Stanley Fischer

Source : Haaretz Newspaper

Small town boy from Mazabuka makes good

By Charlotte Halle

When Irene Nathan first heard about the appointment of the new governor of the Bank of Israel, she wondered if it could possibly be the same Stanley Fischer she remembered from her childhood in Zambia.

“As soon as I saw his face on the IBA news, I knew it was him,” says the 64-year-old speaking from her home in Rishon Letzion this week. “Prior to that, the last time I heard his name was when I left Lusaka [in 1963].”

Fischer, whose appointment seemed to shock everyone last month, is frequently described as one of America’s top economists, but those in Israel who remember his childhood in Zambia, where he lived until the age of 13, and his teenage years in nearby Zimbabwe – are quick to point to his Southern African roots.

“I remember him as a little boy,” says Louise Gerber, now of Ramat Gan, but originally from Lusaka, Zambia. “Certainly I felt proud when I realized which family he came from. The Jewish community there was small and very close. Everybody knew everybody.”

According to Ilana Joselowitz, who has roots in both Zambia and Zimbabwe, Fischer’s appointment has been a major talking point at Friday night dinner tables of former Southern Africans around Israel. “The small town boy did good,” she declares with pride. “We are so thrilled, you can’t imagine.”

Norma Davidov (nee Wasserson), who grew up in the Zambian town of Livingstone, close to the Victoria Falls, views Fischer’s appointment as “a nice boost for Northern Rhodesia,” as Zambia was formerly known. “It’s quite something that we’ve produced a governor of the Bank of Israel, especially as there are not too many of us.”

In fact, even in its heyday in the mid 1950s, the Jewish community of Zambia only numbered 1,200 [see box]. Former Zambian Jews are now spread across the globe, notably in South Africa, North America, Australia and the U.K., with a few dozen in Israel.

`A very clever chap’

Fischer, who was born in Mazabuka, Zambia in 1943, moved with his family at the age of 13 to Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia), where he became active in the Zionist youth movement Habonim. When he first came to Israel – on the Jewish Agency’s Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’aretz winter program for youth leaders in 1960 – Davidov says she was one of the few people in Israel he knew and he would visit her and her family on weekends. After studying Hebrew on Kibbutz Maagan Michael, Fischer went to study at the London School of Economics. Davidov recalls that Fischer was away on holiday when he was supposed to receive the results of his final exams, and had arranged for the telegraph carrying his results to be sent to her home in Givatayim. “I doubt if he’d remember, but I remember it because he got so many distinctions,” says Davidov. “He always was a very clever chap.”

While many in Israel have criticized the appointment of a “foreigner” – an American Jew who needs to immigrate here in order to take up the post – none of Fischer’s former compatriots sees it that way. “When a stranger comes and looks in, he might see ways out of our problems that we don’t see,” says Davidov. “I think he’s fully qualified to do the job.”

Despite its close knit past, few former members of the Zambian Jewish community now living in Israel have remained in touch, according to Phina Rosin (n?e Aberman). “There has never been a reunion,” says the former Zambian, who is now a resident of the Beit Protea retirement home in Herzliya. “I don’t know why, there should have been.” Rosin, who clearly remembers Fischer’s father, Latvian-born Philip Fischer from his days as a bachelor, says she has always followed Stanley’s career in the United States from a distance because of the long-standing family connection. “He’s going to be a wonderful asset to Israel,” she adds.

After completing his first and second degrees in London, Fischer earned his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1969, where he later became a professor and headed the department of economics. In 1988, he became vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and between 1994-2001, he served as the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund before joining Citigroup in 2002 as vice chairman.

“When I first heard [about the appointment],” I thought, `he must be mad,'” says Zambian-born Elise Levin (nee Schlesinger), who is distantly related to Fischer on both his mother and father’s sides. “Look at his wonderful life there and the mess we have here. I think he’s very brave, but then that’s Stanley.”

Also unsurprised by Fischer’s acceptance of the position was Avi Gonen, who knew the economist when the two were youth leaders together in Habonim in Zimbabwe in the late 1950s. The two attended the Machon program in Jerusalem in the winter of 1960, together with Rhoda Keet, Fischer’s girlfriend and later his wife. “I think he’s coming here to fulfill his Zionist dreams, he’s paying his debt to himself,” says Gonen, who was known as Adrian Jones back then.

In a telephone conversation from his home on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet this week, Gonen described Fischer as “very attached to Israel. He originally planned to go to the Hebrew University, he only went [to the U.K.] because he got a scholarship. Now he’s completing the circle by coming back here to take this position.”

Zimbabwean-born Judy Dobkins of Herzliya was also on the same Machon program in 1960. “He had a great sense of humor and he was always one of the crowd,” she says of Fischer. “We always knew he was bright, but he must have been a hell of lot brighter than even we thought he was.”

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