Why have some Jews been so good at making money, and using it well? Just ask Larry Ellison,who heads The Jerusalem Post’s first annual ranking of The World’s 50 Richest Jews.
Larry Ellison, the jet-setting founder and CEO of the American software giant, Oracle, announced in early August (ahead of his 66th birthday) that he would donate most of his considerable wealth to charity. Ellison, who has already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and educational institutions in the US, is one of 40 American billionaires who responded to a call by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to publicly pledge their fortunes to help those less fortunate.
“Until now, I have done this giving quietly because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter,” Ellison wrote on the Giving Pledge’s Web site. “So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be ‘setting an example’ and ‘influencing others’ to give. I hope he’s right.”
In August three years ago, when Ellison was told during a tour of a Sderot community center with his wife, Melanie, and other family members that it needed half a million dollars to protect itself properly from rockets being fired from Gaza, he immediately pledged the amount. “You’ll have the money by tomorrow,” he said.
Although he was raised by his mother’s aunt and uncle in a small apartment in Chicago, the self-made Ellison lives today in an estate in Woodside, California. Ellison is a real-life Jewish hero.
As we approach Rosh Hashana and its concomitant heshbon nefesh, in which we make a spiritual tally of our lives to date, The Jerusalem Post has decided to focus in this supplement on the more material side of the Jewish people’s pursuits. Now that the idea of statehood has been well established for more than six decades, and as Israel seeks progress toward peace with its Arab neighbors while maintaining its qualitative edge, we should not diminish the importance of a prosperous economy and the support of the international community and its friends abroad, Jews and non-Jews.
Based in good part on the annual Forbes list of the world’s 400 richest people, we have ranked the planet’s wealthiest Jews, many but not all of whom are strong supporters of Israel and Jewish causes as well as non-Jewish charities in the countries they call home. Some are self-made billionaires; others built on family fortunes.
OUR LIST is headed by Ellison, who is ranked by Forbes as the sixth richest person in the world with a net worth of $28 billion. For a short period, in 2000, he was considered the richest man on Earth. Ellison, by making his own fortune, has lived the American dream and his philanthropy is exemplary.
Yet no one can deny that Bernie Madoff is a Jew too, and he will spend the rest of his life in jail for cheating thousands of people of their life investments. Without feeding the ethnic stereotype of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, may we legitimately ask why some Jews are so good at making money, and why some are so generous while others stain the Semitic image by their dastardly deeds?
Rabbi Berel Wein relates in an essay titled “Jews and money” that in Temple times a half-shekel “tax” was collected for the support of services. He argues that the Talmud reminds us, with this concept of “the holy shekel,” that “the task of Judaism, and therefore of necessity of its adherents, the Jews, is to somehow invest a sense of holiness into the shekel – into otherwise grubby money.”
According to the Midrash, Wein says, Moses was shown “a holy shekel of fire” on Mount Sinai. “The Jewish understanding of the symbolism of fire has always been that fire is ambivalent – it can burn and destroy or it can light and warm. So, too, with money. Money can accomplish great good and it also is able to bring about great evil.”
In his article, “Why Jews make more money and win more Nobel prizes,” Rabbi Levi Brackman attempts to explain why Jews are so successful in so many fields of endeavor. “Jews make up less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population but they consistently have made up more than 20 percent of the Forbes 400 list,” he notes. “Jews excel at more than making money. Thirty percent of Nobel prize winners in science are Jewish, and major Hollywood studios, like Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios, are also run or owned by Jews. In virtually every industry successful Jews are disproportionately represented.”
Brackman writes that Jews try to downplay their own success and often consider those who talk about it borderline anti- Semites. “But is this really fair?” he asks. “Facts are facts and the statistics don’t lie. When it comes to success and achievement, we Jews do punch higher than our weight.”
He says rather than be embarrassed by their achievement, Jews should embrace, analyze and share it with others. “While some people think that Jewish success has to do with genetics and others surmise that it is related to our intense persecution, it is my contention that Jewish success has to do with Judaism itself,” Brackman goes on. “Inherent within Jewish religious teachings and Torah stories are ideas that relate directly to behaviors and attitudes that lead directly to successful outcomes.”
Meanwhile, in a recent essay titled “Capitalism and the Jews,” Jerry Z. Muller presents a survey of how Jewish culture and historical accident combined to achieve commercial success for many Jews, and how that success made them the brunt of anti-Semitic violence. Muller, a history professor at the Catholic University of America, argues that much anti-Semitism can be attributed to a misunderstanding of basic economics.
