Jewish Journal

For the love of Israel, health care and ‘Power Rangers’

by Danielle Berrin

Posted on Nov. 10, 2010 at 10:57 am

Haim Saban with soldiers in a visit to a northern IDF base. Photo by Israel Hadari

Haim Saban with soldiers in a visit to a northern IDF base. Photo by Israel Hadari

Haim Saban is sitting at the head of the table in his conference room on the 26th floor of his Century City tower offices. Here, he is kingpin, an image strongly reinforced by where he sits, as well as the attentiveness of his traditionally dressed office butler, who ducks in and out of the meeting continuously, pouring Pellegrino and serving cappuccinos.

Saban wears a white dress shirt and black sport coat with thick gold buttons. He has a broad, brawny stature and a deep, sonorous voice. His 66-year-old face is full of the sharp etchings of time, which makes him appear expressive even when he is not displaying emotion. He is naturally authoritative, though this, too, is reinforced by the austere decor — a dark, wood-paneled office with sweeping city views, from the Wilshire Country Club immediately below to the hills and sea in the distance.

On this afternoon, Saban is meeting with a roomful of representatives from the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) who have come hoping to draw from the well of their favorite sugar daddy.

Lesson No. 1 in how to pitch to a billionaire: Speak a common language — or two.

“B’ivrit or b’anglit [Hebrew or English]?” Marissa Sharpe, director of operations for the ILC asks Saban. She is about to pitch the ILC’s latest initiative, “Netina” (giving).

“Anglit,” Saban tells her.

“So, the idea behind Netina is to create bridges between the American Israelis and the Jewish Americans through volunteering,” Sharpe says. “The idea is to create a large community that will transcend all kinds of different opinions, because everybody believes in doing good. By April, we’re going to have a special event, and the only way to come to the event is by volunteering at least four hours.”

“There’s no such thing in the Jewish community,” adds Eli Tene, ILC co-chair and a member of its board of directors.

“What do you think about the concept?” asks Shoham Nicolet, the ILC’s executive director.

Saban sits quietly and upright, intensely attentive. “You know, it’s a great concept,” he says. “I like the idea that you’re tapping into primarily the Jewish and Israeli communities, but that you’re offering a service to not only Jewish causes, which I think is ...

“It’s a must,” Tene interjects.

“Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘it’s a must,’ but you’re right in saying it’s a must. I think it’s very great for Israel’s image, and as we know, Israel totally unjustifiably has an image problem. So. from that point of view, I think ...”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” says Danny Alpert, the ILC’s other co-chair and a manufacturer of diamond jewelry. “But Israelis, too, have an image [problem], you understand? An image that they’re not giving back. Even in the Jewish community. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Lesson No. 2: Ask for advice.

“What do you think are the challenges of this program?” Nicolet asks Saban.

“Challenge No. 1 is you gotta raise $382,000. That, you’re aware of — klum hadesh lecha [nothing new to you]. And I appreciate that you’re not here just to get my creative input, b’seder [OK]?”

Lesson No. 3: Don’t actually ask for the money; let the billionaire offer it.

“We’re not here to ask you for money, Haim, I’m being serious,” Nicolet says.

“Maybe not today,” Saban answers animatedly, his voice trilling with enthusiasm, “but eventually ...!”

There is an eruption of laughter, and Saban, who is quick to sense an opportunity, showcases his good humor: “Eventually, Eli, at lunch, will generously pay, as he always fights to pay for lunches when we have our lunches on Fridays” — these gatherings are known within their circle as “Israeli parliament” — “and he’s going to say, ‘’Bo nishteh café [come, let’s drink a coffee].’ “

Lesson No. 4: Flattery will get you everywhere.

“Haim, I like very much the letter that you sent to Time [magazine],” Alpert says during a pause in the Hebrew banter. He is referring to the magazine’s recent cover story declaring, “Why Israelis Don’t Want Peace,” a subject that, not surprisingly, gets Saban’s blood boiling. 

“What I wrote was much tougher,” Saban said, explaining that the magazine’s editor, Richard Stengel, is not only Jewish, but a friend. “I e-mailed him and said, ‘Are you out of your friggin’ mind, Richard?! Are you crazy?? Why Israelis don’t want peace?!’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? We showed all these wonderful things about Israeli people hanging in the sun.’ I said, ‘If you read [the article], you read that basically Israelis are a bunch of beach bums! Maybe there are two or three Israelis that are like that, but the vast majority of Israelis don’t want peace? It is a distortion of reality.”

Haim Saban with President Bill Clinton.

Saban’s assistant enters to tell him his next meeting is waiting in the other conference room.

“I guess you’re going to raise money for this,” he concludes. “I will contribute the last $150,000.”

For the majority of Los Angeles’ Jewish philanthropists and fundraisers, odds are that they either know Saban or have been the recipient of his generosity. He is the chairman and part owner of Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language media company.  He’s also one of the largest individual donors to the Democratic party. According to the Federal Election Commission, Saban has donated at least $13 million to Democrats since 1998. But he is probably still best-known as the man who brought the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” to the United States from Japan. In 2001, Saban sold the franchise to Disney for $5.3 billion under the banner sale of Fox Family Worldwide, a company he co-owned with Rupert Murdoch. Last May, Saban Brands bought the “Power Rangers” back from Disney for an undisclosed sum, and the company is currently in the process of repackaging the brand for an international relaunch. According to Forbes, Saban’s personal fortune is estimated at $3.3 billion.

But the Saban name also has become synonymous with serious, focused philanthropy. He and his wife, Cheryl, to whom he has been married for 23 years, are among Los Angeles’ most high-profile givers, and they approach their philanthropy as meticulously as they would a business. The Sabans give primarily in two categories: Israel, which is Haim’s passion, and health care, which is Cheryl’s. Their philanthropy is motivated in no small measure by goodwill, but it also is driven by an overarching worldview in which Israel is central. For Saban, Israel’s sustained secure existence and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship are paramount, and toward that end he has cast himself among Israel’s staunchest advocates and fiercest protectors.

Saban’s friends joke that if AIPAC is the most important organization affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship, Saban may be the most important individual advocate: “He’s the prince of the Jewish people,” said Shai Waxman Abramson, speaking from her home on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem. She is the daughter of Los Angeles Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, and she helped to grow the Saban Family Foundation, which was established in 1999. Since 1988, the Sabans have given $16 million to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), making them the largest donors to the organization in the United States; in 2002, they donated $13 million to establish the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.; and through AIPAC, they endow the Saban Leadership Seminar, a twice-a-year educational and advocacy program aimed at college students. (Full disclosure: This writer attended the winter segment of that program in 2002.)

Their generosity to medical institutions is equally ambitious: In 2003, the Sabans’ $40 million established The Saban Research Institute at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles; in 2008, they gave $10 million to the Los Angeles Free Clinic, now renamed the Saban Free Clinic; another $5.2 million went to the Soroka University Medical Center in Be’er Sheva.

There is a third category, which Saban approaches with considerably less zeal, and which he says includes dozens of smaller annual gifts, ranging in size from $5,000 to $100,000. The Jewish Federation, for instance, falls into this category. Sometimes, the Sabans break their own rules: They provided the $5 million anchor gift to Temple of the Arts for the preservation and restoration of the Fox Wilshire Theatre, a historic art deco building on Wilshire Boulevard (since renamed the Saban Theatre), and another $10 million in honor of their close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, to Clinton’s Presidential Library and Foundation.

This focused giving, however, has led to criticism that Saban does not give enough to established Jewish organizations — that he prefers to support causes that bear his name rather than support community institutions. Some call this selfish; others call it smart philanthropy: Waxman Abramson, who served as the Saban Family Foundation’s project manager from 2002 until 2005, said, “He wants to have as much impact as possible, and that’s all about targeted philanthropy. A smart philanthropist stays within their focus.”

Even when it comes to giving, Saban has trouble shedding his business skin. “I look at philanthropy from an ROI point of view — return on investment. So if we build a research center, a children’s hospital, it’s not exactly ‘our’ cause. If we funded the Free Clinic so people who don’t have health care can get health care, it’s not exactly ‘our’ cause,” he said a bit defensively.

“We have given a lot more to third-party causes than so-called ‘our own.’ Yes, we have a center in Washington, and, no, we don’t give a lot of money to classic Jewish organizations like The Federation because we can’t see the return on investment. We don’t know where the money is going.”

Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he is neither offended nor disappointed at hearing this. “Haim Saban is challenging The Federation to do more focused, strategic work, and I applaud him for it,” Sanderson said. “Haim’s concern is a valid concern, and it’s my No. 1 responsibility to address it.”

Dr. David Warburton, Haim and Cheryl Saban, Dr. Yves De Clerck

Saban said he and his wife “decide everything together,” an approach affirmed repeatedly by others involved in their charity work. She is the author of a self-help book for women — “What Is Your Self-Worth?” — and the founder of the Women’s Self-Worth Foundation. She could not be reached in time to be interviewed for this article.

To understand what drives Haim Saban’s philanthropy, it is helpful to understand his background. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1944, where his father worked as a clerk in a toy shop and his mother was a seamstress. Following the 1956 Suez crisis, Jews were ordered out of the country, and Saban’s family — his parents, grandmother and younger brother — fled to Israel. Haim said the family was allowed only $200 to emigrate. Israel became its refuge.

