Jerusalem Report

Lord of the manna

Lord Rothschild on responsibilities of wealth, philanthropy for Israel and dismay at bankers.

lord rothschild 521
Photo by: COU RTESY YAD HANADIV/ELAD GOLDMAN
Nathaniel Charles Jacob, fourth Baron Rothschild, commands the room without effort.

Choosing his words with the skills derived from an Eton and Oxford education, he delivers them in the deep, cultured tones of a British aristocrat.

Tall and erect at 76, he has distinctive looks (“a long oval face, high forehead, and arched hawk-like eyes,” as one writer describes him) and quite a pedigree: he is the great, great, great grandson of Nathan Mayer, one of the five sons of Mayer Amschel, founder of the House of Rothschild, the financial world’s most famous family dynasty, and the archetype of Jewish wealth.

Lord Rothschild parted from the family banking business decades ago. Today he is one of Britain’s most renowned business investors and chairman since 1989 of Yad Hanadiv, the philanthropic arm of the legendary family, which quietly distributes tens of millions of Rothschild dollars every year to dozens of projects throughout Israel.

One of the most accomplished of the modern-day Rothschilds, Jacob is a world renowned art patron and, in what seems to be his favorite avocation, a world-class philanthropist. He was chairman of the trustees of the British National Gallery and involved in major British cultural projects, including the Courtauld Institute of Fine Art and the restoration of Somerset House in London. When the UK National Lottery was launched in 1994, he was invited to chair the British National Heritage Lottery Fund, responsible for distributing some $2 billion.

Jacob’s own net worth, estimated at around $600 million by the Sunday Times in 2010, has now been surpassed by the riches of his son and heir, Nat, according to the newspaper’s annual Rich List. Lord Rothschild is no longer counted among the 100 wealthiest people in Britain, but he retains the confidence of world leaders, business giants and royal family members whom he hosts at Waddesdon Manor, a turreted 19th-century Loire Valleystyle chateau and estate in Buckinghamshire that he inherited from Dorothy de Rothschild, the widow of his cousin James. Jacob’s London office is Spencer House in St. James’s, the former ancestral home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Although he is one of the world’s top financiers, Lord Rothschild displays surprising consideration for the Occupy movements in Wall Street, London and elsewhere.

“I have a lot of sympathy with people who protested about some of the excesses in the world of finance,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “After all, here are characters who have made great fortunes, who have been in charge of a system, which has been very damaging to many interests in the last five to ten years. They have had enormous benefits but the banking system as a whole has had a crippling effect in a number of areas throughout the world.”

Rarity

He is not optimistic that the protesters might transform bankers into a more socially conscious group “by trying to get the banks to recycle some of their wealth back into the community.” It’s an unlikely scenario. Right now, he says, “the banks are not in a very fit state to give away money. They are mostly being helped by governments.”

Our conversation is a rarity. The activities of the Rothschild Foundation in Israel have been characterized by a discretion bordering on secrecy. Accustomed to adopting a low profile toward the many Rothschild accomplishments in Israel, Yad Hanadiv has Nathaniel Charles Jacob, fourth Baron Rothschild, commands the room without effort.

Choosing his words with the skills derived from an Eton and Oxford education, he delivers them in the deep, cultured tones of a British aristocrat.

Tall and erect at 76, he has distinctive looks (“a long oval face, high forehead, and arched hawk-like eyes,” as one writer describes him) and quite a pedigree: he is the great, great, great grandson of Nathan Mayer, one of the five sons of Mayer Amschel, founder of the House of Rothschild, the financial world’s most famous family dynasty, and the archetype of Jewish wealth.

Lord Rothschild parted from the family banking business decades ago. Today he is one of Britain’s most renowned business investors and chairman since 1989 of Yad Hanadiv, the philanthropic arm of the legendary family, which quietly distributes tens of millions of Rothschild dollars every year to dozens of projects throughout Israel.

