Last week, shipping tycoon Sammy Ofer’s grave in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery
was vandalized. It could have been worse, to be sure. The vandal – no, the
savage – drew only a small “price tag” on the grave. But the act was merely the
latest in a series of disgraceful behavior directed at the Ofer family over the
past six months.
By most accounts the Ofer brothers, quiet and unassuming
but massively wealthy, were decent men. Sammy and his brother Yuli were born in
Rumania in the early 1920s. Their family came to Mandatory Palestine in 1924 and
resided in Haifa. Both men served in the Israeli army, Sammy in the nascent Navy
because he had been in the Royal Navy, and his brother in the army. Sammy bought
his first ship in 1950 and after his brother left the army, mustering out as a
Major, the two men founded a shipping company which would become the basis for
the Ofer Brothers Group.
As Nehemia Shtrasler of Haaretz tells it, Sammy
Ofer made his bones abroad.
“The truth is that Ofer made his fortune
abroad, and only afterward returned to Israel in order to invest the profits
here....He left Israel in the late 1960s and went to live in London,
where he founded a shipping company that was very successful. He took great
risks, took out huge loans and purchased ships during times of crisis, when
everyone was afraidli success story.�㛲���ᦗ�Last wl prepared in times of
With his brother Yuli, he acquired other assets besides
shipping, including Bank Mizrahi, several chemical and oil businesses and
dabbled in real estate. The Ofer brothers became Israel’s wealthiest people and
grew their shipping business into one of the biggest in the world. They also
gave handsomely to charity.
BUT SOME Israelis, it seems, hated them and
felt suspicious of their wealth. They were the rich tycoons, the ones the
protestors blame for the high rents and cottage cheese prices. They were the
In May, the US State Department slapped sanctions on
seven companies, the Ofer brothers’ among them, for dealing with Iran and barred
them from receiving US export licenses and receiving loans of over $10 million
from US financial institutions.
This revelation was accepted without
question by the Israeli public, media and politicians, all of whom brandished
their knives to strike down the company that could now be accused of putting
profits above patriotism.
Israel’s politicians and media experts didn’t
bother to digest what the Ofer brothers were accused of – the State Department
claimed they didn’t do due diligence when they sold a tanker they owned jointly
with another company to a straw company that was in fact acting on behalf of
Yossi Melman at Haaretz wrote that “the Ofer Brothers Group may be
scurrying into damage control in Israel, Singapore, London and Washington, after
the United States blacklisted it for trading with Iran, but Israel seems to be
doing nothing to enforce international sanctions on Iran.”
politicians across the political spectrum demanded an immediate investigation by
the attorney-general and Knesset. Shelly Yacimovich of Labor claimed “the
prime minister must protect Israel’s economy against such an occurrence and
pursue justice against the companies’ owners.” A special Knesset panel
was convened to investigate the supposed wrongdoing.
But then the knives
were sheathed. The Knesset committee disappeared. The attorney- general did
Sammy Ofer died in early June. One Obituary read: “Israeli
billionaire involved in Iran dealings dies in Tel Aviv.” At his funeral, his son
Idan said, “for him, Zionism wasn’t merely an ideal, but a commandment to
action.” Sammy’s brother Yuli died in September. Conveniently, the
next day the press reported: “US drops Ofer brothers company from Iran Sanctions
List” (Haaretz, Sept. 13).
Even though they were in their late 80s, the
controversy may have driven the poor men to an early grave.
that’s clear regarding the ordeal the Ofers were forced to go through is that,
as far as I can tell, not one politician or media personality has apologized.
Why should Shelly Yacimovich, Aryeh Eldad or Nachman Shai, among the accusers,
say “we were wrong, it turns out that we jumped to conclusions”?
No, it is
easier to have a savage outburst, to accuse men who gave their entire lives to
Israel, who devoted themselves not only to the defense of the country but also
to making it a world financial power, of wanting some piddling profit from the
sale of one rusty tanker to an Iranian straw company.
One wonders, if the
Ofers had simply left Israel in 1960 and not returned, building their fortune
abroad, where all their money was made anyway, would not their lives have ended
Sammy’s grave would probably not have been vandalized, at least not
by his own people. Furthermore he wouldn’t have been hounded to his dying
Mr. Ofer couldn’t even donate money in Israel without people
castigating him for it.
In 2006 when he had given money to the Tel Aviv
Museum of Art he was slandered and libeled so much he withdrew the donation,
writing, “Sorry for wanting to contribute, an open letter to the art lovers in
Tel Aviv and Israel.”
That is a sad testament to the place the Ofers
called home. Why is that? Why can’t Israelis look up to men like the Ofers, see
success and feel proud? The Ofers represented one of the best success stories in
the region. The country should have produced ten thousand more Ofers rather than
producing ten thousand more critics capable of unfounded hateful
There should be outrage over the desecration at Trumpeldor
Cemetery, just as there is outrage at all these heinous “price tag” attacks.
The writer has a Ph.D from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.