Haim Shiff: No Dictates
By Gad Nahshon
Haim Shiff is a legendary founding father of Israel's tourism industry. He has been an unique and controversial figure in the Israeli panorama. Young Israelis today do not know that Shiff was a pioneer in the Israeli private sector. He was a pioneer in combating Israel's previously controlled economy. He had to combat what has been defined as the Israeli style of Bolshevism. He had to combat the ruling party, Mapai, and its leaders or governmental officials. At that time it was very hard to get help in order to build Israel's economy without the "Red Identify Card" which showed that you are a member of Mapai.
The Shiff story which was depicted in his biography, Haim Shiff Without Dictates, is also an historical mirror of the problems and dynamic of the Israeli society.
I should say that Shiff has always been a strong man. He had the courage to challenge his enemies. He fought for the truth and against public corruption. He expressed a sense of personal integrity. He also told everyone exactly what he thought about them. This posture in Israel of the 1950s and the 1960s caused Shiff pain and problems. But despite these hardships, he managed to build his own economic empire: hotels, cinemas, and other real estate assets. Many of Shiff's hotels, such as "Hanasi" (The President) in Jerusalem turned out to be Israeli landmarks. As I wrote, Shiff's story reflects Israel's history. First, Shiff was born in Poland.
When he was eleven, Polish children killed his brother Baruch. Later, his father Dov was murdered by Arabs in Palestine. The family could not join his father because the cruel inhuman British mandatory authorities did everything in order to dismantle Aliyah. The family managed to come to Palestine or Haifa in 1937. They waited seven years in order to make this Aliyah. But now Haim Shiff lost his father. He had been a tough young man and went into the world of business. He was successful and even bought an hotel in Haifa when its Jewish community was controlled by Mapai or its leader Aba Hushi. Until today, some still refer to Haifa as "Haifa Haaduma" ("Red Haifa"). Shiff, by the way, bought the hotel from an Arab who told him: "I do not want to live with the Jews any more." Hushi called on the Arabs not to leave the city.
This hotel gave Shiff, a genius in business, the idea to build an infrastructure for tourism in Israel. Since then, he has devoted his life to the tourism industry in Israel. He also became a model of private enterprise. He became an example of a man of words. People and enemies knew that Shiff was a genius in this field, that he always accomplished his projects, and that he loved challenges. He loved to risk investments in order to build Israel's economy.
As I mentioned, Shiff's "Without Dictates"reflects the past. Shiff always had suffered as many others from the fact that he was "politically incorrect". Why? As a young man in Haifa he joined the Irgun and was a personal friend of its leaders: Menachem Begin, Haim Landau and Yaacov Meridov. Later he became a friend of Yitzhak Shamir. Shiff fought against the British soldiers and was their prisoner too. He was tortured by them so it was not surprising that Shiff grew up to be tough.
From 1948, Shiff was considered to be one of the founders of Herut, Begin's party. To be an ex-Irgun, member in post 1948 Israel meant to be an outcast or a stepchild. You were underprivileged. For example, members of the Irgun who were crippled were not eligible for financial support for their families by the Israeli Defense Ministry. Later there was a new regulation and justice has been done. Before 1948, Israel almost reached the verge of a civil war. Shiff as one can figure out from this situation was an outcast. This was a real obstacle.
Shiff felt the jaws of Mapai's discrimination. Shiff documented this aspect in his bio. But he also confessed that some leaders of Mapai such as Pinchas Sapir helped him, and were fair to his quests. They, like Sapir, Israel's Secretary of the Treasury, understood the genius of Shiff when it came to business. Sapir was honest and an example of modesty in his personal life.
Others, Shiff noticed, were corrupted. One can understand the hardship of Shiff who had to face all of these problems, but he never gave up. He wanted to build the country. He wanted to build Jerusalem. He understood the importance of developing economic life in the city before 1967. Shiff was a pioneer in promotion of the tourism industry in Jerusalem.
A good example of his personal devotion to the capitol of Israel is the fact that he built an hotel on the border with Jordan in Jerusalem. This beautiful hotel, Ganie Yehuda, is located near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. The building of a hotel on the border almost caused a confrontation with Jordan. Often the work had been done under the shooting of Jordanian bullets! This chapter in the history of Israel's hotels contributed to Shiff's prestige. But as he pointed out in his bio, many simply have forgotten this heroic chapter.
Shiff also contributed to the history of the Israeli entertainment industry by building cinemas such as Khen in Jerusalem. He developed ties with the American film industry and even with the actress Ava Gardner. Shiff also built hotels in Tel Aviv and other places as well including The Diplomat, Ariel and Marina.
