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Terra Incognita: Disgraceful behavior
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
01/11/2011
The desecration of Sammy Ofer’s grave is but the latest in a shameful wave of hate directed at an Israeli success story.
 
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 prosperity.”

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 evil capitalists.

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 Iran.

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.”

Israel’s 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 nothing.

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.

One thing 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 differently?

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 day.

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 accusations.

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.
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