Investing in a dream

Leo Kolber played significant role in new country's development

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 7, 2008

At the opening of the Samuel Bronfman Archeological wing of the National Museum of Israel in Jerusalem in 1962, the founding father of Israel made some memorable extemporaneous remarks.

"I want to tell Mr. Bronfman," David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister declared, "that with all his money - I don't know how much he has but it's certainly more than I have - he cannot get a real personal share of Israel unless and until one of his children or grandchildren lives permanently in this country."

Standing beside Sam Bronfman as Ben-Gurion said this was Leo Kolber, then only 33, but already the Bronfman family's financial consiglière as head of the family trust and rea- estate investments.

All these years later, as Israel prepares to mark its 60th anniversary, Kolber can say he is fully invested in Israel on Ben-Gurion's terms. His son Jonathan moved there from Montreal in the early 1990s to run Charles Bronfman's holding company as Israel's largest foreign investor. Jonathan later married an Israeli woman, and their three children were all born there. Their grandfather, whom they call Zeyda, has made 55 trips to Israel.

"I am extremely proud of what Israel has accomplished," says Kolber, who along with his son has played a significant role in Israel's economic development, a remarkable story that is often overlooked in the larger one of too many conflicts and not enough land for all those with claims on it.

It was on his first visit there in 1958 that Kolber had arranged the Bronfman family donation on the occasion of Mr. Sam's 70th birthday. For $1 million, they got a wing named after him. For $2 million, they could have had the entire National Museum with the Bronfman' name on it.

"Why are you being so cheap with my money?" Mr. Sam asked Kolber back in Montreal. Kolber explained that if the entire museum were named for Bronfman, no one else would give money, thwarting the goal of the Jewish diaspora contributing to the cultural flowering of the young Israeli state.

It was on that first scouting trip for the museum donation that he met Shimon Peres, who would become Kolber's closest friend in Israel. Even then, Kolber saw Peres, then a young defence ministry official, as the best and the brightest of Israel's younger founding generation. He would go on to become prime minister of Israel twice, and as foreign minister would win a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords.

Now Israeli president and head of state at 84, Peres was one of the luminaries attending the recent bar-mitzvah of Kolber's grandson Benjamin. Kolber spoke to his old friend of the perpetually intractable Israeli-Palestinian issues of mutual recognition and land for peace. Peres shrugged it off and urged him to remind people in Canada of the Israeli economic and agricultural miracles.

It's a fact that a country of 7 million people - including 20 per cent non-Jews - has built by far the strongest economy in the region. Despite the very political uncertainty markets hate, Israel continues to attract business investment and venture capital. Sometimes, sheer necessity has also been the mother of invention. In agriculture, the Israelis export their water-management expertise in building farms where was only desert. They are world leaders in environmental technologies, including solar fuels, and turning trash into electricity. There are seven first-rate universities in the country. With its telecom and Internet companies, Israel is the third-most listed country on the tech-heavy NASDAQ in New York.

Kolber was in the room during the Six Day War in 1967, when Sam Bronfman summoned the Jewish leadership from across Canada, and came straight to the point, contributing $1 million himself and raising $13 million at a single meeting. The irony is that Israel's greatest victory, and the expansion of its settlements, notably in the occupied West Bank, have led to some of the problems it faces today.

When Charles Bronfman left town a decade ago, Kolber became the most influential member of the Jewish community in Montreal. And at a vigorous 79, he remains a man of influence. Jean Charest was a one-on-one dinner guest a few weeks back. And Kolber had an agenda of community issues.

"I'm a Canadian first," Kolber says. "My first loyalty is obviously to Canada. But I obviously have a deep emotional attachment to Israel."

L'chaim. To life.

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