April 10, 2013
Philanthropist Stanley Gold set to race “Peking-to-Paris” [Q&A]
Entrepreneur, philanthropist, adventurer and major investor in Middle East
Stanley Gold is President and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, Inc., an investment company owned by the family of Roy E. Disney. He chaired the Board of Trustees of the University of Southern California; served as Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; was on the board of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religions. He was also chairman Israel’s Koor Industries and founder of the Shamrock Israel Growth Fund.
The Media Line: The question often asked of the rich and powerful is, “What drives them?”
In the case of Stanley Gold, head of Shamrock Holdings, the man who saved the Disney Empire and the man who has honed capitalism to a fine art, the question is, “What will Stanley Gold be driving -- when he risks life and limb to compete in a cross continent auto race?”
GOLD: The answer to your question is that I will be driving a 1965 Porsche 911 in the Peking-to- Paris Rally, which is about 12,000 kilometers, just short of 8,000 miles, and the majority of it is off-road, especially the early part through Mongolia.
TML: Tell us a little more about the race, and in particular, why did you choose the Porsche?
GOLD: I have for a long time collected and raced a number of Porsches all over the world, mostly on track races -- although I’ve done some rallying as well. So, most people know that I’m a Porsche man, and as such, I thought it only appropriate that I try to do this rally in a Porsche. It’s not the ideal car because, as anybody knows, Porsches are built very low to the ground and have a very low center of gravity, and you go off-road through streams and rivers and difficult terrain. But we’ve jacked the car up about as high as you can; we got big tires on it; we’ve stiffened the car and so we think we can do it. There are several other Porsches -- I think three or four more in the race with us -- so we’re not alone in trying. I’m hoping for the best.
TML: So who is the team? Who are you racing against? And what’s your biggest concern?
GOLD: Ah, the biggest concern. The biggest concern of all is the condition the car. You’ve got to know that this, in my case, is a 45, almost 50-year-old car, so you always are concerned that something will happen with the car. So you’ve got to take care of the car. You cant horse it around, you can’t win this race on the first day out – you’ve got to do it over a period of time [so] it’s important to take care of the car. We’re going to have a lot of fun. There are, I think, 95 cars at the start, many of them are pre-World War II cars. In some cases, believe it or not, some guys are driving pre-World War I cars! Actually, I think the earliest is from 1917, so just right at the end of the war. Now, it is a test of man and machine. The original race was run in 1907, it was won by an Italian prince driving something called “The Itala” and it took him 60 days to get from Peking to Paris. We’re looking to do it in about 33 days, if we can hold it all together.
TML: What is the most difficult terrain that you’ll be encountering?
GOLD: I haven’t done it, so it’s a bit of a guess, but I’ve looked pretty carefully at some maps and some films that we made about it. It’s Mongolia – there are just no roads. Once you’re out of the capital city of Ulaan Baatar, there are no roads. So if we leave Peking then, by the second or third day we’re already into the Gobi desert and if we catch a sandstorm or soft sand in the desert, then it’s going to be difficult. And then, after we get to Ulaan Baatar, we head west across the steppes of Mongolia, where Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan were, and there’s just no roads. There are camel trails, there are goat trails, and you sort of follow them. You’ve got to navigate with a GPS. There is just nothing out there for the most part until you get to the Russian border.
TML: Switching hats, has anyone suggested that the line between real life and the world of Disney has blurred a bit?
GOLD: (laughs) No, nobody has suggested it, but I understand the comment. Look, I’ve spent a great deal of my life trying to do things that are adventurous. I’m not a professional climber or a professional anything, but I think we come to this world; we get an opportunity to see things that are difficult and unusual. You ought to take it in so, this is not the first “crazy” thing that I’ve done in my life.
TML: From Brooklyn to Mongolia…
GOLD: Yeah, exactly.
TML: Anyone who knows Stanley Gold realizes that there are many dimensions to the man: For instance, vast achievements in the world of capitalism, but an icon in the non-profit world as well. Is it a give back?
GOLD: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I think one of the jobs we are on this earth to do is to help people who are less fortunate, to give back, and so I’m involved in it. And you know, I’ve been chairman of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion early in my career; I was chairman of the University of Southern California; I’ve been chairman of the [Los Angeles] Jewish Federation, and numerous other organizations that help others in the community and this is the result: I get a great thrill seeing young people grow and do their own thing and giving them opportunities that they might not have if some of us didn’t give them a helping hand.
