Shari Arison's 'visions' claim amuses Israelis

Shari Arison: 'Over and over since I was very youn (photo credit: AP)
Shari Arison: 'Over and over since I was very youn
(photo credit: AP)
Shari Arison is Israel's richest woman, presidingover a financial empire that includes the country's second-biggestbank. She also claims in a memoir to see visions of the future. But onething she apparently didn't envision is the puzzlement, laughter andeven nervousness that have greeted her book.

Arison, 51, is up against an Israeli public that is notoriously cynical about power elites in general and banks in particular.

"Everyone has the right to hear voices," quipped MottiKirshenbaum, a popular TV commentator. "The problem is, I don't wantsomeone who hears voices to be the owner of the bank where my moneyis."

Arison doesn't actually claim to hear voices, and much of what she writes in Birth: When the Spiritual and Material Come Together wouldn't seem unusual to anyone who believes in intuition and New Age ideas.

Noris she closely involved in the day-to-day workings of Bank Hapoalim,the banking powerhouse she controls. But her claim of visions - the2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, or the Iraqi missiles that hitIsrael in 1991 - have made at least a few Hapoalim customers nervous,according to an opinion poll.

"I saw things before they happened, and that scared me verymuch," she writes. "The premonitions would always be accompanied byharsh and painful physical sensations. During the Gulf War, whenmissiles were fired on Tel Aviv, and today, when missiles are fired onSderot, I sense this on my own flesh. I feel that I am ablaze, mourninglosses that are not my own and haven't happened yet."

Brushing off the criticisms, she told TheAssociated Press in an interview: "Over and over since I was veryyoung, I see things that are about to happen. You can call itheightened intuition; you can call it visions... I see it as a gift.It's my role to give people a heightened awareness, to show thatbasically we can change the world."

Arison is a slight woman with an nice smile and warm demeanorwho presides over her business empire from a modest Tel Aviv officedecorated with pictures of her family, a large aquarium and modern art.She says she hopes the book will help inspire people and companies toact more humanely and responsibly.

Her bank hosts seminars on family finances, and its Web siteoffers customers a tool for designing their budgets. The ArisonFoundation in Miami, which she heads, has donated millions to Israelihospitals and charities, and sponsors an annual "Good Deeds Day." Lastyear Arison founded Miya, a $100 million business aimed at increasingworld water supplies by fixing leaks in underground pipes.

"You can't have just mind," she said. "You must have mind and heart."

Arison said in her book that the tsunami premonition came to heras she was sitting with her then husband and friends on her yacht onthe Turkish coast.

"I knew more or less where, what area, not exactly, but I knewit was the Far East and I knew it was a big wave. I knew thousands ofpeople would die," she said in an interview.

She also said she had received warnings of the global financialcrisis, though too late to save her bank from losing hundreds ofmillions of dollars and its longtime No. 1 ranking here.

"It's not my place or my position to make those steps at the bank," she said.

Arison is Bank Hapoalim's majority shareholder, but says shestays out of its day-to-day affairs. She also has large holdings incruise operator Carnival Corp., and Israel's largest constructioncompany.

Arison's talk of visions led Haaretz to publish a cartoon showing her holding a board meeting attended by extraterrestrials in neckties.

Aaron Katsman, who runs a financial-services firm and banks at aBank Hapoalim branch in Jerusalem, called Arison "a little nutty," butsaid he wasn't worried about the bank's future.

"She's sitting around with billions of dollars, so when she makes comments like that, people listen," he said.

"People are afraid of new things," Arison said. "But if it creates any kind of change, it will all be worth it."

Analysts say strict banking regulations make it nearlyimpossible for Arison's ideas to affect anything more than the bank'simage. Over Arison's uncharacteristically public objections, Bank ofIsrael Governor Stanley Fischer recently forced out Hapoalim'schairman, apparently concerned by his choice of a new CEO.

Such safeguards haven't reassured everyone. A poll in Haaretzhad 19 percent saying Arison's claims meant they wouldn't bank withHapoalim. The survey by MarketWatch questioned 500 people and had amargin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Though often labeled an irresponsible heiress, Arison hasstriven to be taken seriously in the male-dominated Israeli businessworld, expanding and diversifying her holdings. Forbes magazine estimates her personal fortune at $2.7 billion, ranking her 234th on its list of the world's wealthiest people.

Born in New York, she inherited most of her fortune from herfather, Ted Arison, who founded Carnival Cruise Lines and also ownedthe Miami Heat basketball team. Arison split the inheritance with herbrother, Micky, who is chairman and chief executive of Carnival.

Adding to the public's fascination with Arison is her often messy personal life.

Her third husband served four months of their recently dissolvedsix-year marriage in jail for sexually assaulting two women, includingher nurse. Her second husband accused her of kidnapping one of theirchildren when she abruptly moved to the US with husband No. 3 in 2003.The charges were dropped after Arison returned to Israel.

Commentator Kirshenbaum said that while Israelis are amused byArison's foibles, they still admire her charity work and herindependence.

"I don't really think she's a cartoon," he said. "She's a very strong young woman."