Step by step, Shiff, despite problems, built a network of hotels. He became a celebrity and a friend of many leaders such as David Ben-Gurion. He became a friend of the Israeli Air Force. He hosted many parties in his hotels and was also a respected philanthropist. Many did not like him because of his achievements. Many officials refused to help him because he was a member of Herut, and an ex-soldier of Irgun. Others simply were jealous of his success. Israel is a small country. The media helped these bad people to spread slander and to hurt his image.
Shiff complained in his book about it. All was false information, groundless gossip. Some Israelis with power simply did not like his style, his honesty, his toughness. He acted in a different environment. The political collective of the past resented and abhorred the capitalists. The State and the Kibbutz, Mapai and the Histradut were the future models of Israel. Today we live in the age of privatization. We developed a new style of Israeli capitalism. In a way, Shiff was a prophet of this modern development. The concept of a "collective Israel', the concept of "controlled economy", the concept of "social control by one party (Mapai)" has been disintegrated. "Israeli Bolshevism" is today an archaeological object. But Shiff suffered from its oppressive nature. Of course, we must recognize the contributions of all of our Founding Fathers to the State of Israel. Shiff, himself, also lost his brother Zvika. Indeed Shiff's bio is also a history of Israel. His brother managed to hide his age and was drafted into the Israeli Army. He fought with heroism in the battle of Yad Mordecai against the invading Egyptians. It is a unique story of Israel's War of Independence. Zvika was killed in this heroic war. Zvika was the one who stopped the Egyptian army in its crusade to reach Tel Aviv. Zvika was only 14 � years old!
It is not surprising to hear Shiff's outcry of anger and frustration in this bio. He feels a sense of betrayal by a country, its leaders and its elites. Shiff wrote this book in order to balance the news about the collapse of his economic empire, of the network of his hotels. He tells us about the refusal of many leaders to help him to solve his financial problems. He tells us about his betrayal by the leaders who forgot about his contribution to Israel's economy in the past. He tells us about the vultures who want to destroy him without a real reason.just hate and jealousy.
What happened? Why did the great Shiff lose his empire in only one year and so suddenly? As a result of many trends of the Israeli economy and tourism in the 1980s, Shiff had a debt of four million dollars; but because of the interest, it was increased to forty-two million dollars. Shiff called his friends in the government in order to save his empire and the jobs of three thousand workers. But they declined to help him. They copped out. They sent him to their officials. They let him go down.
Some, he claimed, enjoyed it. One of his enemies, he wrote, was the head of Bank Leumi in Israel by the name of Bino Tsadik. The bank refused to give him some air. Shiff lost many assets such as his flagship hotel in Tel Aviv, The Diplomat. He was bitter and expressed it in his bio. "I never asked my state or my ministry of treasury to dismantle my debt. I never asked them for favors. I only asked them to give me the state's guarantee so that I would be able to solve the problems with the banks. They certainly charged me and many other Israelis with interest which is on the verge of criminality. It was a murderous kind of interest.
Indeed, even the judges of the Israeli courts did not pay attention to this interest. They did not understand the degree of the exploitation. The judges legitimatized this robbery. The real cause of the collapse of my empire was due to the following fate. I always have resisted corruption. I had to face many attempts during my years of activity. I always objected and said what I had to say in their faces. Ministers and members of the Knesset were not pleased with my response." Shiff suffered from his pattern of honest behavior and probably, as he had claimed, from discrimination by the leaders, the banks, and the officials.
But he managed to solve his problem and as he wrote he is still a rich man in Israel. "If a special investigation committee had been established, I am sure that some ministers and their senior officials would have found themselves in jails rather than sitting in their governmental offices. Because of them, three thousand people lost their jobs", wrote Shiff, in the last chapter of his bio. Shiff explained that often the state should interfere in the economy in order to rescue businesses, but complained that he was ignored and discriminated against when other hotels were saved by the government. Well, he wrote, perhaps because he never tried to use bribery as a weapon, "they never gave me a break", said the man who contributed so much to Israel's economy. "Perhaps they did not like me because I have no fear", remarked Shiff.
The banks and the media described me as a loser who reached the status of bankruptcy. "But I was and I am the richest man who filed for bankruptcy since my assets and capital were estimated at one hundred million dollars. I own the Marina in Tel Aviv, The Diplomat in Jerusalem and half of the Ariel in Jerusalem. I have other assets and plan to build new hotels. Also, I plan some projects abroad. I paid all of my debts. I owe nothing to people or any institution in Israel" pointed out Shiff in his biography entitled, Without Dictates.
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