Oracle billionaire pledges $500,000 to embattled Israeli town

Avi Sulimany didn’t know he was talking Larry Ellison. He didn’t even know who Larry Ellison was.

But after a cursory, two-minute conversation about rockets targeting the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Ellison promised Sulimany $500,000 to reinforce the Community Center of Sderot against those attacks. The two shook hands and parted company.

Sulimany is the director of the center of Sderot, which has suffered daily rocket attacks fired from Gaza for seven years. Ellison, of course, is the well-known head of Redwood Shores-based Oracle Corp., and one of the world’s 15 richest men. He was born to a teenage Jewish mother and grew up on the South Side of Chicago with relatives.

After viewing shrapnel left from Kassam rockets, Ellison — on a Sderot visit arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and flanked by dignitaries including Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) — walked into a community center on Thursday, Aug. 9.

Sulimany mistook Ellison for “the head of the U.S. Congress’ foreign affairs committee” — that would be Lantos, actually — and introduced himself. He told Ellison how a number of popular Israeli bands hail from Sderot, including Teapacks, the Israeli representative at the Eurovision song contest (and past performers at Israel in the Gardens).

He then pressed a CD into Ellison’s hand. It was a compilation of Sderot teenagers who were singing their own compositions about the recent war and rocket attacks. Almost as an afterthought, Sulimany added, “But these kids have a problem.”

“What problem?” asked Ellison.

Sulimany noted that the 300-seat auditorium at the Sderot community center hasn’t been reinforced against rocket attacks (the Israeli government works on school buildings first). Ellison asked how much it would cost to retrofit the auditorium and Sulimany ventured a guess of about $500,000.

“I was very surprised to hear he’d give the money immediately. I didn’t know I was talking to the head of Oracle,” Sulimany recalled.

Reading the next day’s edition of Ha’aretz, the community center director realized whom he had been speaking with.

In addition to visiting Sderot, Ellison visited Oracle’s Israeli research and development center, received a military briefing on a hill within sight of Gaza, flew to an Israel Air Force Base in a helicopter and met with Israeli higher-ups including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Oracle founder and his wife toted more than a dozen members of his family to the Jewish state alongside him on his first trip to Israel.

Sulimany, meanwhile, is overjoyed. He said an engineer will soon arrive to begin determining what retrofitting the auditorium will entail.

The money hasn’t arrived in the community center’s account yet but “I am not worried,” he said.” Getting money into Israel from the U.S. takes time.”

He also adds that, “If you know another person who wants to invest in Sderot, we have a lot of projects.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.