When Samuel Hayek became chairman of JNF UK, British Jewry’s third biggest fundraising charity, nearly 18 months ago, few people knew what to make of the Israeli-born businessman.
Beyond donations of “a few thousand” to charities here and there, he had no track record in the higher echelons of communal philanthropy.
He appeared, as if from nowhere, in the climax to a bitter and costly legal dispute between JNF and its Israeli partner Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) which had raged for two years. Asked initially by KKL to head a rival British office to JNF, a few months later he took charge of JNF as part of a peace deal between the two organisations which ended £4 million of litigation. He had never been involved with KKL before and he laid down conditions before becoming so.
“The main condition was that I would be given a mandate to make peace with JNF. That was my greatest motivation — to make peace and stop the bloodshed between two Jewish organisations,” he said.
Now he is at pains to convince the public that “this dispute is over… and we don’t spend any more money on it”.
A property dealer who collects modern Israeli art and who has the ear of leading Israeli politicians, he was born in Kfar Saba in 1953, two years after his parents and three elder brothers left Iraq with just a suitcase.
His merchant father “was always a Zionist, he was a member of the Haganah movement in Baghdad”, he said. “He was just waiting for the opportunity to leave and go to Israel. With that in mind, he started buying land in Israel years before.” One day the family enjoyed a house with servants in Iraq, he said, the next “they landed in Israel and they woke up in a tent with no toilets and they had to go for half an hour to get a bucket of water”.
Fortunately, his father had money in foreign bank accounts which he used to build a house. But his attempts to re-establish himself in business in Israel proved a failure. “He was a gentleman, he was not used to people not honouring their word. In the process of building the country, not much attention was paid to ethics.”
Samuel cut a different path. After completing his national service in military intelligence, he became active in right-wing politics, as part of a backlash against the ruling Labour Zionist elite.
“When I was in the military, we went through the Yom Kippur War,” he said. “This war shocked my generation. There were a lot of young people who started to think how we could change our society, not to be in a position again where our existence is threatened.”
He became chairman of Likud’s youth branch, then an election adviser to Ariel Sharon — a national hero who rescued his country more than once in wartime, though, in his view, a less admirable politician who was “too involved with himself”.
But politics faded into the background when he arrived in Britain in 1980 aged 27 to study law at Buckingham University. “I needed to finance myself somehow,” he said. “I bought a house with a 100 per cent mortgage and sold it and made a lot of profit, then got another house.”
The paintings of Israeli artists such as Yosl Bergner and Menashe Kadishman which decorate his London office provide colourful evidence of his subsequent commercial success. But he declines to say how much his business is worth, saying only: “I am wealthy and I am comfortable.”
Dividing his time between homes in Hampstead and Jaffa, he has been able to reactivate old political contacts and cultivate new ones. A few years ago he brokered a deal in his Israeli home whereby former minister Uzi Landau agreed not to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.
But such political interventions are occasional, he stresses, and his contacts are “wide-ranging. I have a good relationship with Tzipi Livni and her party and a high appreciation of her. Similarly, I think Netanyahu is a phenomenal man, very talented, very capable. So I wouldn’t say my political contacts are on one side of the spectrum.”
He also admires the controversial Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman, now Foreign Minister.
“I am a good friend of Lieberman, I am proud of it, I appreciate our friendship,” he said. “But I want to emphasise that JNF is not a political entity. We support projects that go from left to right and we don’t make any distinction.”
If anything, his political contacts could be useful to JNF, he believes. There is “an idea we want to promote in future with the Israeli government. It is my desire that every Jew in the world should own a piece of land in Israel to be developed within a period of time.”
For all his wish to put JNF’s recent troubles in the past, loose ends remain. A donor who promised to underwrite the charity’s legal costs in its dispute with KKL still owes £700,000, he said.
Then there is a claim to be settled over a $1 million building in Israel which was bought for use as a soup kitchen by a charity founded by previous leaders of JNF. “We will do everything to resolve it peacefully,” he said.
Meanwhile, JNF’s ex-chief executive Simon Winters is set to air his claim for constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal in autumn. “I sincerely hope he will withdraw,” Mr Hayek said.
A Beth Din hearing also looms over allegations that the charity withheld money raised for an Israeli project at a dinner organised by Cyril Stein at Claridge’s two years ago. Mr Hayek said that the money would be transferred soon now that the recipient Israeli organisation has given assurances about its use.
He has also managed to settle an impending law suit with KKL over land in Israel that had been claimed by JNF UK: JNF has relinquished the claim in return for a £5 million payment over the next five years.
While remaining a “completely independent charity”, JNF has now restored links with KKL as its key Israeli partner. “There were concerns by JNF about the use of money that was sent to KKL in the past,” he acknowledged. “I think they were justified, and I don’t want to blame the previous board for being concerned.”
But he added: “Bringing legal proceedings against them was a mistake.” To prevent any recurrence of the problems, organisations that receive JNF funds must now sign a contract setting out a timetable and giving the JNF the right to inspect the project and “examine the books”.
While acknowledging that the legal battles affected JNF’s ability to raise money, Mr Hayek believes its final 2008 figure will be “not much different” to its £16 million total the previous year — “maybe a few hundred thousand pounds up or down”.
Mr Hayek said: “We want to reconnect every Jew in the UK to Israel, its land and its people.” In Israel, it will concentrate its support mostly on the Negev and the new “pioneers” who are developing it. “JNF and the Negev are synonymous. Sixty per cent of the land of Israel is in the Negev,” he said.
“We are going to support pioneers, plant millions of trees, and continue the work JNF has done in building reservoirs and extra water resources. Our mission is to have a thriving society in the Negev, changing its colour from brown to green. For us, and British Jewry, it is a 21st century Zionist dream.