Former World Bank president and philanthropist, James Wolfensohn, dies at 86

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

Former World Bank president and philanthropist, James Wolfensohn, dies at 86

Australian-born businessman died at his Manhattan home reportedly of pneumonia

James Wolfensohn (Wikipedia/ Author:	International Monetary Fund/
James Wolfensohn (Wikipedia/ Author: International Monetary Fund/

James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president and philanthropist who helped shepherd Israel’s exit from the Gaza Strip, has died at 86.

Wolfensohn died Wednesday at his Manhattan home, media said, of pneumonia. His wife of 59 years, Elaine, died in August.

Wolfensohn, who was born and raised in Australia, was an investment banker whose philanthropic endeavours had included turning around the fortunes of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center when in the 1990s he began lobbying to be president of the World Bank.

President Bill Clinton named him to the post in 1995 — the U.S. president has naming prerogatives — and his ten-year term was marked by his focus on partnership, rather than patronage, with the developing world. Instead of a disciplinarian, he made the institution a counsellor and aide to developing economies. He ended the bank’s practice of tolerating corruption.

“We must rebalance our world to give everyone the chance for life that is secure,” Wolfensohn said in a 2003 speech to the bank and its sister lending institution, the International Monetary Fund, “with a right to expression, equal rights for women, rights for the disabled and disadvantaged, the right to a clean environment, the right to learn, the right to development.”

Always on the lookout to do good, his next venture was not as successful. President George W. Bush named Wolfensohn as the envoy to the Gaza Strip of the Quartet, the grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union guiding the Middle East peace process.

Wolfensohn shepherded Israel’s exit from Gaza in 2005, a process rife with miscalculations that led to the victory of Hamas in 2007 elections and permanent tensions on the border.

Symbolic of the enterprise’s failure was the fate of greenhouses tended by Israeli settlers. When Wolfensohn learned the settlers planned to smash the greenhouses on their way out, he raised £10m ($14 million), including £375,000 ($500,000( of his own money, to salvage them for use by Palestinians.

Much to the consternation of Palestinian leaders, whose police were understaffed, underpaid and under-equipped, local Palestinians looted the greenhouses. What truly doomed the enterprise, however, according to Wolfensohn, were Israeli restrictions on the export of produce from Gaza.

Wolfensohn was his entire life also devoted to Jewish giving. The family foundation he set up, administered by his children, gave to a broad array of Jewish causes across denominations. At the time of a JTA profile of Wolfensohn in 2005, the foundation’s beneficiaries included an Orthodox environmental advocacy group and a Reconstructionist gender studies centre. He and his wife were active in the Conservative movement.

In 2006, he seeded money for perfect reproductions of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah that would be sold in part to help sustain the tiny Bosnian Jewish community.

His activism stemmed from his youth; his parents helped bring to Australia Jewish refugees from Europe. He was radicalised, he said, by the poverty he encountered in Africa and Asia as an air conditioning salesman. He eventually joined investment banks in London and then in New York. “The inequity was so striking that I could hardly absorb what was in front of me,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in his 2010 autobiography, “A Global Life.”

Wolfensohn, notably self-deprecating, described himself as driven more than naturally intelligent. He said he learned from his mistakes. He made the Australian Olympics fencing team in time for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He had won two matches and was on his way to winning a third, when his opponent, during a break, distracted him with an offer: He would set up Wolfensohn with an Israeli swimmer.

“Fencing is a little like chess,” Wolfensohn wrote in his autobiography. “You must project a few moves ahead and outthink your opponent.”

Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish News also produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: