November 10, 2010
For the love of Israel, health care and ‘Power Rangers’
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
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.”