At 83 years of age, Iranian-born Jewish billionaire Izak Parviz Nazarian is finally seeing his dream about to come true. Although he has not lived in Israel for more than 30 years, he recently flew from Tel Aviv back to his home in Beverly Hills, feeling that his goal − electoral reform in Israel − was within reach.
“They told me that I was crazy. They couldn’t figure out what a man my age was trying to accomplish here,” he says. “But I didn’t come to do business. My heart is still here, and I am concerned about Israel’s future. I saw with my own eyes how Iran collapsed overnight and I lost everything I owned there, and I’m afraid that it could happen in Israel, too. Now everything’s starting to fall into place. An opportunity like this won’t come again.”
Nazarian made most of his fortune — estimated at $2 billion — from stock in the Qualcomm wireless corporation. He is also the owner of Stadco Inc., which manufactures precision parts for security and space travel projects. In 2003, he established the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, the parent organization for the Forum for Government Stability, which has been in operation for four years. This apolitical organization has about 70 high-ranking members from the worlds of academia, finance and high society in Israel, among them Michael Strauss, Nochi Dankner, Galia Albin, Amos Shapira, Erez Meltzer, Professor Uriel Reichman and Moshe Shahal.
Although the topic has been off the public agenda since Kadima joined the national unity government led by the Likud, talks for electoral reform by the end of 2012 are taking place behind the scenes. Late one night about two weeks ago, forum representatives met with Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, and showed him four legislative bills on the matter. The bills aim to raise the Knesset majority required for a no-confidence vote, set a maximum threshold of 18 ministers per government, raising the vote threshold to 2.5 percent, and institute regional elections in Israel for half the Knesset. The other 60 MKs would be elected in national elections.
“I saw how things were done in the U.S., and I didn’t understand why it’s not that way in Israel,” Nazarian said. “In America, there is a direct personal connection between elected officials and their voters. The official can’t make promises and then disappear because the public has the power to fire him. Every single vote is important, and politicians fear the citizens. In Israel, citizens are afraid of the politicians. Israelis have no knowledge of their power or their rights.”
Nazarian’s eldest daughter, Dora Kadisha, 52, manages his business affairs. She is the driving spirit behind the family. “There are so many brilliant minds in Israel,” she says. “Yet there are elections in Israel every year and a half to two years, and no government ever completes its term. The prime minister of Israel is like the CEO of a corporation, only the board of directors doesn’t let him do his job and just tries to trip him up all the time. The fact that our children are still fighting is also connected with the lack of governmental stability. We must not miss this historical chance, because there has never been a government here that is so strong. The Israeli politicians have good intentions, and now they also have the power to make changes.”
During the meeting with the forum members, Mofaz promised that he would establish a committee this month to work on this important subject. The forum members suggested that a team of experts, including scientists, jurists, representatives of social organizations, the business sector and local government, work together with the committee.
Nazarian’s road to riches was long and full of twists and turns. His father died when he was six years old, and he experienced severe poverty as a child in Iran. He dropped out of school in sixth grade, began working at 12 years of age, and while still a teenager flew to Italy by himself and slept on benches in the street. He came to Israel on his own at the age of 17. During the War of Independence, he stepped on a mine and was wounded. Along the way he managed to become wealthy, lose everything and rebuild.
“I was always under pressure to support my family. That was what pushed me to think creatively and never give up,” Nazarian says. “It was my mother who charted my life. It’s thanks to her that I had the courage to act. She raised me on her own after my father died. Although it wasn’t accepted at the time, she started working and opened a sewing shop. People called her Madame Tailor. My brother and I handed out newspapers and felt like we bore the mark of Cain on our foreheads. The Muslims, who hated us, used to throw stones at us as we walked home from school. But we weren’t afraid. After six years in primary school, I came to my mother and told her that I’d learned enough and that I needed to go out to work because we had no bread to eat.”
In 1943, during World War II, Izak got a job as a waiter’s assistant on a U.S. army base in Iran. “I cleaned tables, and there was a Jewish sergeant who took some food every day and took us out of the camp so that we could eat in the jeep without the military police catching us. He was invited to a Passover seder, and he convinced his superiors to give us jobs with the Iranian railway company. That’s how I became a warehouse worker and after that an electrician. He was simply an angel sent to us from heaven.”
Did you know about the Holocaust that was going on in Europe?
“No. We knew that Jews were being persecuted and that people were dying, but we didn’t take it too seriously. We dealt with things like that in Iran, too. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, and nobody had any idea what was really happening in Europe.”
But that chapter of Nazarian’s life also ended unexpectedly. He recalls, “One day, as we stood in line to receive our pay, some idiot came over to me and said, ‘Dirty Jew, go to the back of the line.’ I punched him without thinking. When the manager found out, he fired me, but I realized that I didn’t belong there.”
