In Herzl’s footsteps

Nissim Levy, the new chairman of the Herzl Museum, talks of the visionary’s concepts of secularism and declares: ‘This is the only country for Jews but it has to be a normal county’

Thedodor Herzl, lors du 1er congrès sioniste mondial en 1897 (photo credit: DR)
Thedodor Herzl, lors du 1er congrès sioniste mondial en 1897
(photo credit: DR)
It is 1941. A young Bulgarian immigrant bearing cake went with a group of friends to the Atlit prison to try to lift the spirits of the illegal immigrants incarcerated by the British. It was there that she met her future husband, a malnourished fellow Bulgarian who had managed to make his way by boat to Palestine after being forced by the Nazis to terminate his chemistry studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.
The couple eventually married and began their life together in a rundown building in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. A few years later, their son, Nissim, was born.
To hear the story of London businessman and philanthropist Nissim Levy’s humble origins from the balcony of his Herzliya penthouse with its idyllic view of the Mediterranean is to understand the remarkable trajectory his life has taken.
Having graduated from Hugim High School in Haifa in 1965, Levy went on to study chemistry at the Hebrew University, and earned a doctorate at the Technion. After doing a post-doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Kansas in 1976, Levy went to work for NASA, at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
He later worked for four years as a commodity trader in the chemical division of Clal Industries and eventually moved to London to pursue business interests in chemical trading, petroleum products and real estate, among others.
The 70-year-old Levy and his wife, Rina, are returning Israelis, currently dividing their time between their home in Marbella, Spain – where Levy opened the Marbella International University Center – and Herzliya. Of their three children, two live in Israel, and one is a physician in London. Although he is a lifelong Zionist and passionate supporter of numerous Israeli charities and causes, the return to Israel came about due to the advantages of Israeli tax benefits for returning citizens over the recently amended British and less attractive Spanish policies.
The move has enabled Levy to devote more time and energy to projects here that he has supported for years, including Yad Layeled, a boarding school and community center for disadvantaged children run by Chabad’s Rabbi Herzl Elimelech in Kiryat Malachi, fund-raising for Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, a seat on the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University, where he and his wife have established the Rina and Nissim Levy Periphery Fund, which provides full scholarships to low-income students, and Hillel, a nonprofit organization that supports former haredim who have chosen to move into secular society.
Now, having been appointed to the newly created position of chairman of the board of the Herzl Museum in Jerusalem by Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Levy is excited.
“It’s an amazing museum,” he says excitedly, “because Herzl was incredible, a genius. Even though his life was very difficult and he died young, he accomplished more in nine years than most people do in 90 years. If I had had the chance to meet him, I believe we would have become friends.”
The museum, located at the entrance to Mount Herzl, was founded by the World Zionist Organization in 2004, on the 100th anniversary of Herzl’s death, in order to depict the impact his activities had on contemporary Israeli reality. It was established by the Jerusalem Foundation and the World Zionist Organization, which was founded by Herzl himself at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, and is responsible for the museum’s upkeep.
Levy speaks of his deep admiration for Herzl’s vision of a homeland for the Jewish people – a place that is not only a safe haven, but is also unequivocally secular, enlightened and progressive.
“For me,” Levy says, “Zionism is secular. I subscribe to Herzl’s vision because he didn’t believe in God. In spite of what the present government tries to claim, religious faith has nothing to do with the success of Israel. The Zionism that built the state is unrelated to whether or not you drive on Shabbat or keep kosher.”
Levy has been secular in outlook for his entire life.
“As a child, I was the only boy who didn’t want to have a bar mitzva. I refused to put the black box on my head and my arm. I refused to go to the rabbi. My parents tried to convince me, but they failed.
“In my opinion, the idea that anyone can claim to be God’s representative on earth is ridiculous. The way religion treats women is like in the Dark Ages.”
In spite of his antipathy toward religion, Levy’s attitude is pluralistic. “When my own son wanted to have a bar mitzva, I agreed.”
He talks of religion in the public sphere and the dangers he thinks certain aspects of it hold.
“Many religious people believe that the more they study Torah, the stronger Israel will be, but I say that the more religious you are, the weaker you become. The government is currently in the hands of religious extremists who deny their children and others an education. The fact that the law enables them to deny their children the chance to study mathematics, English, physics and chemistry is a disaster.
“I argue about this with Rabbi Elimlech, and he tells me, ‘The messiah will come and everything will be all right.’ When I ask where there will be room for all the dead Jews who will supposedly come back from the dead, he says, ‘The messiah will take care of it!’ To me, that just sounds like a crazy joke!”
The answer to Israel’s continuing success, Levy believes, is education. As a child born to immigrants, he attributes his achievements to his parents’ insistence that he work hard at school.
“My parents pushed me to take my studies seriously. If I ever brought home bad grades, they were furious. At the end of the day, everything is about education. Even if you are born into a family that is poor and has nothing, if you are able to get a good education, your chances in life are very good.”
Levy hopes that the museum will serve as a place for exchanging ideas, focusing on how to extend Herzl’s vision of a secular Jewish state into the 21st century.
“This is the only country for Jews,” he stresses,” but it has to be a normal county. I cannot accept that an Israeli soldier in Mea She’arim is attacked and beaten. I cannot accept segregation between men and women, and that extremists get to decide who can and cannot convert.”
In taking on his new role as chairman of the museum, Levy is continuing the legacy of his and Rina’s families. Rina opens a book about illustrious Jews of Poland and points to a black-andwhite picture of her grandfather. “He was a friend of Herzl, and an enthusiastic supporter,” she explains.
In September, the Levys will host a gala fund-raiser for the Herzl Conference at their home overlooking the sea. If Levy were a religious man, he might say that Rina’s ancestors, and his own, are looking down and smiling.