Jewish banker Edmond Safra, 67, one of the world's richest
men and constantly fearful of assassins, died early last
Friday of smoke inhalation in his luxurious Monaco penthouse.
The founder of the Republic National Bank of New York and one
of the world's wealthiest men, Safra was under medical care
for Parkinson's disease at the time of his death.
Safra, who had just wrapped up a deal to sell the Republic
National Bank of New York, which he founded in 1966 and in
which he had a 29-percent holding, to London-based banking
firm HSBC Holdings Plc for $9.9 billion, was a well known
donor to Torah and charity institutions all over the world.
His wife was also in the huge 900 square meter apartment and
was not hurt.
An American male nurse who initially told police that hooded
intruders set the fire that killed the billionaire banker,
admitted on Monday that he started the blaze himself. Ted
Maher confessed to police that he set the fire in an effort
to get back at another member of Safra's staff and had not
intended to kill the banker, Monaco Prosecutor Daniel Serdet
said. He pretended to have been wounded in a struggle and
then started the fire. He appeared to be psychologically
unstable and was taking medication. Maher, who is married and
has three children, had worked for Safra for five months, but
he had been in Monaco just six weeks. He told prosecutors
that he was earning $600 a day.
Safra and his nurse fled to his bathroom which had a steel
door and was outfitted as a shelter. The banker reportedly
spoke to several people from inside the bathroom on his cell
phone, but was eventually overcome by the smoke before he
could be rescued.
He was buried in Geneva on Monday. Speaking at the crowded
funeral service at Geneva's main Heichal Haness synagogue,
French Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk said Safra was "a man unique
among his generation."
Throughout most of his life, Edmond Safra refrained from
forming close ties with the State of Israel. Neither he nor
his brothers, Josef and Moise, had commercial or other ties
with Israel. It was assumed that his close ties with Arab
countries -- he was born in Lebanon -- were too important to
him to risk.
After the Gulf War, a change took place. Perhaps due to his
illness and perhaps for other reasons, he decided to form
ties with Israel. Characteristically, he sent his brothers
ahead of him, and instructed them to purchase the First
International Bank of Israel (FIBI), the fourth largest
Israeli bank and the fastest growing. Among other things,
today they are partners the Cellcom company.
Edmond wanted to purchase Bank Leumi in 1995, but the deal
was blocked by the Bank of Israel, which didn't want so large
a part of Israeli banking to fall into the hands of one
Long before the investments came the donations. Safra
established the Isaf Fund, which distributes stipends to
impoverished Sephardic families. He donated a huge amount,
which served as a basis for naming a square after his parents
in Jerusalem (Safra Square, where City Hall is located).
Scores of synagogues throughout the country are named after
his parents. Yeshivos and kollelim enjoy his lavish
Safra also donated to politic figures. He donated money to
Shimon Peres, David Levi and reportedly also to Arye Deri to
help defray the costs of his trial. His relationship with
Shas is an affair unto itself.
Safra donated to every many Israeli causes. Teddy Kollek
managed to get him to contribute vast amounts. On one
occasion, Safra participated in a public auction in New York
in which he paid a huge amount for a manuscript of the well-
known scientist, Albert Einstein. He then donated this
manuscript to the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.
According to press reports, he had become religiously
observant in recent years.
He founded the Republic National Bank of New York over 30
years ago, and it grew to become one of the major banks in
New York City, with some 80 branches. The bank was briefly
and peripherally involved in a money laundering scandal
related to IMF aid to Russia when the bank brought unusual
money transfers to the attention of the FBI in August 1998.
No fault was found with the bank or any of its employees.
Just two weeks ago, Safra received the go-ahead from the
Israeli banking authorities to open Republic National Bank's
first branch in Israel.