'Give me a fulcrum and I shall move the world," a glossy pamphlet put out by the Arison Group quotes the great mathematician of antiquity, Archimedes.
The ancient Greek was speaking of mechanical leverage, but leverage of any sort is not something the group's chairwoman, Shari Arison, the Middle East's richest woman, is short of, and moving the world is her aim.
Like Thomas Paine who saw in the American Revolution a chance to apply to reason and liberty what Archimedes had said of the mechanical powers, Arison sees in the current financial crisis an opportunity for change. But while the metaphor is scientific, the vision is very much New Age.
Arison, the multibillion dollar heiress of the the shipping magnate Ted Arison, met with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the US publication last month of her book, Birth: When the Spiritual and the Material Come Together.
The Hebrew release of the book several months ago, which includes claims of visions of the future and messages received from above, was greeted with amusement and bemusement by the press, but Arison brushes those critiques aside with the new-found confidence of someone who describes herself as "transformed."
"Resistance to change is only natural," she says.
The important thing, says Arison, is how the man on the street reacts to her message. "I receive thousands of letters," she says. "People stop me walking down the street, at cafes, in movie theaters. They tell me they've read my book, that it meant a lot to them, that they are taking it into their own lives."
Her message and her purpose, Arison says, are to reveal what she calls "a new business-spiritual model." One that she explains "will enable individuals, companies and even states and nations to transform the collapse all around us into change, and to bring together the spiritual and the material, and from this meeting, give birth to a new future."
How does one bring the spiritual and the material together?
Well I think it's really important for people to understand that the two are not separate. People always viewed the material world, be it business, fashion or whatever, as a whole separate world, while the spiritual world was left to the rabbis and the gurus. But today more and more people are finding that nothing is separate and everything is connected. We as humanity are connected, we are all one people, living on one planet, and everything is interconnected. So you can't really separate the two entities.
What I have tried to do in the book is to present my own spiritual path and my business and philanthropic path and to show how I brought them together. And how it is vital for the future that people act, work and live in that way.
How is that vision enacted by the Arison Group?
The vision of the Arison Group is to secure human existence. When I looked at the vision, I decided to look at all the different businesses and philanthropic organizations and see what contributes to that vision. So when I looked at Shikun & Binui (Housing and Construction), the most natural thing was sustainable building and energy efficiency and that's what they're doing today.
At Bank Hapoalim I asked myself what is the strong suit of the bank? The strong suit of the bank is financial knowledge, so why not give people the tools to reach their own financial freedom? When I talk about financial freedom, what I mean is that if people have the knowledge and have the tools to make better, more responsible, financial choices, then they will prosper. I think the bank on the one hand needs to take responsibility, but also to give tools to the customer so that they can take responsibility and make better decisions. It is a vision of partnership as opposed to the strong versus the weak. I feel this is a breakthrough vision, and it's a vision that I'd like to lead worldwide.
When I started explaining this vision, it was before the collapse and nobody understood what I was talking about, but I think that in the wake of the financial crisis people understand what I'm talking about.
But Bank Hapoalim wasn't exempt from losses in the crisis; it invested in the same mortgage-backed securities that everyone else invested in.
Well I think back then nobody understood what I was talking about. Today not only do they [management] understand, but they are very much involved and they implement it inside the bank.
How is your vision channeled down to management?
My way of explaining my vision is through the chairman and the directors. Like I said, a few years ago people didn't really get it. I can tell you that, today, management is very much understanding, very much involved and very much wants to implement this vision at the bank.
At Hapoalim you clashed with the regulator over his demand that you dismiss the bank's chairman, Danny Dankner.
Well, basically it's a question of values and standing behind my values, and that's what I did. The whole issue is behind us now; there is a new chairman, a new CEO. Danny's working for me in the group [as CEO of Arison Investments]. So I'm looking to the future. But what I did basically was value based.
Did you feel in any way you were endangering the bank by clashing with the Bank of Israel?
No, what I feel is that the world has endangered the financial system because of a lack of values. I believe that in the long term what is going to help everybody is people who are honest and transparent and deal with business on a value base. So my feeling is quite the opposite.
ARISON IS well aware of the animosity that can be aroused by banks. "Many people hate banks and do not understand why they need to pay them," she writes. However, she has no intention of dumping the jewel in the crown of the Arison Group's holdings - one that yielded a net profit of NIS 425 million in the third quarter of 2009 - to concentrate on holdings that would be more easily seen as being synergistic with her vision of an economy that is built not only "on profits and the bottom line."
Isn't the bank a very problematic holding, one that is always going to be liable to draw fire?
I think that when you try to create change, in no matter what field, there is going to be resistance. I think if you look through the course of history, anyone who came along with any kind of breakthrough got ridiculed. If you look at anyone who came with something new, that's what happened. So yes, I'm coming with a lot of breakthrough visionary ideas so I expect that.
In terms of the way you brand yourself and the way you are perceived, wouldn't it just be easier to get rid of the bank and concentrate on fields like sustainable energy?
