Even though he and his late father spawned a revolution in American retailing, Robert Price isn’t a well-known name in Israel.
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It may be because he doesn’t invest in the sort of projects that attract other Jewish philanthropists. Price, the man who helped launch the first members-only discount retail store in America – the precursor to Costco and Sam’s Club – doesn't donate to Israeli universities, hospitals, research institutes or museums. In fact, in recent years, his family’s charitable trust hasn’t donated to Jewish causes at all in Israel.
As a matter of policy and principle, Price earmarks all his donations here for projects that benefit the country’s Arab minority. He says this is the most effective way of helping Israel. “As Jews, my wife and I care very much about this country, and therefore we feel it’s important to support the Arab community here,” he said in a first-ever interview with the Israeli press.
“Arabs represent 20 percent of the population and have an opportunity, we think, to be productive citizens and to actually enrich the fabric of life in Israel if provided reasonable opportunities. So this is a way we can do something most Jewish philanthropists wouldn’t do, and neither would the more wealthy Arabs in the region. So if they’re not going to do it, who will?”
Price spends a week every year in Israel checking in on the projects he supports; during this most recent trip he was especially focused on his new baby: a partnership with the Education Ministry and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to encourage reading among young Arab children.
Launched in January, Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Learning) will provide free books to 46,000 Arab children in Israel. Eventually, he says, the project will include all 70,000 Arab children in Israel under the age of 6.
Price was drawn to the project after learning that literary Arabic had words that didn’t exist in the spoken language, especially words describing feelings. “By being literate, then, these children gain a pool of words that can help them be in touch with their feelings,” he says.
Five years ago he launched his other project in Israel: the Bidayat (Beginnings) early-childhood community centers, which target children under age 8. The first such center was set up under the auspices of Al-Qasemi College in Baqa al-Garbiyeh. A year later a second center was up in Jaffa. The center in Baqa al-Garbiyeh works closely with the college’s early-childhood department.
Doing more with less
Price notes that his investments in Israel are modest by most accounts (about $1.2 million to $1.3 million to date), but well leveraged to achieve maximum impact.
“With this latest initiative of ours to encourage reading, the Ministry of Education is putting up 75 percent of the funding, and we’re splitting the rest with the Grinspoon Foundation,” he says. “So we feel that through this investment, maybe we’ve made the ministry more sensitive to providing support for Arab Israelis.”
Price is based in San Diego, where almost 40 years ago he and his late father Sol set up Price Club, America’s first members-only warehouse club. Customers could save money by buying goods in bulk. Price Club later merged with Costco and was eventually absorbed into it.
Today, Costco is the second largest retailer in the United States, right behind Walmart, and the seventh largest in the world. A report in The San Diego Business Journal from December 2009 ranked Price the 15th wealthiest person in the city (his father was in 10th place that year) with a net worth of $90 million.
Today he serves as chairman of PriceSmart, a chain of clubhouse-style stores in Latin America, which through an affiliated charity supplies free school supplies to more than 50,000 children. Another major project supported by the family foundation provides social services for low-income families in San Diego’s inner city.
Price says social activism was imbued in him early on. “My father’s parents were labor-socialists who immigrated from Belarus, so I’ve always been exposed to this more liberal or progressive way of thinking – that’s the way we’ve always been, and I grew up with that,” he notes.
His father, who died in 2009, had been a good friend of Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993. His father was also a big supporter of Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, which the family foundation continues to fund.
“I think what interested my dad is that this was one of the few places where both Arabs and Jews, and both religious and secular people, could hang out,” Price says. His father later provided money to Tel Aviv University to support scholarships for Arab students accepted to its law school.
Some people don’t get him
When asked why he doesn’t support projects in Israel that promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, Price pauses for a while before replying. “I guess it hasn’t attracted me in the same way. I can’t really tell you why. Maybe because there are so many of those sorts of projects,” he says.
“But I really think that if you can get to Arab children when they’re young and integrate Arab women into the community so that they can teach their children to be literate and more engaged, in the longer run, that’ll do more than coexistence.”
It’s rather unusual for a Jewish philanthropist to focus on Israel’s Arab community. So how do people back home respond?
“I’m not the only one back home that tends toward the J Street side of things. Another example would be Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm. But the majority certainly hold to the more established idea that you don’t really question official policy in Israel because that’s not being loyal.”
So are you considered a weirdo?
“Our friends definitely don’t understand why we’d support and send money to Arabs in Israel. They just don’t get it. So we don’t talk about it a lot because it just doesn’t go anywhere.”
But it’s not only his fellow Jews from San Diego who find him suspect. Even his Arab beneficiaries don’t always understand his motivation.
“It often doesn’t make sense to them,” he says. “They don’t understand why would somebody Jewish from the United States want to do this, and what I’ve told them pretty much is that we’re doing this because as people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, it’s very important to do the little we can to improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country.”
Surprising as it may sound, Price has overwhelmingly good things to say about the Israeli government and how it treats its Arab citizens.
“I’m quite impressed with how much Israel is doing for the Arab population. Yes, they’re not getting as much as the Jewish population – that’s true. But compared with what I see in the U.S. in some of the inner cities, my perception is that there are a lot of educational resources being devoted to the Arab community,” he says.
“I’m sure it’s still not equal to the Jewish community, but a lot more than a lot of people would think. My feeling is that there’s a sense that it’s a good investment, at least in education, to provide more for the Arab community. I’ve visited a couple of Arab preschools, and they’re as good as anything you’d see in the U.S. when it comes to public facilities.”