For Murray Koppelman, a distasteful Tehran scene inspires a gift to New Israel Fund

Murray Koppelman in his Manhattan office next to a work by the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — Murray Koppelman saw women pushed onto the back of a bus in Tehran and had a nightmare about Israel’s future.

Koppelman, a well-known philanthropist in New York, is behind a New Israel Fund pledge drive to combat discrimination against women in Israel. He will match every new dollar donated to the New Israel Fund up to $500,000.

A full-page ad in The New York Times including a dramatic photo of a defaced poster featuring a woman’s portrait — one of many that have been vandalized in Jerusalem — announced the drive on April 18. The ad urges Americans to “Help keep Israel strong, free, and democratic.”

Koppelman, 80, said in an interview that the idea for the campaign came to him when he was touring Iran last autumn.

He had traveled much of the world and wanted to see Iran “while I still could make the trip,” he told JTA. His decision caused much family consternation, but he persisted.

Koppelman waited six months for a visa. He hired a guide when he arrived in Iran. 

“It was a very arduous trip — I am over 80 — I needed to sit down. I found a bench, I sat down,” he recalled.

It was a bus stop. “There were 20 to 30 women with chadors on, and when the bus came, they were pushed to the back,” Koppelman said.

The scene brought to mind an NIF-organized lecture he had attended just before leaving for his trip. Alice Shalvi, a veteran Israeli feminist, described encroachments on Israeli women’s rights, including buses where women were expected to sit in the back.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pushed back against such measures, pledging to “preserve public space as open and safe.”

Seeing Iranian women shoved to the back of the bus unsettled Koppelman, who asked his guide whether such measures were introduced all at once after the 1979 revolution that brought Islamists to power.

No, the guide said, each change came incrementally.

“I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to Israel?’ ” Koppelman said.

He didn’t leave it at just thinking about it. 

“I’m a person who likes to speak out,” said Koppelman, who then recited an Op-Ed he had submitted to The New York Times in 1995 weeks after an extremist Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Like so many members of the American Jewish community, I have kept my opinions to myself for too long,” Koppelman read from the Op-Ed in stentorian, Brooklyn-inflected tones. “Hesitant to contribute to an image of the Jews as a divided people, I have refrained from taking a public stand on the issue of Israel exchanging occupied territory for peace. In unity, so I thought, there is strength. But it was words — words of venomous hatred — that led directly to the unthinkable outrage of the assassination of a prime minister of Israel by a Jew.”

In the Op-Ed, Koppelman describes the time he spent as a young man on a kibbutz in Israel.

 “I spent years working in the fields by day and standing guard duty against terrorists at night,” he wrote. “It is a time in my life that I look back on with tremendous pride, a time when my personal ties to Israel were forged strongly and immutably in the exhilaration and promise of a Jewish homeland reborn.”

Koppelman is fiercely loyal to the institutions that shaped him as a youth. He is a major benefactor to Brooklyn College, and his resume lists the years there he spent earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, 1954-1957.

“I was on welfare during the entire Depression,” he said. “That’s why I rewarded Brooklyn College — because of them I got my degree and became a CPA. Now I’m in the securities business.” 

“In the securities business” is his understated way of a professional biography that includes founding Eastlake Securities, which was eventually folded into J.P. Morgan, where he is now a vice president.

Following his trip to Iran, Koppelman reviewed the Jewish organizations that have benefited from his largesse — among them ORT, the Anti-Defamation League and the UJA-Federation of New York. He settled on NIF, which focuses on funding programs that promote civil rights and democracy in Israel.

“I decided that was the most obvious,” said Koppelman, adding that his prior donations to the group had “not been consequential.”

New Israel Fund was happy to oblige. And not just for the cash: A past president of American ORT, Koppelman lends credibility to the organization, which has come under assault from right-wingers in recent years as not sufficiently pro-Israel.

“He’s a pillar of the American Jewish community,” said Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s CEO.

The defaced poster in the Times ad features Roni Hazon Weiss, an Orthodox woman who posed for the poster for an NIF-backed group called Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites). The group placed the billboards around the city in defiance of some in the Jerusalem haredi Orthodox community who have systematically defaced images of women.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, says Koppelman is “a caring, loving, decent Zionist.” 

And also a fundraiser’s dream: “He puts his money where his mouth is, without a lot of demands,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader bemoaned the ad as divisive, although he lauded its mission.

“The NIF is to help Israel maintain its democratic values,” he said. “This only gives another excuse to people we don’t like.” 

Foxman especially was upset by the story behind the ad. Comparisons with Iran, he said, are “odious.”

Still, he could not fault what motivated Koppelman.

“I know where his heart is,” Foxman said. “I know how deeply he loves Israel.”