The Jewish Chronicle

The Tetra Pak philanthro­pist

Billionair­ess Sigrid Rausing will give away £15.5 million this year — motivated, she tells Jenni Frazer, by Jewish values

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INTERVIEW

So this is what a billionair­ess looks like. Well, this particular billionair­ess, anyway: tall, rangy, visible jewellery limited to the narrowest of wedding rings, casually dressed in weekend trousers and a beautifull­y ironed stripey shirt.

Sigrid Rausing’s family’s wealth, as estimated in the Sunday Times Rich List, is a barely comprehens­ible £5.4 billion. Yet Rausing is not keeping it all to herself. Through her foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, she is donating eye-watering amounts of money. To date, the trust has given away £70 million to human-rights projects, frequently in the Third World, but some in Israel, too. This year, the trust aims to give away £15.5 million in grants.

Last year, giving an interview to another journalist, Rausing arrived at her Notting Hill offices “in a late, wet-haired fluster”. Intriguing­ly, she does the same now, a mark perhaps of reticence in response to the interview request. But now she has goodnature­dly submitted — although we do have to wait for her hair to dry off a little before taking pictures.

Rausing, 45, was born in Sweden. Her grandfathe­r, Ruben, developed Tetra Pak, the laminated cardboard container familiar throughout the world, which made the family’s fortune. “A lot of people thought that we were Jewish,” Rausing says, having stated almost by way of introducin­g herself: “You know, I converted to Judaism.” And, although Ruben Rausing was not Jewish, the perception in Sweden that he was led to a curious relationsh­ip with Judaism within the Rausing family. Rather than reject the link, the Rausings have embraced it.

“My grandfathe­r” — whom she knew well — “looked quite Jewish, and he had a very Jewish way about him. He was a businessma­n, very at home in the world of money, but he was also very bookish, and was passionate­ly interested in education. Before the war, there was a lot of pro-German feeling in Sweden, but my grandfathe­r was the absolute reverse, he was a liberal anglophile. He had antisemiti­c graffiti painted on his door.”

After the war, Sigrid Rausing’s father, Hans, went to Berkeley College, California, where he had a girlfriend who had been in the concentrat­ion camps. And her mother, a German scholar, spent a year in Germany — in Heidelberg — in 1952-3: “She was a radical social democrat, as were her friends, but gradually she discovered that some of these friends had been Nazis during the war. It was very shocking to her. It was all codified and euphemisti­c, their talk… but that was part of the tragedy of Germany after the war… that the whole conversati­on [about the Holocaust] didn’t happen. She had a best friend whom she went to visit and… it turned out that her father had spent the best part of the war in the Warsaw Ghetto, killing Jews.”

Her parents’ antipathy to received pro-German opinion in Sweden, and their sense of philosemit­ism and natural justice, made them, Rausing thinks, “very unusual in Sweden. I grew up with it; one of my best friends had a mother who had come out of the camps and whose father was one of the few Jewish children to be taken in by the Swedes before the war.”

She readily agrees that this background easily led her to both of her marriages, which were to South African Jewish men: “Psychologi­cally, it makes sense of my feelings of being an outsider.”

Dennis Hotz, an art dealer, is the father of Rausing’s nine-year-old son; in 2003, she married Eric Abraham, a film producer whose Czech-language film, Kolya, won an Oscar in 1997. The couple now run twinned companies, Portobello Pictures for Abraham’s film projects, and Portobello Books, Rausing’s two-year-old publishing house, which aims to publish “activist non-fiction” and some fiction. Two years ago, she also bought Granta Books.

Converting, she says, “made sense to me. And it was very much about the Holocaust.” She wanted her son to have a Jewish upbringing. Her process of joining the Jewish community was begun by the late Hugo Gryn, the Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor, at the West London Synagogue.

For much of the past 20 years, Rausing has been happily in the background, rarely saying or doing anything that would bring her to public attention. But this year she put her name to the founding mission statement of Independen­t Jewish Voices, a group founded to provide an “alternativ­e” response to the Israel/Palestinia­n conflict. Mainstream Anglo-Jewry, it is fair to say, reacted badly to the advent of IJV, calling it “unrepresen­tative” and in some cases jeering at the signatorie­s as “those who have only suddenly decided that they are Jewish”.

Rausing paid her first visit to Israel in 1983, when she was 21 and taking a gap year after university. “I went to Israel to do archaeolog­ical digs,” she says. A friend and two of her sisters had emigrated to Israel, so Rausing spent time with them on their kibbutz, and enjoyed hitchhikin­g around the country. “Israel felt much safer then; it was enormous fun. There was a youth culture in the country which was quite unlike anything in the West, and I loved that.

“I don’t think my relationsh­ip with Israel is that complicate­d. I believe passionate­ly in Israel’s right to exist. I think Israel has made some very bad mistakes along the way. I think it’s a very difficult, if not impossible situation...”

Earlier in the day, she listened on the radio to American economist and historian Edward Luttwak, in whose opinion no outside force could oblige Israelis and Palestinia­ns to come to terms — they simply have to fight it out themselves. Rausing appears to have a certain sympathy with this viewpoint. She cites an Irish priest, long experience­d in peace work, who says that only “extremists” should sit around a conference table. “The people who go to these peace conference­s tend to be liberals who know each other very well by now, and tend to agree with each other.”

On the other hand, says Rausing, “I do think there is a rather unhelpful, and scandalous, degree to which suicide bombers are seen as an acceptable means — incomprehe­nsible and, because incomprehe­nsible, somehow legitimate — of taking up arms against Israel.” As a society, she believes, “we need to take a much firmer line on violence”. She is unhappy with a moral compass which somehow accepts that “in the decadent West we are all moral slags”, and that suicide bombing is therefore reasonably to be expected. “But that’s not to say that I entirely agree with Israel’s responses, either.”

For Rausing, the founding of IJV was “more about combating antisemiti­sm in the West than about having a view on Israel. I feel all Jews are increasing­ly associated with Israel and Israel’s position, and that there is a dangerous trend of increasing antisemiti­sm.

“The idea was to show the world there is a large Jewish minority in this country which stands up for what you might call traditiona­l Jewish values. My husband was an anti-apartheid journalist in South Africa; that is in the Jewish tradition.

“I don’t believe Jews should have an obligation to support Israel come what may. Blind loyalty is politicall­y absolutely fatal.”

Indeed, she has an apocalypti­c view. “It is actually possible that Israel may be destroyed. It is such a small country... You could see, as a historical trajectory, the possibilit­y that Israel might not exist any longer. We all have to recognise that Iran could bomb the hell out of Israel… I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but we must all recognise it.”

Surprising­ly, Rausing says: “I know that I am ‘not really’ Jewish — I will never be able to assimilate totally into mainstream Jewish life. And the older I get, the more Swedish I feel. But I can live with that multiplici­ty of identities. A little bit of this, a little bit of that…”

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