in his 20s, with the occasion captured in a photo of him astride a camel. But he preferred to return to London, and before he had reached 25, he was a wealthy man.
By the time his daughter was born, the Clores were one of the richest families in Britain. Until his death, in 1979, Clore ruled over a business empire that included clothing and shoe chains, department stores such as Selfridges and Sears, as well as a great deal of property. He was knighted for his extensive philanthropy, which was administered by the foundation he established.
What kind of childhood did you have?
“I was 9 when my parents divorced. When I was little, I didn’t see much of them. I had a nanny, and they traveled all the time. They were always in very exotic places, my parents. Not like an Israeli childhood. My mother was French, so we always went to France for holidays anyhow. And my brother went to boarding school when he was 8, and I was 6.”
During her childhood and youth, Duffield’s parents did not allow her to leave the house alone. Only when she turned 21 did her father permit her to go on a trip to the United States. “He had no choice,” she told an interviewer, “I bought my own ticket.” Her father also refused to allow her to study business administration at Stanford, as she dreamed of doing.
“San Francisco in 1966?” she exclaimed in another interview. “I would have died to go there, but there was no chance my father would have let his precious British princess, the Jewish virgin, go there. I wanted to work for him at Sears, but he didn’t agree – girls simply didn’t do that sort of thing. It’s true, there were hardly any women in business then.” Vivien had to “make do with studying languages in Oxford.”
Nevertheless, ultimately, she was her father’s heiress, and it was she who took the helm of the foundation he’d established. Between 1987 and 2000, she also administered another charity she'd set up. She then decided to combine the two bodies. She became Dame Vivien in 2000. Her marriage to banker John Duffield produced a daughter and a son, Arbella and George. After her divorce, in 1976, she had a relationship for three decades with media mogul Jocelyn Stevens, who died in 2014.
What happens in 'Fauda'?
Today, Duffield exhibits the ambivalence felt by many Jews and lovers of Israel about the country: She desires to see it thrive, and she is interested in what’s happening here (she wants nothing more than to have a conversation about the Hebrew TV show “Fauda,” which Netflix has been broadcasting abroad), but she also feels great embarrassment about many of official Israel’s policies, and finds it difficult to defend the country in public arenas.
Duffield may have sharp criticism of Israel’s policies, but she cannot be dismissed as an enemy of the state or an arrogant foreigner. She’s one of the most respected Jewish personalities in Europe, and not only because of her philanthropy.
A conversation about the nation-state law leads on to the British left and the activities of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, against the backdrop of the current disputes within the U.K. Labour Party. In the past, the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, expressed support for boycotting Israel. He’s been accused of being anti-Semitic, but he argues that anti-Zionists are not anti-Semites, and that criticism of Israel is not tantamount to racism.
Says Dame Vivien: “I’m not affected by the BDS. We founded a program against BDS and it’s in England and in Israel. This business with Corbyn, in a way, it’s made people realize how bad anti-Semitism is.”
England is considered tough territory for Israelis, from the cultural world to the political.
“England has always been pro-Arab. There’s always been a huge part within the Foreign Office that is pro-Arab.”
But you too have some very critical words to say about Israel.
“I have a strong thing against Israel, which I would express to Israelis, but I wouldn’t dream about expressing it to English people. That’s the difference. I would never criticize. ... I would criticize Netanyahu, because he’s political, but I would not criticize
“In any case, there are two Israels. The Israel that I criticize is the Israeli ultra-right. And I criticize Corbyn and Trump for being ultra-right. I criticize what is going on in Israel the same way that I think what Trump is doing is appalling! The problem with the Jews is that they take it very personally. I mean, you can criticize the politics of a country. It’s got nothing do with me being anti-Israel, I’m anti-what-is-going-on.
“I agree with you that the problem is very difficult for Jews. The Jews in England are put in a very difficult position. And Netanyahu makes it worse!”
I can see someone who opposes you saying that Netanyahu is supported by Trump, who’s moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and noting that even Prince William recently made a rare and historic visit here. Netanyahu supporters would say things have never been so good here.
“Prince William – it’s not the same thing. If they’d sent the Prince of Wales, then Netanyahu could have stood up. Sending Prince William is neither here nor there.”
Do you believe the nation-state law is making England more anti-Semitic?
“I don’t think it helps. I don’t think it’s gonna help with BDS.”
Will you continue to donate to Israel?
“I suppose so, but you have to pick your donations. I consider the Weizmann to be a nonpolitical, non-Israeli organization. It’s for the benefit of mankind. That’s the way it has to remain. It’s for the whole world.
“It’s still a wonderful place, Israel. And of course we’ll go on giving to Israel. At the moment it’s just not, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t give to something because you don’t like the politics.”
Shakespeare in Be'er Sheva
The Show UK initiative is an arts project that aims to bring about multiyear collaborations between Israeli and British artists in different spheres, operated jointly by the British Council and the Clore Foundation.
It launched at this year’s Fresh Paint contemporary art and design fair in Tel Aviv, in April. The Tom Dale dance company from Nottingham performed there, in a show combining dance and digital art.
A second event took place last month as part of an international fringe festival in Be’er Sheva. For one day, the old city became a stage for British art. Taking part were Israeli groups such as the Thespis Theater, with its “Shakespeare Sonnets,” and three British groups: Company Chameleon, with a street dance performance; Fruit for the Apocalypse; and a joint performance by the Israeli Clipa Theater and the O’Neill-Ross group.
All events, past and future, are intended to strengthen the links between the two countries and to expose the Israeli public to art it would not otherwise be exposed to.