Few were surprised by Shlomo Maoz's controversial statements at the Sapir Conference Wednesday - or by Excellence investment house's quick decision to fire the chief economist in their wake. But the investment house was quite likely surprised by the storm that its decision created.
When Maoz took the stage, he started his 18-minute speech by saying he wouldn't be as nice as the speakers who came before him. "Maybe that's why they invited me," he said, to the audience's laughter.
From there he went on to attack the Ashkenazi establishment, call Bank Leumi and the Supreme Court the exclusive domain of "white people," accuse the kibbutzim and moshavim of stealing state land, and accuse residents of upscale Savyon of using cheap water by means of the town's former status as farmland. The crowd - students of different ethnic backgrounds - was lapping it up, although some of Maoz's fellow speakers were left speechless.
Within a few hours, his speech had been published online, and shortly afterward, Excellence called to say he'd been fired. Associates of Maoz said he seemed shocked. He later responded on TV program "Laila Calcali," saying, "What the investment house did is insulting. I'm sure they regret it. They're not bad people, they simply were shocked."
Maoz has a long history in economics and the public service. The 66-year-old resident of Shoham was born in Iraq, received a bachelor's degree in economics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a master's from the London School of Economics. Early in his career, he was a writer and editor at the Jerusalem Post. He went on to write an opinion piece for Haaretz about the bank stock bubble that created an outcry in the capital markets, leading the bank stocks to implode and the government to nationalize them in 1983. In the 1990s, he was economic adviser to the finance minister and Israel's economic attache in London. Now, he's a board member at a handful of companies including Zim and Dead Sea Industries.
Yet for all his experience, he's also known for his problematic forecasts. In June 2008, for instance, he told TheMarker that this was the time to invest in U.S. real estate - three months before the subprime crisis peaked.
Excellence was aware of Maoz's provocative statements and problematic forecasts, but it employed him because the media loved him - he was a charismatic speaker who appeared frequently on television and in headlines, said capital market sources. But this may also be what led to his quick dismissal - once the headlines turned sour, the company wanted him gone.
One capital market source said that after 10 years with the investment house, Maoz was identified closely with it. The straw that broke the camel's back might have been his statement about Leumi, the source speculated. "Bank Leumi is a big seller of Excellence's pension funds," he said.
Dr. Yoram Gabay, chairman of Bank Hapoalim's Peilim investment house, said that, as a person sitting on multiple corporate boards, Maoz would have done well not to slam entire population groups, even if he had a right to deliver sharp criticism.
Maoz also had his defenders. "People are angry that he said the truth," said one Ethiopian student who had attended the speech. And "Laila Calcali" host Sharon Gal said that while he wasn't surprised by Maoz's speech, "I was a bit surprised by the response, but it's common knowledge that there's a thought police out there that goes after anyone who crosses boundaries."
Maoz can't fully blame the Ashkenazi establishment for his dismissal. Excellence has many executives of Mizrahi background, like Maoz himself, including controlling shareholder Yitzhak Tshuva, CEO David Baruch and chairman Uzi Danino.
Hila Weisberg and Zvi Zrahiya contributed to this report.
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