November 10, 2010
For the love of Israel, health care and ‘Power Rangers’
(Page 4 - Previous Page)
“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.”