AFP — Moti Kahana laughs when he considers what critics think of the Israeli-American millionaire’s efforts to “rescue” Jews in danger around the Middle East.
“They call me names — vigilante or cowboy,” the 48-year-old said during a visit to Jerusalem. “It doesn’t matter.”
Kahana has embarked on a quixotic campaign aimed at relocating fellow Jews he perceives as at risk in their home countries in the region, often moving them to Israel.
The problem is Israel is not always ready to welcome them — and some of the people involved have not even asked to be “rescued.”
To his supporters, Kahana is a maverick who goes outside the rules to get things done. To his detractors, including many in the Israeli establishment, he is a dangerous man, playing with people’s lives.
“I don’t kidnap people. They say many things about Moti Kahana,” the self-made businessman said.
“I don’t even tell them you have to go to Israel.”
Kahana hit the headlines in October when it was revealed he had whisked the last three Jews out of the Syrian city of Aleppo and smuggled them to Turkey, where they applied for Israeli citizenship.
Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Syria before World War II, many of them in Aleppo. However, the vast majority have left in waves with only a few families remaining.
Under Israeli law, any person of Jewish descent across the globe has the right to citizenship.
But in this case, one of the three elderly women — a mother and her two daughters — had converted to Islam to marry, so she, her husband and children were rejected.
Faced with no alternatives, they returned to Aleppo, which has been ravaged by Syria’s civil war.
What has happened to them since has been the subject of much speculation, but Kahana said he knows they are safe.
The Jewish Agency, the semi-governmental body responsible for organizing immigration to Israel, accuses him of reckless abandon, labeling him a “self-appointed freelancer.”
The family themselves were not even told about the “rescue” mission beforehand.
Kahana, who was notified of their situation by one of the women’s sons in New York, said it was for their own safety and rejects accusations of being a Jewish vigilante.
From cars to cause
His efforts have left many scratching their heads, wondering why he would devote so much time, effort and money to such a cause.
He said he has spent $2.2 million in five years, though much of that has gone to non-Jewish refugees from Syria.
Until 2011, Kahana seemed to be a fairly average success story. He said he moved from Jerusalem to the United States with nothing in his 20s and gradually built a medium-sized car rental business.
“Nobody was renting to under 21s, so I decided to rent to under 21s,” said Kahana, who lives with his wife and three kids in the US state of New Jersey.
It went bust when business collapsed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Kahana recalled, but he started again and in 2009 sold that company to Hertz for several million dollars.
Then in 2011, the Syrian war broke out next door to his childhood home, Israel, and he found himself moved.
He was reminded of his family — many of whom were killed by the Romanian government in anti-Jewish pogroms in World War II.
“I thought the world had agreed never to allow this to happen again,” he said.
Going for broke
Kahana started to support humanitarian causes linked to the war, giving to Syrian refugees of all backgrounds. But it is his more recent work that has become the most controversial.
As the hopes of the Arab Spring have faded into chaos and war, the suffering has become larger than he could hope to deal with.
As such, his aid has been more selective, focusing more on Jews in danger.
Kahana has, working with local Arab allies, now relocated dozens of Jews from across the Middle East, including over 20 from Syria, he said.
“I help any Jews that need help any place in the world. If the Jews of Syria want to come out, they can come to Turkey, they can come to the US, they can come to Israel if they want,” he said.
The Jewish Agency is exasperated, but admits it cannot do much to stop him. Once someone asks to become an Israeli, providing they can prove their Jewish lineage, it cannot refuse.
“I think he has been misleading too many people for too long, playing with people’s lives,” agency spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
“This is not an effort that we recommend in any way, to put it very mildly. He would best be advised to stop putting lives at risk for his own aggrandizing.”
Kahana said he has no interest in doing the Jewish Agency’s job and pointed out that his own parents were rescued by it from Romania. He said he acted in Aleppo “because nobody else did.”
The Jewish Agency wants nothing more than for Kahana to stop, and it may soon get its wish.
“I may have to go back to business very, very soon. I gave all my money away,” Kahana said.
“I am done. Financially I can no longer give my own money.”