One of the most accomplished of the modern-day Rothschilds, Jacob is a worldrenowned art patron and, in what seems to be his favorite avocation, a world-class philanthropist. He was chairman of the trustees of the British National Gallery and involved in major British cultural projects, including the Courtauld Institute of Fine Art and the restoration of Somerset House in London. When the UK National Lottery was launched in 1994, he was invited to chair the British National Heritage Lottery Fund, responsible for distributing some $2 billion.

Jacob’s own net worth, estimated at around $600 million by the Sunday Times in 2010, has now been surpassed by the riches of his son and heir, Nat, according to the newspaper’s annual Rich List. Lord Rothschild is no longer counted among the 100 wealthiest people in Britain, but he retains the confidence of world leaders, business giants and royal family members whom he hosts at Waddesdon Manor, a turreted 19th-century Loire Valleystyle chateau and estate in Buckinghamshire that he inherited from Dorothy de Rothschild, the widow of his cousin James. Jacob’s London office is Spencer House in St. James’s, the former ancestral home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Although he is one of the world’s top financiers, Lord Rothschild displays surprising consideration for the Occupy movements in Wall Street, London and elsewhere.

“I have a lot of sympathy with people who protested about some of the excesses in the world of finance,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “After all, here are characters who have made great fortunes, who have been in charge of a system, which has been very damaging to many interests in the last five to ten years. They have had enormous benefits but the banking system as a whole has had a crippling effect in a number of areas throughout the world.”

Rarity He is not optimistic that the protesters might transform bankers into a more socially conscious group “by trying to get the banks to recycle some of their wealth back into the community.” It’s an unlikely scenario. Right now, he says, “the banks are not in a very fit state to give away money. They are mostly being helped by governments.”

Our conversation is a rarity. The activities of the Rothschild Foundation in Israel have been characterized by a discretion bordering on secrecy. Accustomed to adopting a low profile toward the many Rothschild accomplishments in Israel, Yad Hanadiv hasNathaniel Charles Jacob, fourth Baron Rothschild, commands the room without effort.

Choosing his words with the skills derived from an Eton and Oxford education, he delivers them in the deep, cultured tones of a British aristocrat.

Tall and erect at 76, he has distinctive looks (“a long oval face, high forehead, and arched hawk-like eyes,” as one writer describes him) and quite a pedigree: he is the great, great, great grandson of Nathan Mayer, one of the five sons of Mayer Amschel, founder of the House of Rothschild, the financial world’s most famous family dynasty, and the archetype of Jewish wealth.

Lord Rothschild parted from the family banking business decades ago. Today he is one of Britain’s most renowned business investors and chairman since 1989 of Yad Hanadiv, the philanthropic arm of the legendary family, which quietly distributes tens of millions of Rothschild dollars every year to dozens of projects throughout Israel.

One of the most accomplished of the modern-day Rothschilds, Jacob is a worldrenowned art patron and, in what seems to be his favorite avocation, a world-class philanthropist. He was chairman of the trustees of the British National Gallery and involved in major British cultural projects, including the Courtauld Institute of Fine Art and the restoration of Somerset House in London. When the UK National Lottery was launched in 1994, he was invited to chair the British National Heritage Lottery Fund, responsible for distributing some $2 billion.

Jacob’s own net worth, estimated at around $600 million by the Sunday Times in 2010, has now been surpassed by the riches of his son and heir, Nat, according to the newspaper’s annual Rich List. Lord Rothschild is no longer counted among the 100 wealthiest people in Britain, but he retains the confidence of world leaders, business giants and royal family members whom he hosts at Waddesdon Manor, a turreted 19th-century Loire Valleystyle chateau and estate in Buckinghamshire that he inherited from Dorothy de Rothschild, the widow of his cousin James. Jacob’s London office is Spencer House in St. James’s, the former ancestral home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Although he is one of the world’s top financiers, Lord Rothschild displays surprising consideration for the Occupy movements in Wall Street, London and elsewhere.

