Israel was born in Rhodes, then part of the Ottoman Empire, now part of Greece. He immigrated to the United States in 1919 and became a shoemaker in Seattle, Washington. After World War II, during which he had a military contract to repair combat boots at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, he began to invest in real estate. His holdings, many of them in the Pioneer Square historic district, were largely dilapidated and undesirable to the majority of investors. Through what Paul Dorpat in Pacific Northwest Magazine called Israel's "benign neglect," many of these buildings survived to be renovated after his death in 1994.
Israel established the Samis Land Company (now simply Samis) to manage his holdings. The name is based on his first and last names. In 1979, he established the Samis Foundation.
The Samis Foundation is supported by Samis and has granted over $40 million toward "enhanc[ing] the quality and continuity of Jewish life in Washington State and the State of Israel." The foundation states that over 80% of its annual grants support Jewish education in Washington.
Samis currently owns over 500 parcels in Washington, including 16,000 acres (65 km2) of land outside Seattle. Within Seattle, Samis owns two blocks in Downtown and 11 historic buildings in Pioneer Square. The Smith Tower was part of its portfolio from 1996 to 2006.
- The Washington Shoe Building on the Samis site, accessed 1 December 2007.
- Sam Israel, Samis Foundation. Accessed 1 December 2007.
- Social Security Death Index at Rootsweb.com, accessed 1 December 2007.
- Dorpat, Paul. An Art-full Restoration, Pacific Northwest Magazine (a Sunday supplement to the Seattle Times), 26 January 2003. Accessed online 1 December 2007.
- Scott, Maude. It's A New Day For The Samis Foundation, Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, February 28, 1997. Accessed online 1 December 2007.
- Samis. Accessed 1 December 2007.
- Langston, Jennifer. Smith Tower, Seattle's first skyscraper, sold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7 April 2006. Accessed online 1 December 2007.