How Foreign Donors Reshaped Israel: A Who's Who

Israel has always received financial support from the Diaspora. But a handful of wealthy individuals have used their money to change the country in profound ways.

Foreign philanthropy has always been important to the State of Israel. In the early days, money donated from abroad was used for things like purchasing land, establishing communities and building public institutions. The funds are still streaming in today, to the tune of an estimated NIS 10 billion a year from Diaspora Jewry.

Here's a guide to who the big donors are, how they made their fortunes and which organizations they fund.

Gustave Leven

The late Gustave Leven, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, was the founder of the philanthropic Rashi Foundation. His fortune came from the mineral-water company Perrier, which he founded several decades ago. Leven, a French citizen, was a good friend of Israel from its earliest years and was especially close to President Shimon Peres. Leven was one of the donors who helped fund the project to establish the Dimona nuclear reactor.

In 1984, Leven founded the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, one of Israel's three largest philanthropic foundations, which primarily provides funding for education initiatives. The foundation was one of the first to ask the state to match the funds it donates. To date, it has donated an estimated $700 million to various causes, primarily education projects in outlying areas.

In his will, Leven allocated $300 million to $400 million to the continued operation of the Rashi Foundation. That bequest is expected to keep the foundation going for the next decade, after which it is due to be shut down. It is unclear whether Leven's wife and daughter will continue to donate to Israel. Both are members of the foundation's board of directors in France, but the foundation members who wield the most power over donations to Israel live here. Foundation president Eli Alouf won the Israel Prize for his charitable work with the Rashi Foundation. Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was recently named foundation chairman.

Leven passed away on July 29, 2008. He was the founder of the Rashi Foundation, and founder and Honorary Chairman of the Source Perrier Group.

Over the past 60 years, he played a central role in transforming a relatively small charitable trust fund founded by his mother into what has become the venerable Rashi Foundation.

During those years, Leven was able to bring together a number of individuals who shared his biggest concern: the future and well-being of the Jewish People and Israel. He sought that every Israeli citizen should be able to realize his potential and become an active and productive citizen, regardless of his personal socioeconomic situation.

Through his exceptionally shrewd understanding of the financial markets, Leven ensured the Rashi Foundation had the means to fulfill his vision.

Rothschild family

The British branch: Lord Jacob Rothschild (Yad Hanadiv):

Lord Jacob Rothschild, scion of the Rothschild family and head of its English branch, is the person behind the largest philanthropic foundation in Israel, Yad Hanadiv, which donates tens of millions of dollars to Israeli projects every year. That money comes from the interest generated by the fund, which is estimated to total $50 billion to $100 billion.

Yad Hanadiv is identified primarily with large nationwide projects, such as the construction of the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings in Jerusalem, the establishment of Israel Educational Television and other education initiatives. For its next large project, the foundation is expected to donate hundreds of millions of shekels to the construction of the new national library in Jerusalem.

Until two years ago, the foundation operated in secret and obligated the Israeli groups that received its money not to disclose the source of the funds. But over the past two years, it has changed its policy and now operates a Hebrew website that describes some of its projects.

The French branch: Baron Benjamin de Rothschild (Rothschild Caesarea Foundation):

The so-called French branch of the Rothschild family is led by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, who lives in Geneva, and his wife Ariane, who effectively runs the foundation. This is the branch that founded the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation, which donates tens of millions of shekels annually to Israeli institutions of higher education.

Before the establishment of the state, the Rothschild family owned some 123,500 acres of land in Israel, principally near Yishuv communities it founded. After 1948, the family donated almost all that land to the state, including some 7,400 acres in the area of today's Caesarea, where the family had planned to establish a model community.

The Rothschilds reached an agreement with the state whereby real estate income on that tract of land would be tax-exempt and the income would be used to develop higher education in Israel. That led to the establishment of the Caesarea Development Corporation, which is responsible for selling real estate in the Caesarea and developing the industrial zone there, where some 180 businesses operate. The development corporation is also responsible for the governance of Caesarea and its golf course. The income from these activities is invested in the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation every year, which in turn uses it to fund education projects.

With an estimated NIS 700 million in assets, the foundation can rely on accumulated interest and annual income rather than an influx of funds from Europe. The annual income, though, will dry up when all the land in Caesarea is sold off.

Lynn Schusterman

Lynn Schusterman, who sends millions of dollars to Israel every year, joined Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and other billionaires in 2011 in committing to allocate at least half her wealth to charity. She also announced that her donations would focus on assistance to Jewish communities around the world, including Israel and her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Last year, Schusterman was ranked No. 117 on Forbes' list of the 400 richest people in the U.S., with an estimated $3.5 billion to her name. The source of her fortune is her late husband Charles Schusterman, who in 1971 founded the oil exploration company Samson, which is now ranked one of the 20 largest oil companies in the U.S. Since his death in 2000, the couple's children have been running the business, but Lynn Schusterman pulls the strings on the philanthropy side.

