He was jobless at 50, and a billionaire a decade later. Bernie Marcus, whose home repair empire of Home Depot ranks as one of the great American success stories, wants to see that same success for Israel.
"The State of Israel is the sanctuary of Jews around the world," he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post during a recent visit to Israel. "I want the State of Israel to survive. I want the state of Israel as a strong, self-sufficient, democracy."
To that end, he has given millions of dollars to various charities supporting Israel and Jewish causes. Listed as one of Forbes wealthiest Americans (he ranked No. 116 with a net worth of $2.2 billion), he was also listed among the top charitable donors in the United States by The Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2005.
At 76 years old, he says his work is not yet done. As he visited Israel on one of his bi-yearly trips, he spoke to settlers and politicians about the aftermath of the disengagement, which he called a "life and death issue." Paramount, however, is his interest in facilitating debate in the political sphere, where Israel has the potential, he said, to tear itself apart.
"The greatest threat to Israel's State is internal," he said. "They have a great deal of strength and have demonstrated that they can fight. Israel has destroyed itself, over the centuries, internally."
To advance political dialogue, Marcus founded the Israel Democracy Institute, which assists the Israeli government in gathering information to be used in forming legislation. It also strives to aid the Knesset in researching and developing a constitution for the State of Israel.
"A constitution is a guideline for a more stable government," he said. "Everyone I talk to here says they need a constitution."
The IDI invites representatives from various sectors of society, ranging from ultra-orthodox to Arab Israeli, to participate in debates over the content of a possible constitution. It then feeds that information to the Knesset Constitution Committee, the body that will formally write and propose a constitution to the rest of the Knesset.
"In a good constitution everyone is equally unhappy," said Marcus. "That is the way it was in the US when that constitution was developed. There are no winners, everyone compromises."
Achieving those compromises and producing a draft will be crucial, said Marcus, to Israel's survival.
"The constitution is the backbone of the State in the future. I don't think it's the ultimate answer, but it's the guideline, the starting point," he said. "After 50 years if you don't have that guideline between the Prime Minister's Office, the judicial system and the Knesset, there is a clash. The guidelines have to be definitive; they are all checks and balances."
Marcus, a proponent of the free enterprise system, which encourages entrepreneurship and capitalism, says that the constitution is a necessary step in supporting that system.
"The less government there is the wealthier we become because we allow our people to work," he said.
In the US, Marcus has been known to support Republican candidates. Last year, he drew criticism from the Jewish community after it was made public that he donated money to the election campaign of Georgia Lt.-Governor Ralph Reed, who purportedly supported making Christianity the official state religion of the US.
But his critics have been relatively few. More often Marcus is praised for his charitable contributions, such as the recent donation of $200 million of his personal fortune to the largest indoor aquarium in the United States, the Georgia Aquarium, near his home in Atlanta.
Marcus, who runs most of his charities with his wife, Billy, and three children, said his charities operate in a businesslike manner.
"Giving away money is hard work, because we don't give away money, we invest money, we look at the outcome of a charity," said Marcus. "We watch the dollars and if they aren't used properly we don't give anymore."
When looking at charities, Marcus said he looks for broad programs that affect as many people of possible. He gives primarily to Jewish charities, medical research, and organizations which help develop entrepreneurship.
Charity was part of his upbringing, said Marcus, who remembers giving part of his ice cream money each week to help plant a tree in Israel.
He was raised in an orthodox household in Newark. Marcus, who now oversees the Home Depot chain that launched a nation of "do-it-yourself" home improvement projects, said that he himself showed little ability with tools when he helped his father, a cabinet maker.
Marcus's true love was medicine. His mother pushed him to get a pharmacy degree from Rutgers University when he could not get into medical school due to a quota system that limited Jewish student enrollment.
"That was one of my first cases of really feeling discrimination," he said. Marcus recalls facing discrimination throughout his life, starting from neighborhood bullies who harassed him for being Jewish.
"It was never a case of learning who you were, we were Jews," he said.
"I was born a Jew, grew up a Jew, proud to be a Jew, got into fist fights because I was a Jew."
He credits Judaism with providing him with the values that were integral to his success.
"I've always felt that common sense drives every decision I make," he said. "There is always talk about Jews being successful in business... maybe Jews are just born with a yiddishe kup [common sense] that has been honed over the years."
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