If it comes as a surprise to see the Israeli and British flags on display in Saed Sarsur’s Mayfair offices, a conversation with this Israeli-Arab businessman will persuade anyone that they should not raise an eyebrow.
Mr Sarsur is a proud and fiercely passionate Israeli, who, together with Lord Reading — a prominent supporter of Jewish and Israeli charities — is putting together an ambitious project called Sports for Peace.
The aim of the initiative is to build a giant sports complex in Kafr Kassem, the hometown of the Sarsurs, that can host swimming and tennis competitions involving Jews and Arabs.
The Sarsurs and lived alongside Jews in Kafr Kassem, which is just 20km east of Tel Aviv, for “years and years, in peace”.
Post-1948, the Sarsurs were given Israeli citizenship, and a general good neighbourliness existed. All that changed, says Mr Sarsur, on October 29, 1956. This was the date of the now infamous Kafr Kassem massacre, when 49 Arab Israelis — most of whom were members of the Sarsur extended family — were shot dead by Israeli soldiers for breaking a curfew of which they were ignorant.
“My grandfather told me that on the following morning, when the family went to prepare the bodies for burial, they got a note from [then Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion.” The prime minister apologised and said that the actions did not represent the state of Israel.
Not everyone would have responded the way the Sarsur family did: “We realised then: What is left to us in life, if we do not live side by side with our neighbours?” It was a powerful message transmitted to the young Sarsur by his father and grandfather.
And so, coming full circle, the family has agreed that the land on which the 49 men, women and children were killed in 1956 can now be donated to build the Sports for Peace complex.
It is undoubtedly one of the most valuable plots in Israel, but Mr Sarsur says it is appropriate to donate it “for the values which bring us together”.
It is “my greatest privilege to do this”, he says. “People will get to know each other better through sport.” The complex, which be built towards the end of next year, has a number of British links. It will be run through a body called the Arts and Culture Foundation, registered as a charity in the UK. Mr Sarsur and his board, which includes Lord Reading, are in talks with a British university to provide an academic presence in the centre.
On the drawing board are plans for two football pitches, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and four tennis courts — the first grass courts in Israel. Mr Sarsur has suggested to the Israeli Tennis Federation that the new courts will enable the centre to stage a hitherto undreamt-of international competition — an “Israeli Open”.
The support for the project is “extraordinary”, says Mr Sarsur, adding he “couldn’t be happier” with the response from the Israeli government.
Aside from Sports for Peace, Mr Sarsur is the only Arab in Israel to own two oil concessions, and has commissioned drilling expeditions in northern Israeli locations, with the help of foreign experts, primarily from the UK.
“It just shows,” he declares, “that Israel is a country where anything is possible.”