With the season of good will around the corner, now is time when many people’s thoughts turn to helping others — and some shrewd operators have not been slow to realise that in the chaos of the forced “Syrian refugee” migration into the west, there are huge amounts of money to be made.
The crisis presents an almost irresistible combination of exploitable elements — pictures of suffering children, government and law enforcement chaos and a gullible public who seem willing to believe anything.
But what is different is the appearance of a new breed of online Jewish entrepreneurs — the Jewish “Schindlers” who style themselves as selfless saviours of non-Jewish refugees, much as the original Oskar Schindler was said to have saved Jews.
One of the most colourful is a Florida-based philanthropist and ex-con called Yank Barry who has made his millions from manufacturing soya “meat substitute” and supplying the non-discerning diners in hospitals, care homes for the elderly, correctional facilities and the like. (Barry’s birth name is Gerald Falovitch. Yank is short for Yankel, his Yiddish name.)
Barry has invested millions in his own personal rescue project in Bulgaria by feeding and accommodating refugees in hostels and hotels en route to the West. His philanthropy gained him nominations for a Nobel peace prize by three US congressmen last year.
It also led to a flood of positive publicity. In Britain the Jewish-owned Daily Express dubbed him the “Jewish Schindler,” and he claims the United Nations has endorsed his efforts. He told the Jerusalem Post last year he had succeeded in his “goal to surpass Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews,”. Reuters has reported on his expansion plans. He has an enviable media platform from which he is able to pronounce on the refugee crisis at length and criticise Sweden on Bloomberg TV (Bulgaria) for not providing a home for Palestinian refugees .
But all this is a world away from his past life. In 1982 the former singer and record producer was jailed for six years in a lurid gangland extortion case. Barry later told Larry King that he was a cocaine addict, but his incarceration helped him to turn his life around.
The description “convicted felon with organised crime connections” does not look good on anyone’s resume, but Yank Barry bounced back with Vitapro, and also a dietary supplement called Propectin which appears to have near miraculous healing qualities and seems to be specifically marketed at the Black community.
Since 2013 his charitable efforts for refugees in Bulgaria and elsewhere have been carried out through his charity, the Global Village Champions Foundation — motto: “doing well by doing good ” — which, like his soya bean and dietary supplement companies, are based in the Bahamas. Celebrities were happy to lend their names to his efforts.
When Syrians began fleeing over the Turkish border into Bulgaria, Yank Barry saw an opportunity. He already had his business connection with Bulgaria because Propectin and the Vitapro were made in Bulgarian factories. Barry is targeting the booming refugee market and claims he has already fed refugees in Rwanda, Liberia and the Congo.
Not that charity can’t backfire at times. Accompanied by the usual posse of TV cameras, Yank Barry took journalists to a refugee camp near Sofia but his hostile reception clearly took him by surprise and he beat a quick retreat, but not before plucking some refugees from the angry mob and accommodating them in his abandoned four-star hotel in Bankia on Sofia’s extreme outskirts.
But always there will be the carpers and naysayers. Led by German journalist Frank Stier and former Wall Street Journal reporter Mark Mitchell, the questions have not stopped. How many refugees has he really helped? Why do some of his named clients deny having dealt with him? Where is the accounting for his charity organisation? What is the basis for his claims that his Propectin dietary supplement can successfully treat diabetes, cancer and radiation sickness? By way of response, Barry has hit back with a tour of his Bulgarian plant but the questions aren’t going away.
Refugees continue to pour over the border from Turkey into Bulgaria and this has been cited as the new highway to Germany. If this comes about it will be partly through the efforts of philanthropists like Yank Barry.
Another businessman who has repeatedly called himself a “Jewish Schindler” also comes from Canada and also claims to have rescued the lives of women and girls in Syria and Iraq.
In Montreal Steve Maman says he was suddenly moved by the television pictures of refugees needing help. Now his organisation, the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq, raises funds to pay the ransoms of women and children held captive by Islamic State.
A slick social media marketing campaign featuring professionally made videos and supportive articles helped raise at least $600,000 dollars on GoFundMe, the crowdfunding website, and Paypal; Maman says he has freed 128 girls and women so far. This is far removed from his usual occupation of selling classic cars and jewellery. But Maman, an orthodox father of six, says he is obeying a Talmudic injunction to heal the world. The Schindler tag is repeated again and again in the media coverage. A Christian cross is at the centre of his website logo.
As in the case of Yank Barry, Maman’s actions have led to a tide of publicity from CBC, Fox TV, the Times of Israel and more. He also seems to have received the personal endorsement of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was pictured shaking his hand. Oddly, he has also won the backing of professional Muslim-baiter and sometime cartoon competition organiser Pamela Gellar.
Maman claims that donations have mainly been from the Jewish community who also provide his team of volunteers on the ground in Iraq but he says he is disappointed that Christian churches have not stepped up to contribute to his project.
One of the reasons for their reluctance might be a lack of transparency in his charity affairs. Another is the company he keeps. He recruited as a hostage negotiator an Israeli woman called Gill Rosenburg who came with a certain amount of baggage.
She spent four years in a jail in the US for her role in an Israeli-based telephone “boiler room” scam that was said to have bilked elderly Americans out of over $25 million. It was the biggest such racket ever uncovered in Israel and led to Rosenberg being extradited from Israel to the US to face justice.
But as with Yank Barry, questions are belatedly being asked. Vice reported that doubts had been raised from within the Yazidi community itself — disputing the number of rescued girls and women and casting doubt on the whole operation; these questions were repeated by the Montreal Monitor. Even the Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel appear sceptical.
The only female Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament said that as far as she knew, no Christians had been enslaved in the area — so none could have been liberated. Now Maman’s allies are trying to distance themselves from him. Even ex-con Gill Rosenberg says his hostage-brokers were “worse than ISIS.”
Confidence in Maman was not improved when his GoFundMe account was closed. By this time most people would have quit, but not the thick-skinned Steve Maman. He sails on.
It is all a sad turn of events for someone who claimed he was operating from the highest motives. As he told CBC, “What motivated me is very simple … being Jewish, being part of a people that actually survived the Holocaust.”