Charles Schusterman was a vice president of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and had close ties to the Republican Party, but his widow has not gotten involved in politics. Charles and Lynn Schusterman started theirfoundation in 1987 and soon thereafter began donating to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsorsthe visits thousands of North American Jews to Israel every year.
In Jerusalem, the foundation established Sukkat Shalom, an emergency shelter for at-risk children and their families, and the Haruv Institute, which develops educational programs for professionals working with victims of child abuse and neglect. Ithas also donated extensively to the gay and lesbian community in Israel, including Jerusalem Open House, which organizes the annual gay pride parade in the city.

Charles Bronfman

One of the most established philanthropists in Israel is identified primarily with Keren Karev, which runs educational enrichment classes in outlying areas in collaboration with the Education Ministry. The program was started in the early 1990s and was one of the first to introduce the practice of matching donations, meaning that for every shekel Bronfman donated, an identical donation was made by local authorities or the state.

Today, the program reaches around 260,000 children across the country. Over the past few years, it has been criticized for allowing teachers to be hired as contractors, resulting in a decline in their employment conditions. Teachers in the program unionized and started a campaign to improve their status.

Keren Karev is scheduled to finish its activities in 2015. According to the foundation's manager, Janet Aviad, Bronfman will donate money to Israel through other means, and the education program will be transferred to another fund.

Besides his activities as part of Keren Karev, Bronfman makes donations towards various activities in Israel through the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, based in New York. Bronfman is the biggest donor to renovation of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center and has also made contributions to the Israel Museum and other artistic and cultural projects. He was one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright, alongsideSheldon Adelson, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman.

Bronfman is politically identified with the moderate left and has donated to the Peace Now movement since its inception. He has also made donations to the Labor Party and the campaigns of Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. In 1999, his name was linked to a scandal involving non-profit organizations, when it became apparent that funds he had donated to social causes were transferred to Barak's prime ministerial election campaign.

Bronfman's brother, Edgar Bronfman Sr., also makes many donations to Israel and served as the president of the World Jewish Congress for several years. Charles and Edgar Bronfman are the sons of Samuel Bronfman, the founder of the Canadian liquor company Seagram. Charles Bronfman briefly flirted with the business world in Israel when he was a partner in the deal to acquire Koor alongside businessman Jonathan Kolber. Later on, he sold his concern to Nochi Dankner. Edgar's son, Matthew Bronfman, is a more significant figure on the Israeli business scene. He is a controlling shareholder of Israel Discount Bank and one of the owners of the Shufersal chain of supermarkets.

Lily Safra

Lily Safra is the widow of Edmund J. Safra, one of the sons of the famous banking family from Aleppo, Syria. The family is very well-known in Israel because of its business activities – having owned Bank Leumi and the Cellcom telecommunications company in the past and also because of Amnon Shamosh's book "Michel Ezra Safra and Sons" and the legendary television series based on it.

Safra, who was born Lily Watkins in Brazil, inherited a fortune estimated at a billion dollars. But even beforehand, she was a wealthy woman. Her second husband, the Brazilian businessman Alfredo Monteverde, also died and left her his fortune. Edmund Safra, who was Monteverde's banker, was her fourth husband.

Edmund Safra, who died in 1999, was a great philanthropist, who invested in Harvard University, among other institutions. After his death, his widow became chairwoman of the Safra Foundation, which in Israel mainly invests in education, culture and health. The foundation has supported the Israel Museum for many years as well as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Haifa University and the Hebrew University. In 2010, it donated $50 million toward the establishment of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University.

Lily Safra also worked to start the Edmund and Lily Safra Children's Hospital in Tel Hashomer and contributed $16 million toward it in 2009. The source of the money was a $60 million advance she received from the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov as part of what was described as the most expensive real-estate deal in history – the sale of Safra's property in the French Riviera. The deal didn't go through due to the global economic crisis, but a French court ruled that Safra could retain the deposit Prokhorov put down. She divided the majority of the sum among charities and also donated $5 million toward the Computer for Every Child project.

Angelica Berrie

The Technion Obelisk at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, was designed by the international architect Santiago Calatrava. It commemorates one of the biggest contributions made by the Russell Berrie Foundation in Israel – $26 million toward the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute. The Israeli government matched this contribution with an additional $26 million, enabling the Technion to establish the biggest academic project in its history. The woman behind this initiative is Angelica Berrie, the head of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which donates millions of dollars to Israel each year.

Berrie was also one of the main donors to Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Medicine in Safed. The foundation also makes contributions to various causes in the fields of education and culture, especially those connected to Judaism and involved in encouraging a dialogue between different religions. It has given to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and various curriculums in the field of pluralistic Judaism in schools.

The foundation was established by the American businessman Russell Berrie, who died in 2002. Berrie made his fortune from a toy and gift company that grew from a small business he established in New York in the 1960s. The foundation donates a large proportion of its funds to Jewish causes. Anjelica Berrie, Russell Berrie's widow, is of Filipino origin. She was raised as a Christian and converted to Judaism after marrying the businessman.

