LONDON — It’s taken nearly 30 years but finally, Paul Charney is back in Africa. And it’s safe to say that the 15-year-old who left Johannesburg for Israel with his parents in the early 1990s never imagined he’d be honored by the president of Gambia for his humanitarian work.
Charney, now 44, is one of the newer adornments of British Jewry, which is cheerfully accepting new community leadership from wherever it can. There are Americans within the UJIA, the main fundraising body for Israel, South Africans — including Charney — heading charities, and in the last few years, French Jews have started to play leading roles here.
But Charney’s story arc is less direct than most, given that he is definitely the first leader of the British Zionist Federation (ZF) to have been a decorated IDF tank commander. He is also, almost uniquely among community leaders in the UK, unashamedly on the right wing of politics, though he tries to downplay that in his leadership of the ZF.
“Our family made aliyah to Ra’anana,” he says, “and it is a bit of an Anglo-bubble. For the first year, I didn’t know where I was, but I was in a very good school in Ramat Hasharon which has a special program for new immigrants. But I still felt I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was getting a good bagrut (matriculation). So I chose to move to the Ostrovsky school, which is the main Israeli high school in Raanana.”
After that, Charney says, his integration into Israeli society improved, and so did his academic results.
He had not, initially, planned to go into the army, and hadn’t taken all the pre-army courses that his Israeli-born peers were doing.
‘Our family made aliyah to Ra’anana, and it is a bit of an Anglo-bubble’
“Some of my South African friends went back there to study, some went to America, and some did go to the army. Then I decided, yes, I would go to the army,” he says.
But first he took a post-high school trip around Europe, visiting London for the first time, and “falling in love” with the city. “I always felt I would come back to the UK.”
Back in Israel, Charney joined a tank division in the IDF and was then asked to go on an officers’ course. He served in Gaza and the West Bank and concluded his service in late summer of 1996. He was then invited to join Shin Bet.
Charney agreed and began the recruitment process, but at the same time applied — almost as an afterthought — to study law in the UK.
“I didn’t know anything about places outside London but I asked friends in Raanana and they told me about some of the bigger Jewish communities,” he tells The Times of Israel.
And Charney, slightly to his own surprise, it seems, told the Shin Bet — who were not very happy — that he would not be proceeding with them, and instead headed to Leeds, in northern England.
He was almost 25, and was already a young man in a hurry. Older than most of his fellow students, he became active in Jewish student politics and was the warden of Leeds Hillel House, the residential center for young Jews from other cities.
“The reason I did law — and I told him, years later — was that I read a book by Alan Dershowitz, ‘Chutzpah,’ and it seemed to me there was a tremendous amount of social justice in what he did and that being a lawyer meant you could make a difference. I was sitting in the tanks, at night, reading his book. That tipped the balance,” Charney says.
Being out of Israel — where, he says, he felt “protected” — and in Leeds, Charney says he felt “vulnerable. It was the first time I’d seen anti-Semitism, kids chasing after you in a park and calling you a bloody Jew. Israel gives you a sense of security, and especially in the army, there’s a feeling of collective strength. You can do, you can protect, you can defend. It’s a very different mentality.”
“I still have Israeli mannerisms. Recently I went into a shopping center in Oxford Street [in central London] and I walked straight, to cut through it. There were some young Israelis on a stall, spraying perfume. And one of them came over to me and started speaking to me in Hebrew. I said, ‘How the hell did you know I was Israeli?’ He said, ‘I can tell by the way you went, straight as an arrow, you knew what you were doing, no messing around.’ You can take the boy out of Israel,” Charney laughs, “but not Israel out of the boy.”
He jokes about it, but Charney does bring a hands-on, can-do, attitude to his communal life. He says he is a glass half full kind of person and makes a point of asking if something can work — and if not, why not.
Charney practiced as a lawyer in the UK for some time before starting his own business.
“I like to be master of my own destiny,” he says.
He was concentrating on building up his business when the first Gaza war erupted.
“It was the frustration of nothing being done [by the community] and the misrepresentation of Israel, of it getting an unfair hearing,” he says. “I thought, if you want to make a difference, you have to stand up and do something.”
At first he went to the embassy and asked if he could do his miluim (reserve military service) by helping there. But then he found the Zionist Federation, and made a rapid climb up its hierarchy until becoming chairman in 2012.
He had felt, he says, that the ZF was “probably a natural home,” because of its support for Israel regardless of politics. In his time as chairman the ZF, which had been in danger of becoming moribund, has assumed a new lease of life, attracting many younger supporters and a huge number of Christian Zionists.
In December last year, Charney went on holiday to Gambia with his fiancee, Anzia Smith, whose father owns a hotel there. In the hotel he met the country’s one-time minister of tourism, Fatou Mas Jobe, who now runs “Operation Save,” a charity headed by Gambia’s First Lady, Zeinab Jammeh.
“We had a long conversation, I wanted to understand more about Gambia. It is an Islamic Republic but it does have minimal diplomatic relations with Israel. It’s not one of the African countries where Israel has done work, but it’s relatively peaceful,” he says.
Fatou took Charney out with her to see her latest project — “literally pulling kids off the streets and saying, come to school! It’s a pre-school nursery, and it’s a great scheme. We started talking about health and she said the biggest problem was infant mortality. So I said, I don’t know if I can do anything, but let me see the hospital.”
Charney went to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Banjul, the country’s capital. It was a depressing experience.
“The building itself is perfectly fine,” he says, “but as you walk in, the hallways are empty, the rooms are mostly empty, the beds haven’t got mattresses on them.”
‘The hallways are empty, the rooms are mostly empty, the beds haven’t got mattresses on them’
The children’s ward was just as dispiriting. Many of the children suffer from heart disease and Charney was dismayed to see “children just lying there, with the hopelessness of the parents, patting their children because there was nothing they could do.”
In the back of Charney’s mind was the Israeli charity Save A Child’s Heart (SACH), a regular stop-off for ZF missions to the Wolfson Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
“I knew how it worked and that it had treated children from many parts of the world. I said to Fatou, let’s try and save one child. And she was very dubious, because they had recently sent several children to Venezuela and they’d sent them all back without treating them because they said they had the wrong kind of heart conditions. I told her, don’t worry, with SACH we’re in safe hands,” Charney says.
Charney returned to London and began ferociously networking. Soon SACH doctors had identified seven children who could be treated. Fatou got some funding from Dubai, Charney himself put money in, and SACH matched the money raised. Brussels Airlines agreed to fly the young patients, together with relevant carers and family members, to and from Israel. The first group of four children arrived in March this year.
“Slowly, Gambia started to see how phenomenal the work was that was being done with the kids,” Charney says. “All seven children were saved and for the first time SACH had an open link with Gambia. The trust now, between the two countries, is fantastic. Now we are on to the next stage, helping to train local doctors — and then start building a better hospital.”
‘The trust now, between the two countries, is fantastic’
For his groundbreaking work, Charney was among 110 honored in a ceremony this past August by the President of Gambia Yahya Jammeh. But the vastly optimistic and impatient Charney says it is part of of the work he has pledged to do for the ZF.
“I want to explain Israel and Zionism to people, and this is one of the ways I’m doing it,” he says. “People can see what’s happening. I’ve been hearing about this thing called pro-active advocacy for years. But this [project], in essence, is just that. It’s doing something. Of course, the primary objective is to save the children. At the same time, if Israel gets better known in Gambia and Africa, that’s a lovely by-product. I’m not going to let go of that.”