David Azrieli 1922-2014

The message of the Canadian-Israeli construction tycoon lives on: ’Freedom is being able to do what you love.’

David Azrieli 1922-2014. (photo credit: MOSHE SHAI / FLASH 90)
David Azrieli 1922-2014.
(photo credit: MOSHE SHAI / FLASH 90)
Candian-Israeli real-estate magnate David Joshua Azrieli passed away quietly July 9 at his country home north of Montreal.
He was 92. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Stephanie Lefcourt, and four children – Rafael, Sharon, Naomi, and Danna, along with several grandchildren.
Shortly before his death, his youngest daughter, Danna, who lives permanently in Israel, was appointed chair of Azrieli Group to replace her father.
David Azrieli exemplified the principle that you can deeply love two countries at the same time and contribute vastly to each without in any way betraying either. From his youth, Azrieli’s life was intricately intertwined with the unfolding history of Israel and the Jewish people. Unlike his namesake Joshua, who the Bible recounts, blew down the walls of Jericho and then burned the city, Azrieli built beautiful buildings to revive rundown slums.
Azrieli lived several lives, each remarkable – Holocaust survivor, soldier, student, innovative real-estate developer, patriot, business leader, and philanthropist:
SURVIVOR: Azrieli was born David Azrylewicz on May 10, 1922, in Maków Mazowiecki, a village in northeastern Poland that in 1939 was almost half-Jewish with about 3,000 Jews and 4,000 Poles. The Jewish population was virtually wiped out by the Nazis during World War II.
Azrieli fled his home in 1939 when he was 17 and began a dangerous and difficult odyssey to reach Palestine – one that saved his life and at the same time endangered it later in battle.
SOLDIER: From his village, Azrieli fled to the part of Poland in Soviet hands. In the fall of 1941, he joined the Anders Army in Bukhara and travelled with it to Iran and from there to Iraq.
The Anders Army was the informal name of Polish Army in the East in 1941-42, named after its commander Władysław An-ders. It was first formed in the Soviet Union but left in March 1942 and traveled through Iran to Palestine, where it came under British command. When the Anders Army reached Palestine, some 4,000 Jewish soldiers left – some deserted, while others, including Menachem Begin, got permission to leave.
Begin then founded the militant Irgun organization.
In Baghdad, Azrieli met two Jewish agents of the Hagana – Moshe Dayan and Enzo Sereni, founder of Kibbutz Givat Brenner.
Sereni later parachuted into war-torn Europe in 1944, was captured by the Nazis and died in Dachau. Netzer Sereni, a kibbutz in the Judean Foothills, is named after him.
Dayan and Sereni convinced Azrieli to go to the Holy Land and he reached mandatory Palestine in 1942. Only in 1946 did he learn that his whole family had been wiped out in the Holocaust, except for one brother, who survived.
Azrieli soon joined the Hagana and fought with the legendary Seventh Brigade in the 1948 War of Independence. He was wounded in the bloody battle of Latrun, as was a young 20-year-old lieutenant named Ariel Sharon, who was shot in the abdomen and nearly left for dead. Azrieli also fought alongside Haim Herzog, who later became president of Israel.
STUDENT: After arriving in mandatory Palestine, Azrieli found work as a car mechanic.
He enrolled in Technion-Israel Institute of Technology as an architecture student in 1943 and studied there until 1946, though he did not manage to complete his degree.
In 1954, he emigrated to South Africa, working as a Hebrew teacher, and from there went to Canada. He finally got his architecture M.Sc. degree in 1997 from Ottawa’s Carleton University, at age 75, 54 years after he first began college.
DEVELOPER AND INNOVATOR: Azrieli began his career as a real-estate developer in Canada in 1957 where he built four duplexes in Montreal, then apartment buildings and, later, shopping malls.
Azrieli brought the shopping mall to Israel, even inventing the Hebrew word for mall, “kanyon” (a combination of two words, hanyon, “parking facility”, and kniya, “purchase”).
He began to explore real-estate development in Israel in the early 1980s. In 1985, he opened the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan.
It was an innovation because until then developers in Israel built stores and sold them.
Azrieli rented out the stores in Ayalon Mall and retained tight control, not just as developer but as mall manager, as well. Later, more than 50 malls opened throughout Israel – some owned and built by Azrieli. Several stores that first opened in Ayalon Mall became successful retail chains.
Azrieli built the Jerusalem Malha Mall in 1993 in a rundown part of the city and, in 1998, launched the Azrieli Tower buildings in Tel Aviv, a $350 million project built on a site that once served as a parking garage for garbage trucks.
Azrieli told the late Bob Slater in an interview with The Jerusalem Report last fall that his goal was “to provide young people in every corner of Israel the same equality and happiness they would feel by being in a mall in London or New York.”
Azrieli Group shares have a market value on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) of some NIS13.5 billion (almost $4 billion). The group owns 14 shopping malls, 10 office buildings and several ongoing projects. In addition, it owns five percent of Bank Leumi shares, 20 percent of Leumi Card (credit cards) and Granite HaCarmel, which, in turn, owns industrial companies like Supergas and Sonol.
In part, in order to organize his estate for his children and his foundation, Azrieli did an initial public stock offering of Azrieli Group on the TASE in 2010, raising an unprecedented NIS2.5 billion ($730 million).
The investors who trusted him were not disappointed as shares have since risen 50 percent and paid an average 12 percent annual return, including dividends.
Azrieli Group was far less successful in its ventures outside of real estate, however.
The market value of his industrial holding company Granite HaCarmel plummeted and was delisted from the TASE two years ago after Azrieli bought up its outstanding shares. Granite recently has been divesting its holdings.
PATRIOT: “I have two homelands,” he said once. “Two places I love best. My opportunity to express myself professionally started in Canada and eventually let me fulfill my dream of making a contribution to my other homeland, Israel. The two have always been entwined.”
TYCOON: In this space, I have often been critical of Israeli tycoons whose wealth is sometimes (not always) ill-gained through capture of privatized-government companies and financial manipulations.
Azrieli’s wealth amounts to over $3 billion placing him solidly in the middle of Forbes magazine’s global 1,000 billionaires and earning him the “tycoon” label.
But he was cut from different cloth than many billionaires. Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, he loved beautiful things (in his case, buildings) and lived to build them. He changed the landscape of Israel indelibly.
He built his wealth, literally, from scratch.
His main legacy for Israelis will remain the three Azrieli Tower buildings in central Tel Aviv – shaped as a square, circle and triangle.
A fourth oval-shaped tower is on the way. Ordinary Israelis will remember Azrieli, if only for the 49-story round tower that dominates Tel Aviv’s skyline and bears his name.
Azrieli liked to say that money mattered only because you could do great things with it. He was a Donald Trump-like figure without Trump’s hair fetish, celebrity wives, egomania, and media mania.
Azrieli had a one-project-at-a-time policy because he insisted on knowing and shaping every detail about the malls and buildings he developed and wanted to avoid diluting his focus. Perhaps one of his most amazing feats of construction was the architecture of his own remarkable life.
“Genuine freedom is being able to do what you love,” Azrieli once said. “This is my message – do what you love to do.” And he did. I can think of no better message for young people today.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion