Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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29 Kislev 5760 - December 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Jewish Philanthropist Dies in a Senseless Tragedy

by A. Tal

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 family.

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 donations.

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.

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