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Israel’s Richest Woman Packs Her Bags

JERUSALEM – With an estimated worth of $2.4 billion, Shari Arison is the richest woman, and perhaps the richest citizen, in Israel. Or, rather, she was.

Arison, a banking and corporate executive who ranked 158th on this year’s Forbes list of richest people in the world, is not suddenly facing poverty. She is no longer the richest woman in Israel because has left the country.

Arison, 46, immigrated to Israel from her hometown of Miami in 1992, following in the footsteps of her billionaire father, Israeli-born Carnival Cruise Lines magnate Ted Arison, who had left his homeland for the United States in the 1950s only to return in 1990. But a spate of negative publicity — about her business practices and her personal life — has hounded the businesswoman recently. Two weeks ago the Globes business newspaper wrote that she had decided that the bad press had become too much, and she had moved back to Miami.

It is not uncommon for North American immigrants to leave Israel; around one-quarter eventually do so, according to the Interior Ministry. But for this high-profile case of yerida — the Hebrew term to describe leaving Israel — everyone from the president to pundits to editorial writers have weighed in on the significance of Arison’s choice and what it says about Zionism and the state of Israeli culture.

Arison, a major shareholder in Bank Hapoalim, garnered negative publicity last December when she laid off 900 of the company’s workers. Although she offered extensive severance packages and later reinstated 107 workers, she drew criticism for cutting jobs when the bank was turning a profit. Protests occurred outside her home, and a billboard campaign funded by the Histadrut labor federation screamed: “Shari Arison laughs while 900 families cry.” Op-ed pages savaged her.

Then, when she got married for the third time in May — to Eilat businessman Ofer Glazer, in a ceremony performed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger — the gossip pages had a field day. This attention only increased when Glazer was investigated for sexual harassment.

Associates of Arison said she was “fed up” with “the country, which devours its inhabitants,” and was disgusted by “everything that was being done to her in Israel.” A spokeswoman for the family released a statement announcing that Arison and Glazer were moving to Florida “for personal reasons.”

The statement didn’t say, but it was reported later, that Arison was also closing the Ted Arison Family Foundation, which donated $23 million last year to community projects and hospitals in Israel.

The coverage surrounding Arison has only gotten more intense since the announcement of her move, although not all of it is negative.

President Moshe Katsav said he was less concerned about the loss of Arison’s contributions to charity than he was about her departure, because increasing immigration was more important than any fundraising challenge. “I want all Jews to live here,” he said. “I regard her decision as negative.”

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post defended her, arguing that Arison was a private citizen, entitled to be left alone and to expect her husband to sort out his legal affairs in private.

“Shari Arison possesses alluring alternatives few of us can dream of,” the editorial concluded. “Yet she opted to live among us. She came here with good will, only to leave feeling spurned, derided, and slandered. Our society — given to snap judgment, provincialism, sordid sensationalism, gossip-mongering, vulgarization, and envy — gave her a raw deal. The loss is all ours.”

But Ha’aretz columnist Yoel Marcus asked rhetorically whether an American tycoon like a Rockefeller would leave the United States and close down his charitable (tax-exempt) foundations just because the tabloids were after him. Marcus — who wrote that closing the foundation was a way of “collectively punishing the needy” — added that the publicity Arison generated was of her own making.

“We didn’t poke around in Shari Arison’s life,” Marcus wrote. “She voluntarily put herself on display. We read about her plastic surgery. We were shown her grandiose house and fabulous yacht. It was her mistake to call a press conference to explain why 900 employees of Bank Hapoalim were fired during a year when the bank raked in profits. Whose fault is it that the camera caught her a short time later laughing and singing merrily at a sing-a-long at some bar? People who can’t take the heat should stay out of the kitchen.”

Perhaps Arison’s story was like that of so many other Americans who arrived with idealistic dreams but were forced by circumstances to return from whence they came.

Not that she arrived here like every other immigrant. Her billionaire father was himself one of the richest men in the world. Born in 1924 in Tel Aviv, where he grew up, Ted Arison fought in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in World War II, serving in Italy and Germany and attaining the rank of sergeant major. In 1948 he fought in the War of Independence as a lieutenant colonel in the Seventh Brigade of the Israeli army’s Armored Corps, seeing action in the pivotal battle of Latrun.

He moved to the United States in the early 1950s, eventually setting up Carnival Cruise Lines, which became the Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise line in the world. He established the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, based in Miami, brought professional basketball to South Florida with the forming of the Miami Heat and established the philanthropic Arison Foundation in Israel and the United States.

In December 1990 he returned to Tel Aviv and founded Arison Investments Ltd., which in September 1997 headed a consortium that purchased the controlling share in Bank Hapoalim.

When he died in 1999, his daughter became the chairperson of Arison Holdings and the Ted Arison Family Foundation. Aware that in Israel, unlike in America, corporate involvement in philanthropy was uncommon, Shari formed the charitable organization Matan as a way of building corporate responsibility for the community. She received a great deal of press — mostly positive — for her philanthropy.

But Israel’s current economic situation here dented her financial holdings, and in the last year alone, she lost some $900 million in Bank Hapoalim and elsewhere. As the economy soured, so did her press coverage. In fact, even now that Arison has decided to leave, the negative press continues: It was reported this week that Arison is asking $25 million for her three-story home on three acres in Moshav Bnei Zion — double what some real estate brokers say the property is worth.

Yotam Lurie, who holds the Heinz-Horst Deichmann Chair of Business Ethics at Ben-Gurion University, told the Forward: “The quality of the press, the way they cover stories, the way they cover people in high profile is very offensive, and I can understand her decision to move, temporary or permanently — nobody knows right now — to Florida. From her point of view it’s a wise decision.”

Lurie added that her decision to leave Israel should be seen as a personal decision, not as a comment on Zionist ideology. “These are two separate issues,” Lurie said. “The fact that Zionist ideology doesn’t like it — it’s true, it doesn’t sit with the Zionist ideology. But in the global world, in global economics, an individual like Shari Arison can decide that Florida suits her better for now, whether it’s because the newspapers have gone against her or whether it’s because of other personal issues.”


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