From Aristotle through the Renaissance to Marxism, money was considered sterile, a mere means of exchange. Only labor could be truly productive and anyone who charged interest on money was surely a sinner, a parasite or at the very least a fraud.
For Christians, lending money at interest was forbidden across Europe. Jews were permitted by the Catholic Church to become moneylenders and charge for the service because the church believed they were going to hell anyway, so why not let them help growing economies function more efficiently? So it happened, Muller explains, that Jews became fused with finance, and as Europe’s moneylenders, were both necessary and despised.
AN ANTI-SEMITIC children’s book published by Julius Streicher in 1938 in Nazi Germany suggests that “money is the god of the Jews.” In response to her daughter’s question “How does it happen that the Jews are so rich?,” a mother responds: “The Jew is quite indifferent when the cheated non-Jew goes hungry. Jews have no pity. They strive for one thing: money. They do not care two hoots how they get it…. The god of the Jews is gold. There is no crime he would not commit to get it.”
The truth is far from the anti-Semitic myth, of course, and Jews are among the most generous givers in the world, both to Israel and to non-Jewish causes in their own countries. According to a study conducted by Gary Tobin, the richest Jews in America give mostly to non-Jewish causes. Between 1995 and 2000, Tobin found, the nation’s 123 wealthiest Jews handed out 188 “mega-gifts” of $10 million or more, but of the $5.3 billion they dispersed (22% of the bigticket giving overall), only $318m. went to Jewish institutions.
Compared with the amount of Jewish money non-Jewish charities received, Tobin told JTA, the Jewish community got “virtually nothing” from Jews. “There is clearly a huge disconnect between the major donations and the Jewish community,” he said.
This, in turn, has caused some Jewish activists to express concern over the future of Jewish institutions in the Diaspora. As Claire Ellman, whose family’s Jeremiah Foundation focuses on Jewish day school education as a vehicle for Jewish survival, was quoted as saying, “Who’s going to fund the Jews if the Jews don’t?”
WHICH BRINGS us to Israel. The Jewish state has become a world leader in a variety of fields, from hi-tech and the military to medicine, science and agriculture. Despite last year’s global financial crisis, the number of Israeli millionaires grew by a massive 43% to 8,419, according to Capgemini and Merrill Lynch. That, according to the 2009 report, made Israel the country with the third highest growth rate of millionaires per after India and Hong Kong. No longer is Israel the country in which, as the old joke goes, the only way to make a small fortune is to come with a big fortune.
While there are only two Israelis on our list of the 50 wealthiest Jews (Sammy Ofer and Arnon Milchan), it appears that this will change as Israel (which already has more Jews than any other country) strengthens further and Diaspora Jewry continues to diminish. But even though the majority on the list still hail from the US, it is abundantly clear that wealthy Jews are a universal phenomenon.
Take Australia, for example, where the three wealthiest individuals in the country are high-profile members of the Jewish community – Anthony Pratt, Frank Lowy and Harry Triguboff.
So how does one explain the roots of Jewish riches?
Steven Silbiger, in his controversial book The Jewish Phenomenon, tries to provide an answer to the question of why Jews have been so successful in the US.
“It doesn’t matter where I turned, in whatever walk of life – lawyers, businesspersons, scientists, musicians, creative people – there were Jewish people because they were allowed to pursue their dreams to the nth degree and it was okay to be different and to stand out,” he later told Vanguard News Network Forum. “And that is where real wealth is created…”
How did Larry Ellison, who was born to a single, 19-year-old Jewish mother and raised by her aunt and uncle in Chicago, become so incredibly rich and successful against all the odds?
Even as Oracle’s earnings began to rise in the 1990s, it was not smooth sailing for the CEO. He suffered a series of personal mishaps, sustaining serious injuries while body surfing and mountain biking and recovering from major surgery. In 1998, Ellison won the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race on Sayonara, overcoming strong winds that sank five other boats and drowned six participants. And after many years of trying, he finally captured the America’s Cup with the crew of the BMW Oracle this year.
“I have had all of the disadvantages required for success,” Ellison has been quoted as saying. “The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts and questioning authority. While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it’s enormously useful in life.”
When Ellison visited Israel for the first time in 2007, he told a business conference that he had launched Oracle, now the world’s largest business software company, in 1977 with just $1,400 of his own money because no one had believed in his vision. “Businessmen are successful when they question the norms that conventional wisdom espouses,” he said. “That is where innovation comes from – finding errors in conventional wisdom. That is what my company is built upon and that is why I think Israel will continue to be innovative. People here are always questioning what they are told!”
“When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts,” Ellison once said.
It’s a quote worth remembering if you want to make it on one of our future lists of the world’s wealthiest Jews…
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