2008-12-12 / Columns

Israel Viewpoint

Modern Caesarea
STEPHEN KRAMER Jewish Times Israel Correspondent

I've written about the ancient city of Caesarea, its archaeological park, its antiquities and its fabulous port several times ... today I'm going to take you through modern Caesarea, a vital city with beautiful neighborhoods, a new high-tech industrial area, and even Israel's sole 18-hole golf course. Recently, Michal and I joined her summer hiking buddies for a birthday outing spent meandering through modern Caesarea and the Ralli Museum.

It was significant for the establishment of Israel that, in 1882, Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild (1845 - 1934) became an ardent Zionist and began buying land in Palestine. As a leading proponent of the Zionist movement, he provided the land for the pioneering agricultural colony at Rishon LeZion. Rothschild promoted industrialization and economic development, buying more than 125,000 acres of land to set up business ventures.

In 1948, the Rothschild family, through the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation, purchased the land that makes up modern Caesarea - land which was vacant and disused when the War of Independence had ended. Although all the other Rothschild land was turned over to the State of Israel, in 1952 the Caesarea portion was leased back for 200 years by a new charitable foundation, known as the Caesarea Development Corporation (CDC), which has responsibility for maintaining Caesarea. The CDC transfers all profits from the development of Caesarea to the Foundation (half owned by the State of Israel), which supports organizations that advance higher education and culture across Israel.

The great grandson of the Baron continues to head the CDC, making Caesarea the only locality in Israel managed by a private organization rather than a municipal government. CDC provides all of the locality's municipal services, markets land for development, manages the nearby industrial park, and runs Caesarea's golf course and country club. The result, and the Baron's legacy, is a unique community that combines quality of life, green concerns, industry and tourism.

As we began our walk through some of Caesarea's exclusive neighborhoods, we noticed the medallions in the sidewalks designating the CDC management. Much more noticeable was the line of fish statues situated on the grass adjacent to the sidewalk. These large statues were all imaginatively decorated by the local school children, with mosaics, found objects, and in other creative ways. We soon arrived at a park that contained the ruins of the Palace of the Bird Mosaic, a 45 ft. by 50 ft.floor of a mansion dating from the Byzantine Period, about 1,300 years ago. Actually, there was almost nothing left of what must have been a huge structure, but the mosaic floor of the main salon was remarkably well-preserved, with intricate, geometric patterns of various fish and other animals around the perimeter.

Our walk continued past many "villas" (the term used here for free-standing single family homes), most of them large, some of them beautiful, and all of them very expensive. As we stared at the geometric-shaped, marble roof (!) of one low-slung villa, the owner, who was lounging by the pool, invited in our group of eight to see the garden. He explained that the house was shaped like an airplane and the direction it was facing was towards Jerusalem. Only in Israel!

After a walk of a few hours, we arrived at the Ralli Museum opposite the town center. The large, private museum was built by Harry Recanati. His family's fortune came from the ownership and sale of the Overseas Shipping Group, IDB Holdings, and the family's Swiss bank - Discount Bank and Trust. The family is among Israel's richest. But it's not that simple ...

Harry Recanati was born in Salonica, Greece, in 1919, to Leon Recanati and Matilde Saporta. The Recanati family was of Italian origin, the Saporta of Sephardi (Spanish origin), both well known, honorable families. After finishing his studies, Harry joined the modest Palestine Discount Bank Ltd. in Tel Aviv ("Palestine" was replaced by "Israel" in 1948), which had been founded by his father just two years previously. The bank was unique in that it was open to private customers, unlike the other few dozen banks operating in Palestine at that time, which mostly catered to business people and companies. By the end of 1952, under Harry's management, the bank, now known as IDB, had become the second largest in Israel and Harry's younger brother had joined the bank. The third brother, Raphael, went into the shipping business, after deciding that banking was a "parasitical" activity.

In 1952, Harry moved the bank's base to Geneva and created a network of affiliated banks in Switzerland, France, Uruguay, Peru and Chile. Ten years later, IDB and a partner purchased the Ralli Brothers Ltd., an old established London bank with extensive non-banking interests throughout the world, prompting Harry to relocate to London. In the same year, his brother Raphael, who had settled in New York during the late forties, changed his mind about banking and, against Harry's advice, established the New York branch of the Israel Discount Bank Ltd.

Dissension grew between the brothers, and in 1969 Harry decided to withdraw from the partnership. What irked Harry the most was his brothers' insistence on taking the bank public. This nullified Leon Recanati's cardinal principle that his bank should always remain under Sephardi ownership, in order to provide banking facilities to the Sephardi community - where none had existed until the founding of the Palestine Discount Bank in 1935. Harry wanted no part of a public company and he resisted diluting the family's interest in a very successful and reputable business.

Harry soon purchased two modest banks from his brothers, one in Switzerland and one in France. But after successfully running the banks for ten years, he sold out and retired to devote himself to non-business activities: music, history, and especially, art - his hobby. I gleaned all this information from Harry's website [www.harryrecanati.org]. My interest had been piqued by the sign at the entrance to the museum that mentioned that Harry Recanati had no connection to any other family of the same name. Evidently this is because Harry thought that his brothers had sullied the family name by highly improper trading in the bank's shares, which resulted in IDB facing insolvency. In fact, the government of Israel was forced to nationalize the bank, following which Raphael Recanati was sentenced to jail. Due to his advanced age and his poor health, Raphael didn't do jail time, but Harry was aghast that his father's dream of a first-class private Sephardi bank in Israel had come to ruin.

Despite the somewhat sensationalistic Recanati's Ralli Museum is quite magnificent. In fact, five Ralli Museums have been established in various countries and admission to all of them is free of charge.The original building (Museum 1) in Caesarea holds his huge collection of mostly surrealistic Latin American art, plus a number of works by the Spaniard, Salvador Dali. The second, newer building contains European art from the 16th to 18th centuries illustrating Biblical themes. What is unusual about the artwork is that although it is all of high quality, many of the artists are relatively unknown outside of their native countries.

To me, the most exceptional feature of the two buildings was that Museum 2 is very reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The courtyard even includes a replica of Alhambra's Fountain of the Lions. Near the fountain are several statues of prominent Sephardic Jews from the Middle Ages, including some persons said to be of Jewish descent, such as Christopher Columbus. Lining the walls of the courtyard are many plaques explaining aspects of Sephardi Judaism in Spain in the so-called Golden Age - the period of approximately two centuries preceding the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

After our wanderings through the two Ralli Museums, we went off to celebrate the birthdays of two in our group. A leisurely lunch and two birthday cakes later, we congratulated ourselves on a terrific day spent in modern Caesarea, a town that would have remained a ruin, if not for the foresight of Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild.

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