No self-doubt

‘I’ve always done mad things,’ says Laurence Becker, who made aliya in 1970 with his wife, Renee.

Lawrence Becker (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Lawrence Becker
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
‘I’ve always done mad things,’ says Laurence Becker, who made aliya in 1970 with his wife, Renee. He is referring to his student escapades in Russia in the days after the Six Day War when few Jews from the West dared to visit their slowly awakening co-religionists.
But he could just as easily be talking about his quest for oil in Israel, which culminated in the founding of Givot Olam, the only oil exploration company to have discovered substantial commercial quantities of oil in the last 50 years and of which he is a major shareholder and the force behind the whole project.
Becker was born in London in 1940 and became a lawyer. Other mad things he did before making aliya included hitch-hiking around Europe at age 15, driving in a jeep to India and back at age 20 with three other students (about which he wrote an exciting account, Alma, published the following year) and several other visits to Russia during which he met with refuseniks who treated him like the Messiah and played cat-andmouse games to confuse the authorities.
He arrived in Jerusalem in 1970 and after re-qualifying in law here, he set up in business with another British immigrant, David Saville. The two became famous for helping other immigrant lawyers follow the path they had only recently taken themselves – re-qualifying and opening their own offices.
“We showed them what and how to learn, gave classes and lectures and helped them find positions for their training period,” he says. This selfless approach, which resulted in hundreds of other lawyers setting up businesses in competition with them, earned them the President’s Award for Voluntary Services in 1984.
“It gave us a great sense of satisfaction and the award made us feel appreciated,” he says now.
In 1993 he was approached by his daughter Alisa’s father-in-law, businessman Noga Ben-David, who had in turn been contacted by Tuvia Nuskin, a geophysicist and newly religious Russian immigrant who was convinced there was oil to be found in Israel.
The basis for this belief was a commentary by Rashi on a verse in the Bible which speaks of geological formations in certain parts of the country and which he immediately interpreted as the classic description of an oil trap. He was living in Australia at the time and was reading in English. Excited by his discovery, Nuskin, armed with a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe made aliya and immediately sought funding for his project.
Through Ben-David he met Becker, who assured him he would raise the money.
“I approached 26 friends,” recounts Becker.
“I asked them to give me $3,000 each and I told them they would probably never see it again or it could make them a millionaire.”
Although people laughed at him (and some still do), he raised the money and Givot Olam was in business.
Nearly 20 years later, he says “we are getting good oil in Central Israel” and is proud of the fact that it’s the only company in the world that does not drill on Shabbat or festivals, although they recently received approval from Rabbi Steinsalz to produce automatically on Shabbat.
In spite of all the skepticism, “I never had any self-doubt,” he says.
Another controversial field in which he is active is the movement to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. For the last 30 years, since he joined the Organization for the Re- Establishment of the Temple, he has been attempting to be able to pray there and has found the attitude of the authorities to be unhelpful.
“The police ensure that most of the time the Temple Mount is Judenrein,” he says.
“Recently it’s relaxed a bit and groups are now allowed in, but if you mumble prayers you are out on your head.”
Never one to give up, he still helps to arrange visits of Jews to the area, but “I’m a marked man,” he says with a grin.
With a long list of other activities and commitments – he is chairman of the board of Beit Orot yeshiva and also chairman of the Temple Institute in the Old City of Jerusalem – it is no wonder his day starts at 5:30 a.m.
His first daily activity is attending an early minyan, then study of the daf yomi (daily page of Talmud). If it’s a squash day, which happens three times a week, he’s off for an energetic game before going to the office at about nine. Friday is slightly different as he also bakes the hallot.
He’s written and translated several books and a few years ago published a pamphlet on how to cure asthma, from which he suffered as a small child and from which he was cured. With three daughters and one son, all married, and 20 grandchildren and another on the way, he and Renee feel that the move to Israel was the right path for them.
“I have no intention of retiring,” he says, “and when the oil money eventually comes in, I’ll put it to good use for the benefit of mankind.”