TML: Often, you’re involved in things that many people say are the two things we’re cautioned not to talk about: religion and politics. Where does that come from?
GOLD: The politics is probably my mother. She was a bit of an activist when I was a small child, worked very closely with a woman that most people won’t know the name, but political buffs would know, Helen Gahagan Douglas, who ran in the late 1940s against Richard Nixon in the very bitter senate election in California. But religion came later in life, at the urging of one of the senior partners of the law firm I joined. Its religion, but it’s the education of religion as opposed to the ritualistic. I don’t think it’s a surprise if I say to you that I think that sometimes religion gets caught up in ritualistic comings-and-goings as opposed to the spiritual and the meaning of the religion which is pretty easy to condense, it’s about helping your fellow man. And sometimes we get confused about what it is. So it’s trying to keep those priorities of both religion and politics clear as opposed to getting tied up in side arguments.
TML: Hiddush, is an example. Can you share a little about why you became its chairman and helped develop this organization; and the same about your involvement with the Israel Policy Forum.
GOLD: Hiddush is an organization that is really pressing both the populace of Israel and its government representatives to fulfill the early founders’ claims about freedom of religion. The Jewish religion in Israel has become a monopoly of the Ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, for the most part, and I don’t think that’s good for the society; I don’t think it’s good for Israel; I don’t think it’s good for Jews; and even, if I may be so bold, I don’t even think it’s good for the Haredim. Religion by coercion is not much of a religion, and so if you don’t let people explore and interpret religion in their own way… that has been the history of the Jewish religion. It wasn’t always practiced as it is today in the 21st Century. It was practiced in many different ways. And its strength is its growth and the interpretation of those in various eras. And that right now we have difficulty in Israel, because of a monopoly of it. And so I fight against monopolies, whether they are business monopolies, or monopolies -- in this case -- in the religious non-profit world.
The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) -- I was an original founder -- I haven’t been real active in it lately, although I certainly subscribe to its views, and that is one which I think was expressed by President Obama on his recent trip to Israel, that the real strength and defense and security for Israel will be a secure Palestinian state alongside it. And when both people feel that they’ve got the kind of reward that they are entitled to that will bring the ultimate security for Israel which should be endorsed, wanted to be seen to prosper and grow, the President was more eloquent in his words than I am right now, but the sentiment is the same.
TML: Two weeks ago, you were a signer of a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu that urged him to take “concrete confidence building steps” designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a two-state-solution. What steps did you have in mind, Stanley?
GOLD: Well, its not my position to tell the Israeli government how to manage its practical day-to-day foreign affairs, or military affairs in some cases, but there are lots of things that will help begin to give some confidence building to people that have no confidence. Certainly, a reduction of settlement-building. Its an irritant. I know the prime minister in his last go-around stopped it for a period of time; the Palestinians didn’t respond to it very well, but that doesn’t mean that you then give up on it. We need to begin to find things that will be helpful to the other side because ultimately, there’s got to be a secure Palestinian state and a secure Israeli state in order to have security for both.
TML: The letter was criticized by some for failing to ask Palestinian Authority President Abbas to match those gestures. Should it have?
GOLD: IPF has certainly done some things with the Palestinians. I’m not opposed to asking the Palestinians to have confidence building measures either, it takes two to tango. But the major power in the area is Israel, there can’t be any question about it, so it wouldn’t be bad for them to take the first step in the dance. And ultimately, the Palestinians will have to do the same kind of confidence-building if we’re going to have something, so I wouldn’t read anything into it other than someone has got to start first and we thought that we might be able to suggest and persuade the prime minister to be the first to take the first step.
TML: No one has solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. What is more important to deal with first, setting borders, or creating a viable Palestinian economy? And how would you do that?
GOLD: You’re asking me? The question is way above my pay grade.
TML: (laughs) couldn’t be…
GOLD: Although I’ve wandered into territory before that I probably am not qualified for. Look, I think building a real economy will give the Palestinians something to be proud of, something to defend, and something that they are not willing to give up. So, I think having an economy, having construction in their area... I visited recently, in one of my last trips to the area, Rawabi. It’s a city being built in what is basically the suburbs, a few miles north of Ramallah. That kind of activity, I think, is good for the Palestinian economy and a source of pride and hopefully it will build some confidence in them that will allow them to take those confidence-building steps we talked about.
