Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama's Advisor

During the recent debate, Senator Obama, in trying to deflect from the charge that his past is too much populated with scary and antisemitic figures, mentioned that Warren Buffet is his advisor. I knew Buffet was an Obama supporter but not that he had a more formal standing in his campaign.

Warren Buffet is a name that commands instant respect (unlike that other Obama billionaire supporter Soros). Many people think Buffet is Jewish. He is not. His relationship with Jews is much more interesting and unlike other interesting relationships, it is not complex or ambiguous. It is a simple story of immense affection and good will combined with a great deal of business acumen.

Warren Buffett is not a Jew; in fact, he describes himself as an agnostic.

Still, the billionaire investment guru, who made big news in May when his Berkshire Hathaway corporation bought an 80 percent share in the Israeli metalworks conglomerate, Iscar, for $4 billion, for years has been making his mark on the U.S. Jewish community back home -- although sometimes in a roundabout way.

"Proportionally, if you look at the number of Jews in this country and in the world, I'm associated with a hugely disproportionate number," said Buffett, the second-richest man in the world. His life, he added, "has been blessed by friendship with many Jews."

The Israeli government stands to reap about $1 billion in taxes on Buffett's purchase of Iscar. Shortly after announcing the deal, Buffett said he was surprised to learn that a Berkshire subsidiary, CTB International, was purchasing a controlling interest in another Israeli company,

In Israel -- which Buffett plans to visit in the fall -- the hope is that the deals will have longer legs: Buffett himself has not ruled out future purchases there and, considering his status as a leading investor, observers say others also may take a look at Israeli companies now that Buffett has done so.

"You won't find in the world a better-run operation than Iscar," Buffett says. "I don't think it's an accident that it's run by Israelis."

Among the first companies Buffett acquired after launching Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha-based investment and insurance giant, was The Sun Newspapers of Omaha, then owned by Stan Lipsey, one-time chairman of The Jewish Press, Omaha's Jewish newspaper.

"At the time, the Omaha Club did not take Jewish members, and the Highland Country Club, a golf club, didn't have any [non-Jewish] members," Lipsey recalled. "Warren volunteered to join the Highland" -- rather than the Omaha -- "to set an example of nondiscrimination."

Buffett happily recalls the fallout from his application.

"It created this big rhubarb," he said. "All of the rabbis appeared on my behalf, the [Anti-Defamation League] guy appeared on my behalf. Finally they voted to let me in."

But that wasn't the end of the story, Buffett said.
The Highland had a rule requiring members to donate a certain amount of money to their synagogues. Buffett, of course, wasn't a synagogue member, so the club changed its policy: Members now would be expected to give to their synagogues, temples or churches.

But that still didn't quite work, Buffett recalls with a laugh, because of his agnosticism.

In the end, the rule was amended to ask simply that members make some sort of charitable donation, and the path to Buffet's membership was clear. "

I love this story. It is one of those rare moments, when loving kindness unfolds in accordance with the logic of a domino effect: a simple chain reaction that gets launched when a small change causes a linear sequence of similar changes.

It starts with one maverick making a simple gesture, dictated by a moral principle. Then the obstructing dominoes fall easily, each knocking down the one before it, getting rid of the obstructions by moving from the particular to the universal.

I wonder if the same dynamic would have been set in motion for any Joe-Six Pack out there who wanted to join a Jewish club. I think that would probably have depended on what kind of Joe Joe-Six would be... He would have to bring something special to the club, something that would cause the club people to want him to join them.


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