From Apps to Advocacy: The Israeli-American Millionaire who Made Israel an Ivory-Tower Brand

photo courtesy FIDF
photo courtesy FIDF

After succeeding beyond his wildest dreams in America, Israeli-born high-tech maven Benny Shabtai has sold off his family’s stake in Viber and is now devoting his energies to garnering support for his homeland and preparing future Jewish leaders.

By James Kirchick

“America was extremely good to me,” says Benny Shabtai, a wall of windows showcasing the Atlantic Ocean behind him. We are sitting in the living room of his magnificent home on the 25th floor of a luxury condominium complex at the southern tip of Miami’s South Beach. No one could fault the Israeli businessman for invoking the clichéd immigrant adage of appreciation for his adopted country.

Earning his initial fortune as the founder of the Raymond Weil luxury watchmaker’s U.S. brand, Shabtai last year sold off his family’s stake in the free smartphone messaging app Viber, earning about half-a-billion dollars for himself, his brother and nephew. Developed by four Israelis and claiming over 300 million users, Viber is one of the most successful tech startups in recent years and a direct challenger to the more established Skype.

Having succeeded far beyond his wildest dreams in America, Shabtai has set his sights on doing something for the greater benefit of society. For nearly two decades, he has been a board member of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, transforming the charity’s small, rubber-chicken dinners into gala affairs at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Events that used to attract a few hundred people now regularly draw well over 1,000. When I ask Shabtai how he did it, he says that it was the same skill that made him a millionaire many times over: a knack for branding.

“You have an amazing product, which is Israeli soldiers,” says Shabtai, who was born in Tel Aviv and served in the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. “I had been invited to take [the FIDF] over by a general and I just said, ‘You know, why not. Let me take a chance and create another product for people to understand what an amazing product we have here.’”

Like some other Israelis in the United States, Shabtai sensed how to take advantage of American Jews’ penchant for romanticizing Israel (and Israelis) and used his business savvy to market his native country’s soldiers to this rapt audience. In 1997, when Israel was still occupying southern Lebanon, he hooked up a satellite feed to connect donors at the Waldorf with soldiers live on the frontline (a feature that has since become a regular highlight of the annual dinner program). He invited widows and mothers of fallen IDF soldiers to events, presenting stories that created “amazing emotion” on stage.

He also reached out to the evangelical community, inviting Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, as well as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a bridge-building organization. The annual fundraising dinner, Shabtai says, soon became a “must-see” event on the already-busy circuit of American Jewish philanthropy.

Though he has helped raise over $200 million for the organization, Shabtai has left his most distinctive mark as a philanthropist in what is perhaps an unlikely place for an Israeli immigrant businessman who wasn’t educated in America: Yale University. He has funded a Jewish leadership society there – one that regularly attracts the most successful names in business, journalism, arts, politics, academia and religion to its table, and has produced hundreds of up-and-coming Yale students (including yours truly) as alumni.

“The best and the brightest at Yale are often Jewish, the role of Shabtai is to inspire them to be Jewish leaders,” Shmully Hecht, the rabbinical advisor of the eponymous Shabtai society tells me. Like Yale’s famous secret societies, Shabtai is elite and exclusive, but unlike the infamous Skull & Bones or Scroll & Key or Book & Snake, it is not clandestine. “Open house” is how Benny Shabtai speaks of the group’s ethos.

Though the society is grounded in Jewish ideals and most members are indeed so-called members of the tribe, Shabtai is open to individuals of all faiths, or no faith at all. The only commitment that members must share is a concern for the future of the Jewish people. Indeed, one of its most prominent members is Cory Booker, the African-American, Baptist senator from New Jersey, who in 1996 co-founded the society with three other Yale students. Booker is one of the American Jewish community’s most beloved politicians; he owes this popularity in no small part to the connections forged through Shabtai.

A major pro-Israel front

Over the past 18 years of its existence, the society has welcomed hundreds of speakers, ranging from talk show host Jerry Springer, to actors Elliott Gould and Charles Grodin, CNN journalist Jake Tapper, Fannie Mae CEO Timothy Mayopoulos, Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, and Getty Images head Jonathan Klein.

At a time when anti-Israel sentiment is a growing concern on college campuses, and with American Jewish leaders devoting countless hours and funds to combating a major new front in the battle against delegitimization of Israel, the organization Shabtai founded quietly serves as an advocate for the Jewish state, hosting the cream of the crop of Israeli society – among them former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz – for dinners and discussions.

Years before becoming Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren taught at Yale (where he was my professor for a class on the history of American involvement in the Middle East) and lived at Beit Shabtai, as the society’s brownstone is known. In 2012, on the first anniversary of his release from Hamas captivity, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit made one of his first public appearances in the United States at Yale as a guest of the group. Former South African jurist Richard Goldstone and his extended family celebrated Passover there two years ago.

At the same time, in the spirit of open debate, Shabtai hosts critics of Israel and Zionism. “Holocaust Industry” author Norman Finkelstein and the anti-Zionist writer Philip Weiss have supped at its table. Left-leaning J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami has also spoken before the society’s members.

While some might see the society he has named as a covert hasbara (PR) operation, Shabtai’s own views on Israeli politics are far more nuanced than one might assume. Of the recent flap regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran speech before the U.S. Congress, Shabtai observes that, “the Republicans created this whole thing… I believe and I know that this [American] government did tremendous, tremendous efforts for Israel.”

As the society’s ambitions have grown, so has its need for physical space. What began in 1996 as a series of well-lubricated conversations in an off-campus apartment at Yale soon became a recognized global leadership society housed in a row of modest brownstones.

Last year, Shabtai purchased one of Connecticut’s most distinctive historic landmarks: New Haven’s 19th-century Anderson Mansion, replete with marble fireplaces and huge stained glass windows. After a planned multi-million-dollar renovation and endowment campaign, the society is slated to open its new home, at the new gateway to Yale’s campus, in the fall.

Shabtai acknowledges that the American talent for welcoming outsiders benefitted him, and how the success he’s enjoyed, in turn, has allowed him to help others. “All the students that this year are going to graduate next year, in 10 years, five years you’re going to hear about them,” he predicts. “And they will say, ‘I remember Shabtai, that gave me that foundation to be what I am today.’”