A selfless millionaire

French entrepreneur Dominique Romano is an unusual find in the IDF reserves, but his love for Israel led him to volunteer.

Dominique Romano 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Dominique Romano 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It is a few days after Independence Day, but at the Border Police’s Kalkilya base, the flags are still flying. The base is scrubbed within an inch of its life, pennants flap in the breeze and a weapons demonstration is being prepared. Border Police with M-16s slung across their shoulders are setting up rows of white chairs, putting out coolers of fresh lemonade and firing up two massive metal barbecues. But these preparations aren’t for a late Independence Day celebration – they’re for Dominique.
Dominique Romano arrives together with a busload of French donors. Confident, happy, he is in his element in a neatly pressed linen shirt, sunglasses and dark pants, a holstered handgun at his hip. The only thing that might be better, from the French multimillionaire’s perspective, is a worn-in reservist’s uniform.
The Kalkilya Border Police base is where Romano reports for duty twice a year to do voluntary reserve service – in greeting the guests at the base, Romano refers to it as the “Club Med of Kalkilya.” And as such, it is where he has decided to officially launch his program to offer former combat soldiers full scholarships to Tel Aviv University.
Romano’s acquaintances from the reserves call him “Motti,” and Motti has left his mark across the verdant base, from the fitness training equipment to the pool table in the clubhouse.
The volunteer-based Green Line Company in which Romano serves is a far cry from the usual milieu for a Paris-based stock trader who now runs a large and successful investment company. But Romano takes care to keep himself prepared for the service. In his offices, he has a floor dedicated to fitness training, and takes weekly lessons in Krav Maga, making him probably one of the best-trained reservists around.
Romano says he discovered his connection to Israel relatively late – he only found out that he was Jewish in his late teens, and discovered his Zionism shortly afterwards.
“I fell in love with Israel the way that 15-year-old boys fall in love – you don’t feel that you can live without it, you think about it all the time. The difference is that the love affair has remained just that way. I can’t live without it – I come to visit Israel every two weeks, and I have remained in love,” he smiles.
It took a while, however, for that love to find expression in olive-drab uniform. When he was “old, very old,” he says, he “realized that in order to make Israel feel real, and to truly understand the country, I should serve in the IDF.”
Romano completed basic training, and 10 years ago began to volunteer with the Green Line Company, a unit that bears responsibility for many of the most delicate points of contact between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli home front.
“I do reserves just like everybody else,” says Romano, who declines to give his age. Most of those who serve with him know he is French, and a volunteer, but are blissfully ignorant of the fact that their partner on patrol is probably one of the wealthiest people they have ever met. Or that his day job, as he admits, is frequently much more stressful than his reserve duty.
“In reserves, I don’t really have to make decisions. I say yes, commander, and do what they tell me to do,” says a man who invests in ground-breaking companies and massive telecommunications partnerships.
That is not to say Romano’s brain turns off while he’s in the field. He is well aware that his service is on the front lines not only of Israel’s defense, but also of its public diplomacy.
“I had lots of ideas about the situation here, but it makes it quite different when you have served in the army. In the army, you come in with your ideas, and then you experience so many feelings – take, for instance, when we do surprise checkpoints. Beforehand, I had an idea that it is a good or bad idea to have a checkpoint, but when you are in the army you do not see it as good or bad per se, but you feel how tough the whole situation can be,” he explains.
“Then you feel that 95 percent want peace and all of the [bull] is from the political leadership.”
Romano’s faith in the army is unshakable.
“My second family is the army of Israel, because without it, we cannot live as Jews in the world,” he asserts.
“But how did we survive those thousands of years?” he continues. “This country was built on the sand of our family. After Auschwitz, we created Israel. But before Auschwitz, we had thousands of years to fight to live as Jews. We are not originally fighters, but we had to be to defend ourselves, and the Israeli army is the example of this. But we lived for thousands of years, as a small community of 14 million people, because we understood the importance of education. The mix of education and defense is the meaning and the secret of the Jewish people. We don’t fight for money or power, or to conquer another country, but for peace.”
It was this focus on education that set Romano on the road to the post-Independence Day ceremony at the Kalkilya base. After talking to his fellow reservists, Romano realized that many combat veterans faced a different type of challenge after leaving their regular service. Many find themselves balancing their university education, jobs to bankroll that education, and weeks of reserve service each year.
Romano decided one solution would be simply to remove the financial burden by providing them with full scholarships. Last week, at the Kalkilya Border Police base, he dedicated a series of scholarships to be awarded to several combat veterans each year at Tel Aviv University. The scholarships will cover the recipients’ entire degree program, and Romano says with calm confidence that the funding is set up to outlast his own lifetime.
“I chose combat soldiers because they made a choice to go to combat units and serve their country,” he explains. “They should not have to fight, go to reserves, study and work at a hotel night shift in order to finance their studies. This way, I hope that they can concentrate on their education.”
Romano says he feels a sense of responsibility toward his fellow Jews.
“As a rich French guy, I need to be an example to others. I have a very good life in Paris, but I can’t have such a life while forgetting others. Part of our duty as Jews is to look out for each other.”
That sense of duty is contagious. The oldest of his five children, 21-year-old Mathilde, just completed full IDF service in an elite combat intelligence unit. His wife and four younger children, ranging from 19-year-old twins to a three-year-old son, support his frequent reserve duty.
He hopes, however, that his devotion to Israel proves even more contagious. Alongside buying up historic properties and saving them from destruction – like the Eden Cinema in Tel Aviv – and trying to aid Ethiopian students in higher education, Romano would like to see a change in the French Jewish community’s attitude toward Israel.
“I think the French community is very Zionist, and so we don’t have to criticize them on that account. But the so-called French aliya, despite all the work that has been put into it, is simply not working. Israel is a fine place for them to get a vacation apartment, to come to the beach, but there are 600,000 Jews in France who are not making aliya.”
Romano says he is “trying to show them what I’m doing” in an attempt to inspire more proactive Zionism. So it is probably not a surprise that he has brought a busload of key French donors to Tel Aviv University with him along the semi-paved road to the base. Like the survival of Israel, the road to redemption for the French community leads through the same Jewish education that Romano did not receive as a child.
“People overseas will be Zionist directly in proportion to the level to which they are educated in secular and Jewish education. It will come naturally, alone,” he promises. “We need to be strong and unified and take care of the world, which means not to be egotistical. And to do that, we need to educate our children.”