OBITUARY:Leon Tamman

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:47

For a man who established an entirely new world Jewish organisation - the World Movement for a United Israel, Ta'ali - which required much publicity for its progress, and who amassed millions in numerous world- wide ventures which entailed friendship with many different personalities, Leon Tamman remained an unusually private person to the very end.

His sudden death in Jerusalem surprised even his closest associates in London and Hove, where he had two sumptuous houses.

Though reputed to be worth pounds 50m and to be, according to a newspaper survey, the 330th richest man in Britain, Tamman never seemed to have time to enjoy his wealth. He appeared to be more in the air than on land. He was nearly always travelling, mostly by air, over vast distances, to meet his business partners in Israel, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Yet, though he was usually at home only at weekends, Tamman was a keen family man, devoted to his wife, Rita, and their children.

His birth in the Sudan, where his parents had a prosperous business, helped him to establish contacts with African companies, which he never relinquished. But it was the shrewd- ness he showed after moving to Geneva and London that helped him amass his millions. He discovered that he could produce or obtain generic pharmaceuticals, whose patents had run out, more cheaply than others. African and Asian countries were grateful to him for supplying them with urgent drugs at a price much below those demanded for branded medicines by Western companies.

His activities extended to building housing for new Israeli immigrants, as well as luxury hotels and television. His Jerusalem Capital Studios provided facilities for all the principal world television stations.

Always intensely interested in bringing about peace between Jews and Arabs, Tamman cultivated the friendship of the late President Anwar al- Sadat of Egypt. It has been suggested by people close to him that Tamman was among the select few - who included King Hassan of Morocco and the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu - who encouraged Sadat to make peace with Israel. Dapper, with silky manners, Tamman could be very persuasive.

However it was his original attempt to close the gap between two separate parts of the Jewish people, those of European extraction, the Ashkenazim, and those of Oriental and Spanish origin, the Sephardim, that won Tamman fame. Tamman was himself a Sephardi, and held high posts in the ethnic organisations. He decided that with the Israel state well established it was high time to close the gaps between the two sections rather than perpetuate them through separate organisations. He was well aware that in Israel some historical prejudices and misunderstandings still affected the relations between the two communities. Though much progress had been made in unifying the Israeli nation, and Sephardim are playing an increasing role in ruling the country, some of them still feel themselves to be under- privileged.

Fearing that this attitude was harming the country, Tamman broke with his brother-in-law Nissim Gaon, leader of the World Sephardi Federation - though personally he remained on good terms with him - and established in the 1980s the World Movement for a United Israel, Ta'ali, in which, he hoped, all sections of the Jewish people would work to bring about a transformation in attitudes.

He also became a leading philanthropist, donating large sums of money to educational, charitable and communal projects in Israel. Paradoxically, only in Britain, where the Sephardim see themselves as the aristocrats of the community, did Ta'ali make an impact, thanks largely to the efforts of its executive director, Sidney Shipton.

In Israel, prejudices are too deeply embedded to be removed quickly by a new group. Nevertheless, Tamman was seen as a valuable trail-blazer whose ideals are being increasingly accepted.

Joseph Finklestone

Leon Tamman, businessman, philanthropist: born Omdurman, Sudan 5 February 1927; founder, the World Movement for a United Israel, Ta'ali; married (one son, three daughters); died Jerusalem 7 June 1995.

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