You talk about sustainable energy, but even there it took 10 years for people to figure out what I was talking about. If it wasn't for Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, I'd probably still be explaining the issue. So again we're trying to lead people to a better place, to something new. That's not easy, but it's very rewarding when you see things happening.
When I came up with the idea of Matan [an organization that helps businesses give back to the community]: Your Way to Give, what did I want to do? I wanted to give to the community. But the reaction was, 'Why should we give to the community?' Because all they [the business community] thought of was profit; they didn't think about giving back. Today it's a natural. So you can look at things today and say, well that's easy. But 12 years ago it wasn't easy. I remember a huge amount of resistance.
Do you think the business community is giving more these days?
Oh, definitely. That was not the norm 10 years ago, and now all businesses and all wealthy people give to the community. In the past it was very different; it used to be that Israel was a place where people expected the money to come from Diaspora Jews, that was the norm. You didn't hear about Israelis giving. Yes you had the Shirutrom on the radio and various other projects, but you didn't have the type of giving you have today.
Everything is a process. Making a change takes time. Things don't change overnight. For instance, when I came out with the idea of Good Deeds Day it was just an idea, and now three years later not only were there 20,000 volunteers but there was worldwide coverage.
On the issue of philanthropy, many of the world's mega-wealthy are giving huge sums of money these days. People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros. But they are aiming toward more specific goals such as eradicating disease, education, etc. You seem to be devoting your resources to trying to effect some kind of universal change.
That's correct. I think in everything I have done I have always wanted to create change. In other words, the philanthropy has always been based on listening to the community. On not only a matter of what I want, but to be very aware of what's needed and then to give the tools for what's needed to upgrade quality of life and really create transformation.
I think that you can't only give in a way that perpetuates the cycle. I've always felt that it's more important to educate, to give tools, to give training, to do anything that's possible so that people can empower themselves. So whether it's an organization I'm giving to, or a building I'm building, or giving to an individual, to me it's the same values - to give the tools for people to upgrade themselves.
I could use a story that my son always uses to explain it and that's if we're all sitting in a row boat and one person makes a hole in the boat, then we are all going to drown. That's how I see the world. We need to understand that we are all connected and that if we want there to be a change, then we all need to be part of it.
Do you see it as a failing of government that society relies so heavily on philanthropy?
I tend to look at what's good and helpful and what I can contribute to the world. I think that any time we focus on the bad stuff it just grows. It creates more and more negativity in the world and so I don't focus on that. No. 1, I'm not in politics; I would never judge anyone, not a person, not a politician, based on what I see in the media because I'm not involved. I don't see what is going on behind the scenes. I can only judge what I'm doing and what I want to contribute.
In the book you speak of receiving messages that you will be a leader. How will that manifest itself? Do you have political aspirations?
I guess we are talking about different interpretations of leadership. My view of leadership is generating a new kind of dialogue, of generating change. That is something that I've done and that I'm doing. To me that is leadership. It doesn't have to be political. I don't want to be in politics; it's not my thing.
You talk about bringing people closer to God. Can you tell us how you see what that means?
I guess the bottom line would be No. 1 for people to connect to themselves. Each one of us has an inner spark, so if you connect to yourself, you connect to God. It's basically connecting to goodness, to caring, to creating a better world.
Transformation is one of the major themes of the book. Where are you today compared to where you were previously?
First of all I think change happens constantly. To me the transformation within me was being more and more aware of myself, more and more aware of what I am and more and more aware of what I want to be. All of us have pros and cons; all of us have good and evil; we all have all of it inside of us. It's a matter of what we choose. But in order to choose, we have to be aware of what's going on inside of us.
Isn't working on transformation, working on oneself, something that requires leisure time, something that requires means?
You don't need leisure time to smile. That to me is a good deed, because if we would smile at each other and be more positive with each other, then we are creating a different environment. It takes just the responsibility and the will for someone to do that.
I always say that the first step to helping oneself is to want help. Yes if you have the time and the money and the capability, you can take workshops and buy books, but people can get information on the Internet. If someone asks for help, they can get it. In other words, it's very easy to say what's not possible and to judge. Unfortunately, it's more difficult for people to say "it's in my hands, it's my responsibility and if I want to make the difference, and if I have the will to do it, then I can do it."
But someone in your position has a far greater ability to effect change.
Definitely, I have received a platform where I can make a difference. Then again that was my choice. I could have looked at the businesses and the philanthropy in a very conventional, old-fashioned way and cared only about making money. Instead I decided that I want to take all of my businesses and see how I could transform each one to giving value to Israel and the world.
So I've done that piece by piece in every single organization, in every single business. At each business I want to take whatever they're strong at and change it into something where they can contribute. For example, at Shikun & Binui instead of just building roads, instead of just building communities, we are building in an environmentally friendly way. I thought we could take a business and transform it, so that it's still going to make money but it's also going to do good for the world.
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