“Here’s a country that took us in with open arms because we were Jewish,” he said. “I will never forget that.” He spent the next 17 years there, then, following his service in the army, he moved to France, where he spent eight years building his career as a talent manager and record producer. Eventually he discovered an untapped resource in music publishing: In exchange for publishing rights, he would provide free music compositions for cartoons. He acquired his first fortune this way, before moving to Los Angeles in 1983.

It has been more than 30 years since Saban counted himself a resident of Israel, yet, even now, it is difficult for him to come to grips with how deeply it drives him.

“I can try and logicalize it,” he said. “I can try and lay out reasons — and I may even come across as convincing, but frankly, it’s a very emotional issue for me. My ties to Israel are more on the emotional than on the rational level.”

In some sense, Saban still sees himself as a Jew in exile, taken in by countries that, to him, represent the pinnacle of freedom and democracy. The foyer of his office is lined with photographs of immigrant Jews on boats; in one scene, they’re approaching Ellis Island, in another, the port of Haifa. And in his conference room hang four large portraits of leaders Saban admires: John F. Kennedy, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Abraham Lincoln. “I’m blessed, I have two homes,” he said, gazing at the photographs. “This is who we are. ‘We’ meaning our family; we’re true Israeli Americans.”

Reflecting on Israel’s trajectory from besieged startup nation to modern world power, Saban said, “I’m in awe.” And yet, he doesn’t consider Israel above criticism, though on that subject he chooses his words exquisitely carefully.

“I’m in awe of [Israel’s] achievements, and I’m perplexed by some of the actions taken by some of the leaders of the country that are sometimes ... counterproductive. I can’t figure out how a nation that can bring so many scientists to the world, so many Nobel Prize winners, so much talent in the high-tech world, can’t figure out at the leadership level — and I’m talking about the ruling parties and the opposition combined, I’m talking about the Knesset in general — leadership that is, I would say, more ... inspiring.

His voice softens a bit, and for a moment, his guard is down.

“I’m not inspired.”

Saban doesn’t have the reticence about criticizing Israel common among American Jews. He isn’t afraid that some healthy disapproval might compromise his Zionism.

He also never worried that marrying outside the religion would compromise his Judaism. Saban blithely refers to his wife as a “shiksa,” a term that for him is not so much disparaging as it is symbolic. “I don’t believe in imposing religion on anybody,” he said, explaining why he never urged his wife to convert. “What was important to me was to keep a Jewish home, and we do keep a Jewish home.” The Sabans host family Shabbat dinners every Friday night. There are usually 14 people in attendance, including Haim’s in-laws, his grandchildren and his four children, ages 19, 22, 36 and 38.

“That’s what I call being Jewish,” he said. “A friend of mine once asked Shimon Peres at an event that we had for Peres — in the middle of the debate that was in Israel about conversion — ‘Who is a Jew?’ and Peres answered in a manner that I have adopted in my life, which is, ‘Tell me how you bring up your children, and I will tell you whether you’re Jewish or not.’ ”

Saban’s strong opinions and his authoritative voice give the impression of a man used to getting his way. Not surprising, coming from someone who has catapulted himself out of poverty and into enormous economic and political power. Saban is truly a man on a mission, and his goals are anything but modest. His “ultimate” aim, he said, is to help bring peace to the Middle East.

The fact that he counts the Clintons as friends is a testament to his formidable political ties, but in the wake of Clinton’s failed Camp David peace negotiations, Saban realized that no peace would be possible without fresh ideas or policy influence.

Addressing the paucity of innovative thinking toward the region, Saban created the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, where experts analyze American foreign policy toward the Middle East and make recommendations to the U.S. government. But even there, Saban’s influence has limits. Kenneth M. Pollack, the center’s director, said that despite Saban’s obvious pro-Israel position, he has never interfered with or tried to influence the center’s policy recommendations. “He knows that Brookings is fiercely non-partisan,” Pollack said by phone from Washington, “that we fiercely control our own agenda, and we would never allow anyone to tell us what to write or what conclusions we should pick. I suspect he doesn’t necessarily agree with every single thing we write. But to be honest, I don’t make it a habit of keeping track of everything Haim says.”

Every year, the center puts on the Saban Forum, a three-day gathering of very high-level officials from the United States and Israel, who come together to discuss pressing economic, social and political issues. In this arena, there is no one Saban admires more than the Clintons. When he talks about them, it is clear he idealizes them. “Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are very inspiring leaders,” he said. “Look at what Bill Clinton is doing out of office. And look at her — she ran for president, she didn’t get it, and she takes on this job that is just a grind like no other. These are people that were born to serve. And to lead.”

Like him?

“No. I’m a lot more selfish than that,” he says, laughing.