Mark Rich

Until 2001, Mark Rich was a relatively obscure businessman. He was also suspected of serious tax offenses in the U.S., which had banned him from entering the country. On the last day of his term, U.S. President Bill Clinton granted him a pardon. Working behind the scenes on behalf of Rich were then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other senior figures, such as Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, Ron Huldai and Yaakov Neeman.

Barak's efforts to secure Rich's pardon – which were harshly criticized – took place against the backdrop of the businessman's many previous donations to Israel. Over the years, Mark Rich has donated around $150 million to institutions such as the Israel Museum, Tel Aviv Museum, research centers and theaters.

Rich, who now manages a hedge fund in Switzerland, started out as employee of a metal-trading company. He left along with another trader named Pincus Green, and the two established a company that at its peak reached trading cycles of tens of millions of dollars a year in capital markets. In 1983, they were accused by the then-U.S Attorney General Rudolf Guliani, later mayor of New York, of tax evasion offenses totaling $48 million, as well as trading with an enemy country – Iran.

The two fled to Switzerland. Since then Rich has been a generous contributor to organizations in Israel, including the Labor Party under Ehud Barak's leadership. His former wife, Denise, was a big contributor to the U.S. Democratic Party.

Morton "Mort" Mandel

The Mandel Leadership Institute, which operates outside official academic institutions, is one of the most influential such organizations in Israeli society. Its founder, Mort Mandel, is an American businessman and philanthropist whose fortune is estimated at $4 billion to $5 billion. The Premier Industrial Corporation, which he founded together with his older brothers, Jack and Joseph Mandel, was for many years the largest electronic and auto parts distributor in the U.S. In 2006, it was bought by the British company A.C. Farnell Limited, which became a global corporation after the acquisition and changed its name to Premier Farnell.

In 2008, Mandel almost fell victim to Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme fraud following Madoff’s impressive presentation to Premier’s investments committee. Mandel received an enthusiastic recommendation about Madoff from one of the committee members who had funds invested privately with him. Had Mandel accepted the recommendation, his philanthropic activity, including the Mandel Leadership Institute, could have been brought to a halt soon thereafter. Mandel knew Madoff well from the Palm Beach Country Club. But his innately cautious nature saved him.

Mandel’s connection to Israel became stronger following the Six Day War, when he gradually began to donate to various causes. He helped establish the first community center in Israel. So far, he has donated $300 million to the country. In the 1990s, he established the Mandel Leadership Institute, which grants fellowships every year to 15 Israelis of about 40 years of age who are deemed to have leadership potential. The institute fellows receive a scholarship to the institute’s varied program of study in exchange for their commitment to join the public sector on completion of the program. About 500 people have completed the program so far.

Eddie and Jules Trump

In 2011, the brothers Eddie and Jules Trump established the Trump Foundation to improve teacher quality in Israel in mathematics and the sciences. The foundation allocated $150 million over ten years for this purpose. The foundation’s chairman in Israel is Eddy Shalev, a founder and managing partner of the venture-capital fund Genesis Partners.

Eddie and Jules Trump, who were born in South Africa, immigrated at first to the Netherlands and then to the U.S. in the 1980s. They made their fortune in real estate, retail and high-tech, and in addition, own the Manhattan branch of the Elite modeling agency. Their business connection in Israel is Haifa Chemicals, where they went into partnership with Aryeh Genger in the early 2000s. Previously, they were known mainly for their philanthropic activity with Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which helps children with special needs and their families, and which they helped to establish. The Trumps are cousins of the late businessman Issie Shapiro, for whom the organization is named.

One of Eddie Trump’s friends is former U.S. president Bill Clinton. In 2005, Trump brought Clinton to a gala evening to benefit Beit Issie Shapiro, which was held at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. This was not the first time the Trump brothers used their connections to help find donors from abroad. These connections also helped them find additional donors for the foundation to improve teacher quality that they recently established.

Bernard Marcus

The American billionaire Bernard Marcus, one of the founders of the Home Depot chain, has a great deal of influence in Israel thanks to one investment he made here: the establishment of the Israel Democracy Institute, one of the organizations with the greatest degree of influence on the government and Israeli discourse. Every year, the Israel Democracy Institute holds the Herzliya Conference, which is attended by almost every high-ranking person in the government, public sector and financial sector.

In addition, it is responsible for the publication of many studies and position papers. The institute is regarded as responsible for strengthening the status of the High Court of Justice, the Basic Laws that were passed in the 1990s and various attempts to change the system of government in Israel. It also runs the Seventh Eye Journal, a platform for media examination and criticism founded by senior Israeli journalists.

In 2009, the Israel Democracy Institute was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement for its influential activity in government. It was discovered that three of the four people who recommended it for the Israel Prize had themselves been connected with its activity in the past.

Marcus, 84, is a pharmacist by profession. He founded the Israel Democracy Institute in 1991 together with Professor Arye Carmon, who was then a lecturer in political science. He invested at least $5 million in constructing the institute’s building in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood and over the years, has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in its ongoing operation. Today, the institute’s annual budget is NIS 30 million, most of which comes from Marcus. It is almost the only project in Israel to which Marcus donates.

Olivier Fitoussi
Reuters