SYDNEY (JTA) – Australian Jews are up in arms after an investigation into a major price-fixing scandal involving a Jewish mogul exposed a blatantly anti-Semitic exchange between two high-ranking business executives.
The transcript of remarks by two former executives of Amcor, one of the world’s biggest packaging companies, is among the evidence collected by a corporate watchdog group against the cardboard-recycling company of Jewish billionaire Richard Pratt, Visy Industries. Pratt has admitted that Visy illegally colluded with its main rival, Amcor, in a price-fixing scheme between 2000 and 2004.
According to the transcript, recorded in 2002 and published Tuesday by The Age newspaper, Amcor’s former managing director of Australasia operations, Peter Brown, was discussing Pratt’s company with his colleague, senior executive Jim Hodgson, when Brown allegedly said: “You know what the Jews are like. No wonder they own half the world.”
Hodgson apparently replied: “And you wonder why, ah, Hitler wanted to stitch them up, too.”
Hodgson then said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “That whole thing is about oil, isn’t it? And the New York Jewish lobby.”
The executive officer of Australia’s B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Manny Waks, told JTA that his group “views with great concern these blatant and vile anti-Semitic comments being spewed from mouths of high-ranking business officials.”
Waks demanded an apology, saying, “It is outrageous that in these times the Jewish community should be subjected to this kind of abuse by bigots and racists.”
On Thursday, Amcor CEO Ken MacKenzie apologized for the remarks.
“The comments, made by these individuals, who were dismissed from Amcor in 2004 for unacceptable behavior, are appalling and have no place within our company,” he said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for any distress they may have caused.”
After years of denial, the man dubbed Australia’s “cardboard king” apologized this week for the price-fixing scheme and admitted that his company’s executives had “erred.”
The case involving Pratt was scheduled to be heard in Australia’s Federal Court next week, but as a result of an out-of-court settlement pending court approval, Pratt probably will avoid a drawn-out legal case in the episode, which has generated headlines around the globe. Pratt is expected to face fines of up to $36 million – a record for Australia. Visy has a sister company in the United States run by Pratt’s son Anthony.
In another Jewish twist to the story, the head of the corporate watchdog group that hounded Pratt is another Jewish powerbroker, former president of the Jewish National Fund in Melbourne Graeme Samuel. Samuel has led the crusade against packaging cartels, pitting himself against Pratt in a battle that has fascinated Melbourne’s tightly knit community of 45,000 Jews.
The anti-Semitic exchange exposed during the investigation rankled Australia’s Jewish communal leaders.
“It is not simply the anti-Semitic nature of these comments that Australian Jews find so distressing, but also their thoughtless, clichéd stupidity and lack of concern about whom they might wound,” said the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Grahame Leonard.
Pratt, Australia’s third-wealthiest man, is worth an estimated $4.9 billion, according to Business Review Weekly’s annual rich list. His charity fund, The Pratt Foundation, gives away more than $11 million a year, much of it to Jewish causes in Australia and charities in Israel.
Despite the record fine expected against him, Pratt has vowed that it will not affect his philanthropy.
Pratt was awarded Australia’s highest honor in 1998 for services to the business community and philanthropy. Earlier this year, he and his wife Jeanne were awarded the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship for their philanthropic work.
Last month, Pratt’s U.S. company, based in Georgia and with more than 3,000 employees in 26 states, pledged to invest $1 billion over 10 years in recycling initiatives.
Born in Poland in 1934, Pratt fled Poland with his parents on the eve of the war. He has said that despite his wealth he feels he is an outsider in the Melbourne establishment because he is Jewish. He recently told a weekend magazine here that he believes there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Australia.