When he arrived in Israel by ship, two days after the War of Independence was declared in 1948, he was not welcomed with open arms.
“I didn’t know Hebrew. When I got to the port, nobody knew what I was doing there and told me through an interpreter that this wasn’t my country. That infuriated me. After all, I’d suffered my whole life because I was Jewish − and now they weren’t going to accept me here either? I finally managed to get in, but I didn’t tell Mother where I was. She would have worried. Once a month they sent her a telegram that I’d prepared in advance, but in the end I brought Mother and all the family here, and we lived in some ruin that we found in Tel Arish.”
Nazarian joined the 7th Brigade (Armored Corps), but after he was wounded, he had to work as a driver. Later on, he became the driver of future Prime Minister Golda Meir. “I would arrive at her house, and she would lean out the window and call out the way she always did, ‘Yitzhak, come in and have some coffee.’ I miss our talks.”
He also drove a tractor for the Solel Boneh company, bringing gravel from one place to another along Israel’s highways. But, approaching 27 years of age, he tried to study at the Technion and could not handle the load of study and work. He realized he would never become wealthy in Israel and went back to Iran.
Nazarian was one of the most powerful Jews in Iran of the 1960s. He was close to the shah’s regime. He constructed the sewage channels of Isfahan, built dams and paved roads, and even won awards for his work. But then, one gray day in 1979, it all came tumbling down. The Islamic Revolution took place, and Nazarian’s family had to leave its extensive business empire and millions behind, and escape to Israel.
His daughter Dora, who was about to marry then, wanted to have her engagement party in Israel. This decision proved to be fateful. When her father was at Ben-Gurion Airport on his way back to Iran, he received the terrible news that the head of the Jewish community, Habib Elghanian, had been executed. Nazarian turned his back on the aircraft that could have flown him to his death and never returned to his home in Iran.
“Several months later, we learned that our names were also on the ayatollahs’ hit list,” Dora Kadisha said. “They confiscated and nationalized all our assets. We simply lost everything.”
In an effort to save some small part of their property, the Nazarians moved to Los Angeles. The attempt failed, but they decided to remain there. Nazarian sold the cement factory that he owned in the village of Yarka. Within a short time, he became the owner of Qualcomm, one of the U.S.’s leading communications firms, worth $60 billion today.
He owes his big breakthrough to a brilliant, groundbreaking move − the invention of bidirectional satellite communications technology, which enables companies to pinpoint the location of their trucks en route throughout the country and keep track of their unloading. As the years passed, his businesses grew, and today his family owns farms that raise corn to be used for energy in the U.S. It is also involved in real-estate transactions and many other developments in the security field.
There are 25,000 Jews left in Iran. Are you in contact with them?
Kadisha: “We are in contact with a few people, but I’d rather not say much about it so as not to put their lives in danger.”
Aren’t you afraid that the extremist regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will act against the Jews?
“They’ve been brainwashed for 33 years, and some of the children of these families don’t like Israel at all. They don’t realize that the Iranian regime will use them as hostages if it has to. They don’t feel that they’re in danger at this stage. They think to themselves, ‘It will pass.’ That reminds me of European Jewry’s attitude when the Nazis came to power in Germany.”
Does it hurt you to see the current situation in Iran?
Nazarian: “It doesn’t hurt me, and I never want to go back there. I feel no connection whatsoever with that place. I live in the United States, and Israel is my home. Not Iran. It was no thanks to Khomeini that I got to where I did, because in Tehran I never could have managed to live a life with such freedom.”
Kadisha: “I see how much the Iranian people is suffering and it hurts me, just like it hurts me to see people suffering in Tahiti or Sudan. We’ve gone away from Iran. The language has changed since the revolution. It’s mixed with Arabic, and we don’t even know the names of the streets that we once lived on anymore.”
Do you see a war between Iran and Israel on the horizon?
“I don’t believe that a war is going to break out. In the end, some virus will take out Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program.”
Now, as Nazarian looks out over Tel Aviv from the 17th floor of the Hilton Hotel, with the experience of many years, he is optimistic about Israel’s future. The students who have received scholarships from him illustrate, for him, the country’s promising future generation.
“The scholarships were described as loans to the recipients, but I told them that even if they didn’t return the money, I wouldn’t send the police after them. Still, 98 percent of them paid me back. That shows the kind of human material we have here.” he says.
Last summer, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest and demand “social justice.” Most of their complaints were against the rich.
“Any social involvement is a good thing. It makes democracy stronger,” says Nazarian. “I enjoyed seeing so many Israelis going out into the streets and taking their future into their own hands. I’m convinced that the State of Israel, as a strong and extraordinary democracy in the region, will be wise enough to make the necessary changes in order to make life there better for more people, while staying competitive and open to any kinds of projects. One of the most important keys to strengthening the Israeli economy is the matter of governability and stability. This is exactly what people are working on right now.”