“I have a lot of sympathy with people who protested about some of the excesses in the world of finance,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “After all, here are characters who have made great fortunes, who have been in charge of a system, which has been very damaging to many interests in the last five to ten years. They have had enormous benefits but the banking system as a whole has had a crippling effect in a number of areas throughout the world.”

Rarity He is not optimistic that the protesters might transform bankers into a more socially conscious group “by trying to get the banks to recycle some of their wealth back into the community.” It’s an unlikely scenario. Right now, he says, “the banks are not in a very fit state to give away money. They are mostly being helped by governments.”

Our conversation is a rarity. The activities of the Rothschild Foundation in Israel have been characterized by a discretion bordering on secrecy. Accustomed to adopting a low profile toward the many Rothschild accomplishments in Israel, Yad Hanadiv has only recently opened a website and its annual report must be the only one produced by the financier that contains no figures.

“We’ve tried not to be in the headlines,” says Lord Rothschild, defending a policy that dates back to 1882 when Baron Edmond de Rothschild provided the early Zionists with the tools to edge toward nationhood, founding some of the first modern Jewish settlements and businesses in Palestine, including the Carmel winery, whose grapes came from cuttings transferred from the Rothschild vineyards in France. Edmond was the son of James Mayer, brother of Nathan Mayer, from whom Jacob is descended.

Despite his efforts to maintain a low profile, Zionists dubbed Edmond “Hanadiv Hayadua” (“The Known Benefactor”) – since everyone knew the identity of the anonymous donor.

Edmond’s son James and daughter-inlaw Dorothy were not so reticent. James became a British member of parliament and an outspoken supporter of the Zionist cause.

They provided Chaim Weizmann with the needed contacts in Britain to attain British support for a Jewish state through the Balfour Declaration. “Dear Lord Rothschild,” UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s famous November 2, 1917 letter begins, addressed to the second Baron, Walter, Jacob’s great uncle.

Jacob’s father Victor, the third Baron, was more interested in his scientific research and wartime intelligence work for Britain than in Zionist politics. Cousins James and Dorothy were the ones who encouraged the young Jacob to make his first trip to Israel in the early 1950s with his friend Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher. It was James and Dorothy who groomed Jacob to assume the leadership of the family’s century-old commitment to the Zionist project. When Dorothy died in 1988, she bequeathed Jacob both Waddesdon and her 94-million-pound fortune – at the time, the largest ever British inheritance – and the chairmanship of Yad Hanadiv.

Few other visitors to Israel in the past 50 years could have experienced quite the same pride as Jacob Rothschild upon seeing the construction of Israel’s Knesset parliament building, Supreme Court, Open University and a raft of educational, scientific and research projects across the country – for Lord Rothschild and his fund built them all.

Under his expert stewardship, the 94 million pounds he inherited from Dorothy has multiplied many times over. Every penny has been plowed into philanthropic pursuits in Israel.

Though he has traveled to Israel annually for half a century to oversee the work of the foundation, Jacob Rothschild has shunned creating publicity around Yad Hanadiv.

Despite the many millions donated by the family, neither the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Jerusalem Music Center at Mishkenot Shaananim nor the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University bear the Rothschild name. In stark contrast to other wealthy families, there is no Rothschild hospital, college or synagogue, even though foundation money has been vital for the development of all these areas in Israel. Until nine days before architects were chosen to design the Knesset, completed in 1952, only a handful were aware that James and Dorothy Rothschild had donated 1.25 million British pounds for the new parliament building. “Our tradition has been that we don’t shout from the rooftops what we are doing,” says Jacob.

Privacy, however, has not protected the Rothschilds entirely from unwanted exposure, especially from anti-Semites who portray the family as the prime example of Jewish wealth and hence Jewish evil. Nor has their near silence kept others from prying, usually unsuccessfully, into their behind-the-scenes interactions. When news leaked of a power tiff in 1980 with cousin Evelyn that triggered Jacob’s departure from the family’s flagship investment bank, N. M. Rothschild and Sons, the cousins were horrified, vowing to protect themselves against future intrusions.

