Jewish financier and philanthropist Nessim Gaon passed away on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland at the age of 100.
Gaon was a staunch Zionist and contributed extensively to Israel and the Sephardic Jewish community.
Gaon acted as the president of the World Sephardi Federation — an organization responsible for the educational and social needs of Sephardic Jews in Israel and the Diaspora — from 1973 until his death. He also served as vice president of the World Jewish Congress and the president of United Jewish Appeal and the Bonds corporation in Switzerland.
Gaon was born in Sudan in 1922 to a Sephardic Jewish family who arrived in Khartoum from Egypt and originated in Turkey. Gaon attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, and after graduating in 1940, he volunteered in the British army.
During World War, II he took part in battles in Itay, Iraq, and Iran, and was discharged from the army in 1946 with the rank of captain. After the war, Gaon used his influence and connections to help Holocaust survivors to immigrate to Israel.
Gaon began trading raw materials while also specializing in grain and pesticides. He moved to Geneva with his wife Renée, where he founded his real estate company, Noga.
His company collaborated with the multinational hospitality company Hilton, opening together hotels in Switzerland, France, and Nigeria. Gaon's personal wealth was estimated at some $5 billion in the mid-1980s. However, Noga went bankrupt in 1996 following a dispute with the Russian government.
Gaon had very close ties to Israel's ninth president Shimon Peres and Israel's 6th prime minister Menachem Begin. In 1979, Gaon was Begin's personal guest in Ismailia when he met with then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
Following the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that year, Gaon and the Sephardic Jewish community in Geneva donated to the restoration of the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo in 1980.
Gaon even assisted Israel's national intelligence agency Mossad during its operation to bring in Beta Israeli Jews from Ethiopia.
During the operation, Gaon contributed to the establishment of a mock diving site in Sudan. Mossad operatives operated the site as if it were legitimate, using real equipment, diving instructors, and even real tourists, and at night, they loaded Ethiopian immigrants onto rubber boats and transported them to Israeli ships that took them to the Jewish state.
President Isaac Herzog eulogized Gaon and said: "Nessim was always proud of the Mizrahi Jewish heritage, and he supported Israel throughout his whole life. He made a significant contribution to Israeli society."