And yet, Saban’s politics bespeak deep personal convictions more than any self-interested agenda, which, some say, makes him even more threatening. He can be fierce when crossed, partly because everything is so personal for him. After The New Yorker published a lengthy profile of him last May, Saban was livid. The writer, Connie Bruck, had interviewed Saban’s former tax attorney, Matthew Krane, extensively; Krane is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2009, charges that stem from a $36 million kickback Krane acquired in creating a tax shelter for Saban’s $1.5 billion profit on the Disney sale, which was, in essence, a tax dodge. Krane alleges Saban put him up to it, but a 2006 Senate subcommittee investigation ruled Saban was a victim of Krane’s deceit. Saban was eventually ordered to pay $250 million in back taxes and penalties, according to The New York Times.

Needless to say, Saban didn’t like seeing any of that in print. He claims Bruck misquoted him and others, “editorialized” frequently and wrote a “disjointed” piece. At a mention of the story, he raised his eyebrows and his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. It was intended as a comical look, which suggests that, months later, he has a sense of humor about the whole thing — sort of.

“It was a mistake to talk to her,” he said of Bruck. “She has a problem with success. This guy that stole $36 million from me? She calls him ‘brainy’ and ‘engaging.’ She doesn’t say one nice thing about me in the whole article. She says I’m manipulative.”

Asked whether the article embarrassed him, he replies: “I was more disappointed in myself that I opened myself so much to her.

If Saban does not take well to criticism, in the philanthropic world, at least, he doesn’t have much reason to worry. Unfettered, even gushy praise of him pours forth at every turn, and anything remotely unfavorable was asked to be kept off the record. As one prominent philanthropist, who asked not to be named, put it:  “People are petrified of saying anything negative about him. They never know when they’re going to need him for something.” And even that criticism came with a qualification: “Frankly, I think most people respect him a lot.”

“Haim is a very interesting combination,” Waxman Abramson said. “He is, on the one hand, the greatest strategist; and then you combine that with the fact that he can be a lamb, a kind gentle lamb, but the moment he needs to be, he can turn into a lion.”

Miri Nash, executive director for the Western Region Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, remembers when she was invited by the Sabans to visit the Palmachim Air Force Base just south of Tel Aviv for a private briefing. In was then that a senior deputy commander received a phone call that Asaf Ramon, son of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut killed in the Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003, had crashed an F-16 and was presumed dead. Nash looked over at Saban, who was stricken.

“You saw the tears coming down his face,” she recalled. “This was genuine, this was real. This wasn’t the Academy Award.”

Saban’s stake in Israel’s wellbeing extends far beyond the welfare of his own intimate circle. Israelis in Los Angeles have taken to calling him “the Israeli godfather,” a nickname that reflects his paternal role in the Israeli community.

Through the FIDF, the Sabans have paid for 220 Israeli soldiers to attend four-year universities. They also recently provided a $5 million anchor gift to create the Saban Soldier’s Home in Jerusalem, a $15 million building that will become a recreational facility and shelter for up to 650 soldiers at a time.

Metuka Benjamin, director of education for the Stephen S. Wise Temple and Schools, once solicited Saban’s help in funding a cafeteria for Shevach Mofet, a high school in a low-income Tel Aviv neighborhood. In 2001, the school lost seven students in a terror attack outside a Tel Aviv nightclub and the student population, composed mostly of Russian immigrants, was plunged into grief and despair. “Morale was so low,” Benjamin recalled. “Four-hundred youngsters couldn’t afford to buy a hot lunch. Secretaries were sharing their food with them.” With Saban’s help, Benjamin came to their rescue, with plans to build a library in memory of the students who were killed, as well as a cafeteria. Saban, whom she knew as a parent at Milken Community High School, agreed not only to build the cafeteria but also to provide students with meal vouchers for the next several years.

“This was very powerful for him,” Benjamin said, “because as an immigrant, he identified with them.”

But away from the spotlight, Saban is also prone to private kindnesses. Waxman Abramson remembers a time when Saban’s private plane malfunctioned before taking off for Israel. Saban wound up flying commercial — in coach — beside an Israeli woman and her son. Making conversation with the stranger seated next to him, he asked the woman what she had been doing in the United States. She told him she had been in medical consultations regarding her son’s chronic condition. Treatment was going to cost nearly $100,000.

“Who has $100,000?” Waxman Abramson remembers the woman saying.

Saban took out his checkbook.

“He has such a heart of gold,” Waxman Abramson said. “He has dedicated his life to trying to make sure that [Jews] are safe, and that we have a home, and I think that the more money a person has, the more weight and influence they have. And Haim understands that full well.”

“Everything he does is dedicated to a singular goal. I’m his greatest admirer.”

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