Transformed

So Yad Hanadiv’s activities have largely been conducted in private, even though their results have transformed the Israeli landscape. Conscious that Israel’s National Library lacked the modern facilities required for a 21st-century institution, the Rothschilds quietly stepped in and offered to save the Israeli government most of the cost of financing a new building, due to open in 2017, and the technology to make holdings available online.

The Rothschilds gave few public speeches and their photographs seldom appeared in newspapers. Yad Hanadiv offered few insights into its major projects. In contrast with most other philanthropists, the Rothschilds barred recipients in Israel from citing the family as the main supporter of their projects.

They defended their silence by asserting that their philanthropy was a privilege that would have been diminished had they taken public credit for it. Producing one remarkable nation-building project after another, Yad Hanadiv avoided self-promotion out of what Lord Rothschild quietly refers to as “shyness.”

It was a quaint humility that seemed increasingly anachronistic.

Over the years, as Israel changed, so did the nature of the Rothschilds’ giving. “Israel was a relatively poor country that once needed soup kitchens more than it does today,” says Jacob. “Today the role of philanthropy in Israel, given the prosperity of this country, is a very different one. We like to think we’re doing things that wouldn’t have happened had we not become involved.”

As a result, the Rothschilds prefer to invest in higher education and science. Israel’s edge, Jacob says, is in its intellectual prowess, so the goal of philanthropy should be “to make that edge continue to prosper. And we identify higher education as a role where we could make a difference.

“I think the National Library is a good example,” he says. “I think it frankly wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come along with our proposal.”

Yad Hanadiv was instrumental in creating Educational Television in 1966, Israel’s first live TV station, which began with a rare appearance by Lord Rothschild himself. The foundation also created the Open University in 1976. Based on the British model and only the second such institution in the world, it is now Israel’s largest university.

When the Israeli government slashed funding to higher education between 2000 and 2010, the Humanities were particularly hard hit. Yad Hanadiv created a fund to encourage innovation and unheard of cooperation among universities to help keep certain fields afloat.

It continued to encourage young scholars with postdoctoral fellowships in the Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities and the Bruno Award – roughly modeled on the MacArthur “genius” awards – all the while funding scientific initiatives at the Technion and Weizmann Institute. Other key projects supported by Yad Hanadiv include an institute for the training of school principals, the establishment of a center for researching the impact of the environment on human health, projects in the Arab community emphasizing access for the disabled and, most recently, an initiative to establish 22 employment centers in Arab neighborhoods.

Until the mid-1990s, few in Israel knew precisely what Yad Hanadiv was doing. Yad Hanadiv was so secretive that even its Guiding Principles were not publicly available, nor were a series of potentially useful studies, including a heavily researched committee report on the feasibility of a new National Library building.

More recently, the foundation has been influenced by a burgeoning transparency in the philanthropy world. Yad Hanadiv has slowly fallen in step with other philanthropists who saw the value of networking and sharing information about their projects.

Inevitably, the Rothschilds’ beneficence has become public knowledge despite the tight-lipped traditions. It was not possible each year for 400,000 visitors to visit the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens near Haifa – burial place of Baron Edmond – or for another 40,000 students and post-doctorate fellows to benefit from the Open University, without Yad Hanadiv’s once-scrupulous anonymity slowly dissolving. The prospect of building a major public institution like the new National Library in an age of open information and social networking provided impetus for a higher public profile.

A few years ago, another benefactor urged Jacob to let Rothschild beneficiaries boast that the family was supporting a particular project. By not being allowed such “bragging rights,” his friend argued, these recipients were denied a tool for effective fundraising from other donors. Lord Rothschild got the point.

The family finally dropped the veil in February 2010 when Yad Hanadiv went online and published the names of its staff.

“We have a website and we have a proper board of trustees,” says Jacob gleefully.