TML: Secretary of State Kerry is off-and-running, and much of what we know of his agenda is not different than that of his predecessors, and we know it didn’t happen then. What is Stanley Gold’s advice to Secretary Kerry?
GOLD: I’m not sure we know exactly what the secretary is doing. I think if there’s going to be progress, it has got to be done in private and if I were the secretary, I would not be negotiating with either the prime minister or with the Palestinians in the newspapers. I think its got to be done quietly and behind the scenes. So, I wouldn’t jump to say it’s the same agenda. Let’s see what happens after awhile. But certainly this is not something that ought to be negotiated in the press.
TML: You have a leg up on most US- or foreign-based philanthropists because you spent many years and dollars in Israel-based commerce. You’ve headed its largest holding company; built American-style theaters; put Israeli sandals on Israeli feel and dipped them all in Dead Sea mud. Are your involvements purely entrepreneurial, or is there a touch of Jewishness flavoring some business decisions?
GOLD: Good question, and one I’ve asked myself a long time. In the end, since many of the investments that you have suggested I had third-party money, other investors with me, and I’ve got to be careful to get them a return. But the fact that progress and economy and employment and jobs and dividends happens in Israel, gives me an extra bit of pride, and a bit of my Zionist part does smile.
TML: If Jews control the movie industry, why do you have to build movie theaters in Israel?
GOLD: (laughs) One, I don’t believe the Jews control the movie industry. Two, there are lots of young people in Israel who want to experience a very good theater experience for their date nights, for their friends, for their children to see some of the latest animations. And so the quality of theaters for the exhibition of movies world-wide, is a good thing. It helps the industry, it gets more people into the seats, more tickets sold, and hence both the producer and the exhibitor end up benefiting from such an enterprise.
TML: When you took over leadership of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation you declared war on the old ways and promised to point it toward the future. What shape is the commitment of the younger Jewish community to Israel in?
GOLD: Well, it’s better than it was six years ago when I made those statements in Los Angeles. Young people are the future both of Jews and of the society, generally, and getting them involved in Jewish affairs was my main goal, and I can say both during my two years as chairman of the Federation and my successor’s period at the helm, we have involved significantly more young people -- people anywhere from 20 to 40 years of age -- in the Federation. They’re buying into its mission, and with that will come more and more commitment on their part. We’re doing things differently; they just don’t quite honestly want to give any money blindly to the old organizations. They want to have all kinds of new ideas on how to meet Jews in different places and different circumstances. But I think, while it’s always an issue, I would say to you that in terms of Los Angeles, which is the question I think you asked, young Jewish involvement in philanthropy is better than it was six years ago when I made those statements.
TML: It doesn’t sound like there’s much you have not done, Stanley. Would you consider returning to the Middle East as an ambassador?
GOLD: I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to be an ambassador. Ambassadors have to follow their governments’ dictates. I made a habit in my life of sort of speaking my own mind when I want. Whether that is critical of my government or the Israeli government; or even some of my family’s positions, I’m more comfortable being a free-spirit and getting to call them the way I see it. I think that’s my role as opposed to being a diplomat. Obviously, if I could ever help either the American government or the Israeli government on a small task, I would be more than willing to contribute time, effort and ideas. But I don’t think diplomacy is probably my strong suit.
TML: Well, Stanley Gold, you have an exciting race ahead of you and many days to think. How can we follow the Peking to Paris Rally?
GOLD: We have a website. It’s a bit under construction, but it’s open to the public. It’s called ShamrockRacing.net. And through that you can follow. There’s a link to both a race I’m going to do here in April in France and then the big race in May and you’ll be able to track progress. The car is going to have what’s called a yellow brick tracker -- a GPS that will show my progress sort of every half hour on a screen. And once you get to that website you can get to the websites of the organizers and pretty much understand where I am and what I’m doing.
TML: Good luck, Stanley. We’ll keep watching you through the race.
GOLD: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
FELICE FRIEDSON is President and CEO of The Media Line News Agency and founder of The Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.