Yadhanadiv.org.il contains a brief history of Rothschild efforts in Israel, a timeline, and those once-unpublished Guiding Principles.

Included are the statements “We value sharing of knowledge” and “We are committed to a modest public profile.”

Unmarked

In early May, the Yad Hanadiv offices moved from their unmarked building in a Jerusalem side street to new headquarters opposite the King David Hotel where, in the spirit of the burgeoning openness, its fresh facilities make it easier to host partners and grantees.

But there is a limit. The details of Yad Hanadiv’s finances remain a secret, as do its debates and negotiations. The family name is absent from the new, green-friendly building, nor will there be a Rothschild Tower on the Tel Aviv seafront or a Rothschild Theater in Jerusalem. And, while the practice of not publicizing the names of many recipients remains official policy, some of their identities are now published on the website. But it’s a two-way street. At a ceremony in the Knesset on March 25, Lord Rothschild presented the $50,000 biannual Rothschild Prize to five eminent professors. The Israeli press was invited to attend but none of them bothered to turn up.

Might the increased public profile induce the Rothschilds to turn their world-class influence toward resolving the Israeli- Arab conflict? No, says Jacob Rothschild.

Historically, the family has always steered clear of politics – and business – in Israel.

Besides, he wants to focus his personal energies in Israel exclusively on Yad Hanadiv, adding with another dash of the family “shyness” that he has neither the skill, the impartiality, or the time that would make him a peace facilitator.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a minute off in Israel,” he says. “I’ve been completely and utterly devoted to what Hanadiv does. I’m not saying I’m a good guy for that. It’s just the way the dice have fallen. Therefore, I have a certain reticence about becoming involved away from my main focus. I don’t feel that I can enter the arena of the political debate, or should do, because of a lack of expertise in it.

That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t have feelings about it and views about it, but I think where I can contribute is through what I’m doing. I think I should discipline myself in a life that’s already too crowded, to focus on that one objective.”

In a surprising admission – one routinely assumes a Rothschild can effortlessly amass as much money as he wishes – the storied investor points to his own “hard work” in keeping the Rothschild coffers full in order to fund Yad Hanadiv’s expanding activities.

“I’ve enjoyed the countless opportunities but they are demanding as well,” he says.“One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time doing is growing the assets of the foundation, which have enabled us to do what we do.That’s been a lot of hard work, to make Yad Hanadiv grow from what it was to what it is today. We see ourselves as competing to come out ahead of the pack.”

The Rothschild legacy, Jacob suggests, depends not just on the skillful stewardship of Dorothy de Rothschild’s bequest but on reinvigorating the wider family’s traditional ties so the ever-growing network of cousins can continue the work far into the future.

“If you take the nineteenth-century Jewish families, how many can you point to where the lights are still on? Not many, are there? I won’t mention names, but in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, the lights have gone out,” he says. “It’s nice that some of those old families carry on.”

Looking to the future, Lord Rothschild has mapped out a strategy to ensure that the collective family’s intimate connection to Israel and the work of the foundation will long outlive him. The rift with Sir Evelyn was healed long ago. “We speak at least once a week,” he says, with obvious satisfaction.

Echoing the summons he answered from his cousins James and Dorothy a half century ago, Jacob has deployed the board of trustees of Yad Hanadiv as a recruiting ground for the next generation of Rothschild cousins.

“I can’t hold out to you that our family is particularly religious but, in terms of involvement, I’ve got here today my daughter Hannah, my niece Alice, my niece Kate, and my nephew James. I’m doing everything I possibly can,” he says, noting the trustees visiting Jerusalem for a meeting of the board and the Rothschild Prize ceremony. Another cousin, Beatrice, and his daughter Beth were also due to come but were detained at home.

“I think that’s not bad to have seven here who are involved. That’s what I’m working at,” he says.

And so, one Rothschild becomes seven Rothschilds, equipped with modern communications, larger staff, a new headquarters and a fortune secure and large enough to continue doing what this unique family has been doing for more than a century: to make a difference.


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